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Online Degrees - The Real Deal or Diploma Mills?

Don't flame me too hard in the comments - hate the game, not the player.  I thought the question was worth talking about.  A few weeks back, I put up a question from a reader wondering whether she should pursue certification or go back and get a masters in HR.  I told her a Master's in HR, while valuable, was worth less to her career-wise than a MBA.

A commenter to that post (Ed) encouraged her to get the M.A. in HR - but warned her about the perilsWestern_international_2 of online universities.

So what about it?  Are online degrees the real deal or diploma mills? 

Here's my rank order of the best options to get a degree, or an advanced degree.  Note, I am not slicing and dicing the quality of traditional universities as part of this post.  I get that Ivy league schools are good and the junior college around the corner isn't known for its pre-med.  Here's how I would rank my impression of 4-year or graduate options for the discriminating worker/scholar:

  • Choice #1- Traditional University, 4 Year School (you attend on a campus)
  • Choice #2 - Combo online/weekend program, traditional 4-Year University
  • Choice #3 - Franchise School (my term for the mcUniversities that are popping up in Suburbia, like Strayer University, maybe a Devry - you attend most of your classes, but it's not affiliated with a four-year program)
  • Choice #4 - Online Program from a school with brand recognition, like a University of Phoenix
  • Choice #5 - Any online program other than that of a 4-year school or the University of Phoenix. Most have directional sounding names that end with something besides a state, maybe a PO Box.  "Southwestern Pacific", "International Bailiff Academy" - something like that.

As the commenter to the post mentioned above outlined, the University of Phoenix has had some issues in the past year (outlined by the NYT here), so it still needs to be "buyer beware."

If online is your flavor, I would do anything I could to stick with an online curriculum affiliated with a traditional program.  Once you have the degree, no one will care whether it was online or traditional - they'll just note the degree from the school.

Another huge warning sign.  If you are getting an undergraduate in 2 years, when it takes traditional mortals 4-5 years, your degree is probably not going to perceived as real.  My take on graduate degrees?  Anything less than 2 years and 50-60 credit hours is going to be treated in a hostile fashion as well.  I'll simply ask candidates conversationally how long it took them to complete and how many hours were required - that tells me what I need to know.  If they don't know how many credit hours it was - well, that REALLY tells me what I need to know.

Just because you have an online degree doesn't mean you didn't learn anything.  Learning's a state of mind as much as it is a program.  You just have to be ready to convey the value of what you learned to someone who cares - like an interviewer.



My wife was looking for an online program for my step-daughter.

It was for EMT training.

I quickly nixed the idea, not because I don't think online learning works, but because I don't want any EMT touching me that didn't have hands-on training.

I guess not all positions/careers lend themselves to the online method.


While I agree that one must be cautious about university selection, I felt I must provide you with some information to your rating of University of Phoenix as #4. I received my MAOM from UOP Online and only before I carefully investigated their curriculum and choice of text books selected for each course. UOP used the same textbook that several of the large, well-established, well-respected universities in my area. My instructors were all highly-qualified, practicing HR business professionals/consultants.


As a corporate recruiter for a advertising agency which helps online schools find students. I would highly, highly recommend staying away from any online-only degree program.

Save your money. The only thing that degree will teach is how to handle debt...


For an online (or any) school, what you want to look for is accreditation by one of the accrediting bodies like the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

I'm doing my degree online through DePaul University, a traditional school with an online component. The online courses are no harder or no easier than traditional university courses.

Try WorldWideLearn.com for a huge list of accredited online universities (disclosure: I used to be the webmaster at WorldWideLearn.com).

Ralph Dahm

I have attended both traditional colleges (DePaul University) and the University of Phoenix, since 2004 to finish a BA. While at DePaul taking classes in a formal university setting, the classes were 13 weeks long. I also completed two on-line classes at DePaul. During a typical DePaul class we were required to read one small book, prepare a 2,000 word paper, and one 10 minute Power Point presentation.

I transferred to the Univerity of Phoenix and while the classes are short at 5 weeks, we accomplish more in a typical class than I ever did during the 13 week DePaul course. Naturally the cost was about the same, but that is another issue.

Initially I attended UOP at a ground campus in Illinois attending class one night a week, plus the 5 hour Learning Team meeting each week. I switched to the on-line courses as they allowed me infinite flexibility to attend classes on my schedule.

My issue with UOP is the program is not geared for those with limited experience or no previous college experience in the traditional sense. One of my greatest frustations with the learning teams is the lack of writing ability. Many students simply cannot put together a coherent sentence.

As far as providing a rigorous education I find reading 3-5 chapters per week, writing an invididual lengthy paper, mandatory essays each week (8), plus the learing team weekly written assignments, takes a lot of time and effort.

UOP has had problems from a legal and business viewpoint, but I believe this stems from focusing too much on profit. Management needs to think like educators, not corporate tycoons.

I feel that I am receiving a quality education at a price that is certainly no bargain. The costs are about the same as at the major universities. UOP is accredited. Those who cannot handle all the work of an accelerated class should stick with traditional education.


Gang -

I think the comments are pretty on target - even though there are a lot of perspectives posted here.

On the University of Phoenix, I think that, along with online programs for traditional universities, is an acceptable choice for an online program. I've had people who have worked for me in the past teach courses there and tell me how extensive it was.

With that in mind, I think I should probably elevate UOP past the "franchise" schools I mention. I also agree the coursework could be more extensive there than at a traditional university.

Still, it's buyer beware when it comes to online schools. While the credible among them, such as the UOP, are gaining traction and being more widely accepted, all you have to do is look at the comments to see that some may not value the degree.

At the end of the day, you have to be ready to tell someone you are interviewing with what you learned, and how's it's helped you and you have applied it in your career.


To add my two-cents to this discussion, it depends upon your personal situation- why you're getting the degree, whether you work full time, how much money you have, and what your career aspirations are-- in the ideal world, we'd all have prestigious degrees, of course. I finished my degree at an on line branch of a state university, while working full time,just to complete the process. Since I've been in my career a long time, the degree/no degree discussion is binary- you have it or you don't, and I'm not aiming for a role where pedigree is important. If I were just starting out and had unlimited resources, it would be different. For anyone who is considering the on line route, it is worth it to take a look at books by John Bear- he lists accredited colleges offering on line degrees and summarizes their programs and costs- it is a good place to start. One big catch that some people fall prey to is that many of these programs charge you to convert your prior credits toward their degree programs-- very definitely read the fine print and find a school that's in it to educate you and not to fleece you. That's why I went with a state university program vs. a private university.


I have a significant problem with the concept of a "degree" in the first place. What do you estimate the half life of a college degree is? Four years maybe? Yet, even years after someone has significant experience, a stellar career, accoldades and awards, HR Departments make it part of the barrier for entry to create an illusion of exclusion while incredibly talented people are ignored for four years of college drinking. Ironically, the hiring authority does not require a degree, but capitulates to the HR Department.

And lastly, if you do complete 120 credits over many years at different schools, there is no process to link them together into a degree unless you satisfy a specific university's graduation requirement (30+). And, there is no alternative. And ironically, these credits for this all important degree are often deemed to have no value if they are too old or from an accreditd university that is not accepted by the degree conferring one. Confused?

Very strange system you all have created and perpetuate. It is a scam perpetrated by an elitist HR industry and perpetuated by the business side of universities.

Tell me, why does a comp sci student need to take philosophy? To provide financial support to the philosphy department.


My personal opinion is that online degrees are the wave of the future. Everyone will be studying from home in 20 years' time.


Just a quick response to Mike - you can get a degree stitching together all those credits. Excelsior College is an accredited institution, formerly run by the state of NY but now private, that collects all your credits into one coherent transcript or grants a degree based on your credits. It was originally oriented towards military personnel back in the pre-online education days, who would have classes from multiple colleges and no way to get a degree out of them because of the usual graduation requirements. (note: I'm finally completing my B.A. via Excelsior, although I intend to head right to a traditional grad school afterward)

I'd put UoP into the same category as Strayer and Devry - all three have regional accreditation, grant degrees based on requirements more or less identical to any other university, and have multiple physical locations as well as the online component. Two of my friends earned their MBAs via UoP - one did her program entirely online, the other combined online and classroom work. I think UoP is easily perceived as more legit than the other two because UoP doesn't run TV ads during Judge Judy!

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another thing to consider would be check out professional associations and see if they recognize the school and degree being offered. If the professional assocication such as Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology or something in the APA recognizes a degree, then its a good chance that its legit


Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.


I think the advice core from the article and the comments are two important things:

1. Online is not for everyone.
2. Research accreditation.

But I do want to re-emphasize the fact that just as with any college degree, a student (and then a graduate) needs to APPLY skills learned in order to stand out in a job interview.

For more unbiased information, here's a great website:


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Yeah I agree with your statement that learning is a state of mind than a program. The learner holds the power how much he or she would learn both in school and outside of it.

With regards to your discussion about online degree programs, I can't comment on this professionally because I went through a traditional school to achieve my degree. Though I would like to comment that companies must be open-minded and accept the fact that with the growing financial problems of a lot of families in america, parents are having a difficult time sending their children to school thus resort to a cheaper and quicker way to achieve a diploma- which is to enroll them in a 2 year-course or in an online program. This issue must be dealt with the government to give equal chance to those who got their diplomas online or garnering fewer number of school credits.


There are many respected traditional universities who now offering online courses and degrees in addition to their standard offerings. Online programs are generally more convenient for busy professionals since they don't have to commute.

Agreed with the previous commenter that state of mind has a lot to do with it. Someone who truly wants to learn will do so whether in a traditional or online environment.

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Online studies requires highly disciplined chaps. Many people have not yet accepted it as another mode of learning. Any way let us be on trying. This mode of study is idea for mature students.

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There are many regarded conventional colleges who now offering on the web courses and degrees notwithstanding their standard offerings. Online projects are by and large more advantageous for occupied experts since they don't need to drive.

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Well I would recommend you to take an admission in university because many of these online degrees are scam so it is better to avoid these online degrees and take proper admission in a university.

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There are many respected traditional schools who now offering on the web courses and degrees despite their standard offerings. Online ventures are overall more beneficial for involved specialists since they don't have to drive.

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I think age is also a determinant while picking what to work with. But I highly recommend the blended learning for adult learners, whichever the University one chooses. The mixture of face to face in class learning, online learning and using study modules.

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Online degrees are good, however, there are some elements of regulation that must be put into it to ensure high standards and credibility

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