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Online Degrees vs Traditional Degrees

Updated on November 13, 2014

Online Students Test Better

That is right. Your eyes do not deceive you. It is the grapevine and the office watercooler gossip chain that have misinformed you. Online degrees are not less difficult, not less rigorous, not less effective than traditional, on-campus training methods. Using scientific studies from business and psychology, the following paper lists some of the reasons online degree holders perform better than traditional degree holders.

First, the Data on Performance

The most well-known online degree name is the University of Phoenix. They are also the most obvious target of pushback from traditional campus programs and traditional degree holders who, we can be sure, would prefer not to have the competition. University of Phoenix (UOPX1) responded with professional presentation of the facts. Most of the results look very good for online degree graduates. All of the results show that online learners improve more over the duration of their studies than do traditional campus learners. The UOPX comparative analysis can be found here: Comparing Online Degree Program (UOPX) with Traditional Programs.

2011 NSSE Report Comparing Online vs Traditional Students

The two studies UOPX draws from are from the National Survey of Student Engagement and the SAILS project. Using the NSSE site, any visitor can generate a report. When I visited recently, the 2011 data had just been made available. The report comparing online learners to traditional learners favors the online learners in important things like: number of assigned text books, number of papers required, number of papers greater than 20 pages, being challenged beyond expectation to meet instructor's standards, and many other, important factors.

Project SAILS Data:

The SAILS project uses a multiple choice test to directly assess the ability of students. The assessment utilizes Information from the Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. It assesses skills and abilities in formatting ideas, communicating, researching, and resourcefulness (locating resources.)

Notes: 1- The acronym UOP belongs to the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. It was founded in 1851. UOPX is the correct acronym for University of Phoenix.

Days:Course Ratio Favors Online Learners

A traditional degree is four years and an online degree is four years, so how can there be a difference in the time requirement?

On Campus

A campus degree actually requires only 3 years and 9 months. After that, a summer finishes off the fourth year. Next, there are also summers off at the end of Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior years. Summed up, a traditional program requires 4 x 9 months, or 36 months in-class and on-topic. This time is dedicated to learning, social activities, volunteering, clubs, drinking parties, and tailgating before the big game.


An online student has no more than two weeks off. This is because Federal lending standards call more than two weeks a "break" in training. So, they will study 50 weeks per year for four full years, 96% vs 75% of the year.


Most bachelor's degree programs require 120 semester hours (in North America). This means that online learners spend 11.7 days per unit. Traditional learners invest 9.1 days per unit. Comparatively, the online learner is thinking about, processing, each topic 128 percent of the number of days a traditional campus learner processes each topic. A good psychologist can tell you: time and depth of processing lead to greater recall. The longer you think about something, the better able you are to recall it later. The deeper you process something, the better the recall as well.

Why do Some Hiring Managers (40%) Consider Online Degrees Inferior?

In a study commissioned by, the Society for Human Resource Management conducted a study titled Hiring Practices and Attitudes: Traditional vs. Online Degree Credentials. One of the questions asked to agree or disagree with:

"Job applicants with traditional degrees are preferred by my organization to applicants with online degrees."

Sixty percent of the respondents replied in the negative. Forty percent said they do prefer traditional degrees. However, 79% had hired an online degree holder within the previous 12 months.

Not hiring a GRADUATE of an online program is a result of bias, and not of truth. As the link at the end of the article professionally and scientifically demonstrates, ignoring a degree because it is a distance learning degree is nothing short of an illogical, incorrect BIAS. I wonder how long it will be before corporations announce that they "do not discriminate based on gender, age, race, veteran's status, method of learning, religion, or sexual orientation".

Some degrees do have a premium based on cultural prestige (branding of an institution). Harvard, Princeton, Brown, University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, Wharton... all are names that carry prestige. To those in fields working with graduates of those programs, it means something very specific. To others, there is just the lore of those names.

However, studies show that graduates of more expensive programs do not, over their lifetimes, earn more than grads from other programs. As a new hire, how much should a firm be expected to pay for a UC Davis management graduate? How much starting pay should they offer a graduate of the Colorado State University online program? Business sense and experience will tell anyone who has ever supervised men: a degree does not guarantee anything. In the military, my experience was this: there is almost a clear inverse relationship in the ability and common sense of those with degrees. It seemed greater education correlated directly with less common sense.

Only in the higher echelons of rank (Say, Lieutenant Colonel and above) did the truly talented leaders really become evident. The same is true for every large organization. A large pool of people enter. Time and challenges and life filter the best from the rest. Those with superior ability have a much greater chance of promotion. Industry studies have shown that even late starters, "non-traditional" students, quickly rise to a level they would have attained had they started careers in sync with others their age. This likely stems from the basic fact that non-traditional students have learned more of what makes a good leader.

In brief, while a degree from a highly competitive and highly intense program like MIT or Princeton is much more likely to produce qualified, able candidates for hire, other, lower ranked colleges and universities, and online programs, also train competent, able people.

The reason 40% of hiring managers still ignore applicants with online degrees is likely one of two reasons:

1. Bad information. They may have had poor training in their own curriculum. Somehow, the intersection of professional due diligence and knowledge simply does not intersect with the wisdom that the greatest leaders and performers became that way not by the program they entered, but by other factors. There are no courses for common sense and motivation. Additionally, the recognition of human resource management as an important management issue has only recently begun to gain attention in leadership training.

2. Lack of experience. A long-term hiring manager in a professional organization can interview a person and know if the person will work out for the firm or not. One of the greatest skills a manager can possess is the ability to pair the right person with the right job. Experience outperforms wrong thinking (bias) every time.

Online Engineering Master's Degree Students Score Higher

In a September, 2010 article archived at, Dr. Utley from the University of Alabama at Huntsville noted:

"All distance learning students are part of a live course with in-class students. The requirements and expectations are the same. Typically the distance learning student GPA is slightly higher than the on-campus population."

For reasons noted by this author in this article and elsewhere, this is to be expected. Online, "distance learners" outperform in-class learners.

What is Most Important in a Degree Program?

Which of these is most important to YOU in selecting a degree program?

See results

The Problem with Surveys

Must compare apples with apples:

The surveys which seem to degrade online degrees are typically very leading in their wording. Consider this question:

Given two equal candidates, one with an online degree, and the other with a traditional degree, which do you hire?

What is wrong with this question? It assumes that an online degree candidate and a traditional degree holder are equal. This is not true if cohorts from the same college graduation year are considered. 70% of online students worked full time while they studied online. About 10.8% of on-campus learners worked full time. Additionally, 80% of online learners are over 25 years of age. In 2010, UC Davis had just 5% over the age of 25. The University of Colorado at Boulder had 0% older than 25 in 2011.

So, the two just-graduated degree holders, one who learned "online" and the other who learned on campus are not equal at all. The online degree holder has, on average (.70 x 4 =) 2.8 years of full-time experience. The online learner worked five or more years before seeking a degree. The on campus degree holder has, on average (.108 x 4 =) 0.43 years of experience. The online degree applicant is older, and more mature. The online degree student is much more likely to have more experience.

So, when a survey asks to compare the two as equals, the survey is already slanted before the first hiring manager is interviewed. The question should look more like:

Given two candidates, one with an online degree, 27 years old, and with 8 years experience; and the other with an on campus degree, 22 years old, and 1 year work experience, which do you hire?

How "online" is defined:

Fewer than 1% of "online" degrees (those viewed as such by those outside the system) are 100% online. The others are hybrid, with part of the program being on campus. For example, the Masters of Civil Engineering - Geology program at Norwich University in Vermont requires three visits to the school. The first two are for lab work courses. The last visit is required of all four MCE programs- a week at the end of the program to submit portfolios, meet professors, and conduct a graduation ceremony.

More and more on campus programs actually include online courses. Hybrid courses are now part of most campus degree programs. Hybrid classes are partially online, and partially in-class.

So, the wording should say something more like:

Given two candidates, one with a degree earned 80% online/20% on campus, 27 years old, and with 8 years experience; and the other with a degree earned 5% online/95% on campus, 22 years old, and 1 year work experience, which do you hire?

One final word on work experience of the two candidates: the online degree holder works during the day, and studies in evenings, lunch breaks, mornings, etc. The online learner has a day job in a professional environment. Most on campus students attend class in the day, and manage their working hours around class schedules. Net effect: online learners' experience is much more likely to be professional experience, in the field for which they are interviewing. The on campus applicant is more likely to have work -study at the campus library, or serving espresso during the summer. Not all online learners have full-time professional experience. And, many campus learners participate in valuable summer internships. However, the work experience issue, the majority of the time, tilts in clear favor of the online degree holding applicant.

No option for "equal"

Some of the surveys are also slanted in that the hiring manager is forced to choose one or the other. Available responses in some of these surveys give just two choices: "online better" or "on campus better". The option to choose "equal" is not offered.


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    • Ricksen Winardhi profile image

      Ricksen Surya Winardhi 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Great hub! I never thought about this before. It changed my paradigm about online degree. I still prefer traditional face-to-face degree though. But I can imagine taking part-time online degree to be quite useful when I have full time employment. It is a good opportunity to enrich ourself with higher education. Thanks for sharing.

    • Pollyannalana profile image


      8 years ago from US

      I wrote on this and I also had classes online, many of them and I know they are as good or better, there is certainly no being nice or winking at the teacher going to help you none! So whether people misjudge you for that or not I don't know but I can personally say it is one of the greatest things I ever did. It was not easy yet I loved it. I had teachers from all over the US, where else can you do that?

      Thanks for the read answer!

    • Man from Modesto profile imageAUTHOR

      Man from Modesto 

      8 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      Here is a very good article from the New York Times on getting jobs with an online degree:

    • wonderingwoolley profile image


      8 years ago from Madison, WI

      I am conflicted about this topic. Education is number one for me, I think everyone should be educated and contribute to society based on their education. However, traditional colleges are not viable for everyone, but everyone should still be educated. However, I have two degrees from traditional college learning, from a prestigious university, and I wouldn't give that up for all the money in the world. It gave me opportunities and insights that I don't see as possible with an online degree. It's a tough topic, but I think you brought a lot of insight to it, and were very through. Great hub, thanks for sharing!!

    • Man from Modesto profile imageAUTHOR

      Man from Modesto 

      8 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)


      Once again, you provide an example of what I am writing to correct. There is a bias against online degrees, and a prestige premium for other degrees. However, studies of career success show that advanced degrees and MOST alma maters make no difference in success. The only degrees that matter are those with premium branding: MIT, Stanford, Harvey Mudd... And, more studies show that it is NOT the curriculum. It is the recruitment process that makes grads of those schools more likely to succeed.

      hoapres, whom you quote, is a prime example of the bias and ignorance in hiring that exists today. Odds are, he hired a good programmer. However, there is a real chance the UOPX grad is the superior talent.

      Further, a few weeks into the job, regardless of alma mater, the real innate ability of the hire will become evident.

      Higher education, in general, is overrated. It is the basic ability of a person that a hiring manager needs to assess. If a resume hinders HRM from quickly assessing the best applicants, they need to improvise new hiring processes. An exam, maybe?

    • Man from Modesto profile imageAUTHOR

      Man from Modesto 

      8 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)


      The ripoff report link you posted is not a refutation of my article. First, UOPX has 380,232 students in 2011. The fact that a student is unhappy out of that huge number is not an amazing realization.

      Plus, how realistic is it that she has been seeking work for three years, as she states, yet only recently learned that she needs a certification? I looked on careerbuilder, found 5,488 jobs requiring her degree. I looked at the first two. Both, under "additional requirements" listed an LNHA certificate. I doubt this is the only kind of cert that some health care admin jobs require.

      I suspect that she has not put as much effort into finding a job as she wants readers of her post to believe.

      I suspect that if she puts some effort and pray into it, she is going to get work. At least, I hope so.

    • Man from Modesto profile imageAUTHOR

      Man from Modesto 

      8 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)


      Good point. And, study after study show that there is no real difference between online degree holders and traditional degree holders. Additionally, more studies suggest that curriculum, gpa, and text books used also are fail to predict success. Success of big-name schools seems to be correlated with their ability to attract the best and the brightest during the application process.

      Once again, it comes back to, "You can't hire the degree. You can only hire the person."

    • giocatore profile image

      Jim Dorsch 

      8 years ago from Alexandria, VA

      As traditional colleges continue to price themselves out of the market, and as students and employers realize that what counts is practical knowledge that can be used in a job, online colleges, community colleges, technical schools and finally, experience gained by working (which can mean no school) will prevail. It's simple economics.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Here's someone that seems to hold the same opions as I have stated re: the job market and what various degrees on your resume will mean.

      Go to

      and read to the bottom of the page (Comment #395 from December 17, 2011) To briefly summarize, "The entry level software engineering position has over a 100 applicants and I have the choice between a UC Berkeley Computer Science grad and a University of Phoenix grad in Computer Information Systems (or Management Information Systems)

      Guess who is going to get the job ??

      It will be the UC Berkeley grad without a doubt" (comment by hoapres, RipOff Report, 17 Dec 2011 - see link above)

      You might also want to read the comments by Alissa on that same report where she reports a "high GPA and some knowledge about her field" from that school and still no job prospects.

      I'll say it again... caveat emptor!

    • Man from Modesto profile imageAUTHOR

      Man from Modesto 

      8 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)


      So, the justification for throwing online degrees into the trash is because some of them are "diploma mills." This mentality is what I have addressed in the above article. The FACTS are simple- this is incorrect. Studies show this is not true.

      You mention that some hiring managers experienced a bad hire, and never hired from the same institution again. And, again - this is the unscientific mentality I address here. Statistics allow there will be a range of quality from every place of learning. And, there is often a wide gap separating head knowledge from can-do ability.

      Distance learners test very close to in-class learners. This means that the statistical range of quality applicants overlaps by a wide margin. Any hiring manager ignoring applicants because of the name on their degree is reducing the overall quality of incoming talent.

      The study by the University of Phoenix- which receives the brunt of attacks against online learning -compares its own "diploma mill" students' measures against those of the national average.

      Facts outweigh heuristics.

      The term "diploma mill" properly should refer only to a place that actually outright sells a diploma for a fee (typically based on "life experience") or is unaccredited, or which has shown consistently that it simply never produces quality talent.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      "The reason 40% of hiring managers still ignore applicants with online degrees is likely one of two reasons".

      It is likely not the ONLINE aspect that is being considered by the hiring managers, but the institution itself - traditional or online. The fact that other hires that were "graduates" from certain universities ended up being disaster hires will make managers wary of the same experience and reluctant to try again.

      The issue is less "online vs traditional" as there are a number of established institutions of higher education that offer online degrees (University of Maryland, Penn State University as 2 quick examples).

      The issue for hiring managers is what kind of school did the degree come from?

      When you graduate from Penn State with online or other classes, your degree looks and is listed the same as those students who went to class in Happy Valley. Most employers can't tell if it was online unless your transcript is from one of the notorious diploma-mill like institutions that is reputed to be churning through federal student loan money and turning out very low quality "products" (i.e. graduates who don't know much).

      Even if you're SMART, listing a degree from one of these institutions, online or on the ground, is a prescription for a lot of heartache and paying back outrageous student loans without the requisite income you were expecting.

      Online CAN be as rigorous as traditional, and sometimes, depending on the instructor is MORE rigorous. The smart education shopper recognizes that the reputation of the school that issues the diploma at the end of the road has a lot of influence over how seriously your "degree" is taken and that the noise about ONLINE IS JUST AS GOOD is just that - noise, because in traditional institutions, that was settled a long time ago.


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