Despite the growth of online education in recent years, many people continue to believe that online education lacks the rigor of traditional classroom instruction. This attitude is quickly changing however. As students begin researching the different educational opportunities available, they may wonder: is an online degree legitimate?
To answer the question directly: yes, a degree that you earn online is legitimate. In every way that matters, a degree that you attain by taking classes online is legitimate if that degree has been awarded by an accredited institution. Are there caveats? Yes, based on accreditation issues and variations in quality. Are there some who question the legitimacy of online degrees? Yes, but the number of dissenting voices are few and continue to drop every year.
One of the central components of the online degree legitimacy question is this: the worth of the degree you earn online measured against a similar degree you can earn in a face-to-face environment. If you can determine that an online degree measures well against a similar degree earned through traditional campus instruction, you’ve answered the legitimacy question.
How to Evaluate the Value of an Online Degree
1. Accreditation: One distinction about accreditation should be understood at the outset. For degree seekers of an online education, college accreditation is critically important.
The reason is that accreditation confers value and worth. Accreditation equals legitimacy. Any college must have accreditation from an accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to be eligible to participate in the administration of federal student aid programs. Accredited institutions do not accept credits earned at unaccredited colleges. Virtually all graduate schools require graduation from a regionally accredited school. In the eyes of potential employers in government, science, law, academia, business, and every other field imaginable, the accredited degree that you worked so hard to earn is accepted, recognized, and respected.
With regard to accreditation, there are two key questions that you need to ask as you evaluate a school, college, or university:
Is the school of my choice accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies?
Is the program I am interested in recognized by its relevant professional association?
For example, if you are investigating a degree in nursing, check to make sure that the state board of nursing where the college has its home campus, has recognized this college as one of their approved nursing programs.
2. School Reputation: Consider the school’s reputation as a whole. What has been written about this college that appears in the news or is available on the web? In what year was the college established? For how many years has the college been fully accredited?
Perhaps the school you are researching has both online and face-to-face programs. How does the face-to-face program measure up? Nowadays there are a variety of ranking systems of schools, like the U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review that may be consulted.
3. What is the value of this degree to me? For someone raising a family and/or working full-time, on online education may be the most valuable option because of its flexibility. Most online classes will require you to post assignments by a certain time each week, but you can do most of the work on your own schedule. Indeed, the value of an online degree might multiply for a working adult whose job requires frequent travel or contains variable shifts. The same is true for individuals in rural areas, where educational opportunities might not be as plentiful compared to more urban environments.
4. Academic Value: Consider the following questions about the program you are considering.
• Is the degree that I am earning online the same degree that this college awards to students who take classes on the campus, for schools that also have face-to-face campus instruction? In other words, will my diploma be the same diploma as the one students receive when they take their classes on campus?
• Do the professors have graduate level training and experience that I will benefit from at this college?
• Are course syllabi available on the website for prospective students to examine?
• Will I receive guidance from an academic advisor in mapping out my course of study?
• Do I know of other students who have graduated from this college by taking their courses online, and achieved the next step in their careers, like I want to achieve? For example, have alumni of this school passed the CPA exam, been admitted to graduate schools, or gained advancement in their places of employment?
5. Services Provided to Online Students: Find out what kind of resources are available to you as an online student. Some examples of services to investigate are:
• Online library services with an online librarian
• Online registration for courses
• Online academic advising
• Online tutoring services
• Online financial aid information and assistance available
• Online bookstore
• Online career services
Ultimately, you have to decide if online learning is for you. Weighing out these five essentials will help clarify the value of the degree program you are considering.