Do Online Degrees Lead to Jobs as Reliably as Traditional Ones?


One question often lurks in the minds of college students: “What am I going to do after I graduate?” For those who plan on graduate school, their immediate future is pretty much set. But for most, what happens next is often in doubt.

There’s long been the concern that employers won’t take online degrees as seriously as campus-based ones, though these days online degrees are pretty mainstream. But there are other considerations. On campus, there are the well-known tales of students forging friendships with roommates or classmates that turn out to be connections to big jobs. Think of the giant digital companies formed by founders who met in a dorm (most notably, Facebook and Microsoft).

But are those who study at all-online programs making the same connections—or are they finding other ways to connect to the job market after earning their diploma? What are their prospects of being steered into rewarding networks?

Students enrolled in online degrees are often far less well-off than others who attend residential campuses, with about 30 percent of online student families earning less than $40,000 a year.

As a student at most online undergraduate programs, it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in an academic environment that exposes you to broad access to influential connections or that your financially strapped family knows people who can find a rewarding place for you.

Compared with on-campus, online college enrollments are booming. About 40 percent of college students in the US are now enrolled in online degree programs. And enrollments at fully online colleges, like Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire, are surging.

The good news for college grads today is that the unemployment rate is at an historically low 2.5 percent, compared with 5.8 percent for high school graduates with no college. But as I dug into the data, I couldn’t find parallel figures on how online graduates are faring.

What, I wondered, is the future of millions of online college students? What can they expect after they graduate?

Lately, scholars have turned to the influence of social capital—the effects of personal and network relationships—on one’s future position in society, especially on the consequences of where students go to college. Two theories proposed by notable twentieth-century scholars stand out—one by James Samuel Coleman, an American sociologist who worked at the University of Chicago, and the other by French structuralist Pierre Bourdieu, who taught at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris.

Bourdieu studied ways power is transferred and maintained across generations, claiming that your college marks you, reproducing the class status you inherit from your family, with your social position frozen. In contrast, Coleman argued that social capital is a powerful force that activates class mobility, with students leaping over the economic divide, some waking up transformed by the American Dream after college.

For online students, the jury is out on which theory forecasts their future. Will they be set free to overturn barriers imposed by their social and economic status? Or will they be constrained—as Bourdieu’s theory holds—captives in class confinement?

The Virtue of Virtual

If online students follow Coleman, virtual classes can open options to boost social capital. One way is for remote learners to join digital networks, especially those that engage them in online class discussions with offline participants. Studies show that the relationship between online learners and workers in industry or academic life in digital class discussions can be highly productive, generating strong career connections.

Or they can enter virtual internships, where students gain work experience remotely. Virtual interns communicate with employers and others using an array of digital communication applications—instant messaging, project management tools, and video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, among others—often quite similar to the way many digital classes are conducted.

The giant financial services company, Citicorp, for example, is among hundreds of big firms that have opened opportunities for students and college graduates. The company’s internship program is one of the most diverse in industry. Of its 1,500 participants, 50 percent are women and 27 percent are Black and Latino. In 2020, participants who met certain minimum requirements received an offer of a full-time job upon graduation.

With about 70 percent of online students working full or part time, a Wiley report says that online learners are far more likely than on-campus students to click on links to virtual job fairs, networking events and other online employment services.

Tapping into digital communities, and clicking on social media sites, are among other ways online students can gain access to networks to jump-start social capital. The job-market service Handshake, a competitor to LinkedIn specializing in student employment, has enrolled more than 10 million students and graduates in less than a decade. With free access, students create profiles, receive job tips, and invitations to virtual career events. Just as on LinkedIn, users can connect with alumni and employees at prospective job sites. More than 750,000 employers—including Google, Nike and Target—and 1,400 universities are on the platform. Handshake’s leaders argue that online job hunting is far more favorable to women and minorities than in-person connection promoting digital equity.

Results of a new study of 20 million LinkedIn users, published last month in Science, makes concrete the far-reaching employment effects of social media—platforms surprisingly more powerful than friends and family. The report reveals that “weak” associations—like forming acquaintances in social media—rather than close friendships, can be as much as twice as influential in securing a job.

In my online career over more than a quarter of a century, I have been drawn into friendships and engaged with colleagues, scholars and executives the world over, totally online—dozens of men and women I have never actually met face-to-face—with whom I carry on lively email correspondence on serious academic and commercial matters, asking and giving advice, seeking scholarly citations or looking for experts, occasionally writing job references or nominating an online friend for a key open position.

Without national data on comparative employment rates or lifetime income of online versus on-campus undergrads, it’s impossible to say how online graduates will do after college. Nor can we say whether Coleman or Bourdieu hits the mark in the online context.

It is clear, though, that the digital economy has totally overtaken the workplace. As a result, predictions about the long-term effects of online degrees can no longer rest on historical trends, but must take into account the shocks of the digital revolution.



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