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On-Line Colleges Vs. Brick-and-Mortar Universities

Some employers see on-line college graduates as go-getters who wanted to work while getting an education.

| BY Kent McDill

College education is believed to be a good thing for most Americans, and President Barack Obama has pushed for a reduction in college tuition costs in order to promote college attendance among America’s youth.

But is it necessary to “go away’’ to college in order to get a reputable college degree?

The proliferation of on-line college courses and actual entire colleges has prompted the question “Are brick and mortar colleges still necessary?”

There is little question that a college education is beneficial if approached properly. It is also a key factor in wealth, according to a Spectrem’s Millionaire Corner study of affluent investors.

In the study Financial Attitudes and Concerns, 100 percent of investors with a net worth between $5 million and $25 million attended college, and 94 percent earned a college degree. Thirty-four percent went on to get an M.A. or Ph.D., and 19 percent got their Masters of Business Administration.

But those were investors who, in most cases, graduated from college before online colleges existed.   

At Columbia University, a recent public debate took place between proponents of brick-and-mortar colleges and proponents of online education. They were debating the motion “Are Lecture Halls Obsolete?” The pro side of the argument was conducted by two administrators of online colleges, while the con side was argued by on-the-ground university officials, including one from Columbia.

Prior to the debate, 18 percent of the audience agreed with the motion, 59 percent said they were against it, and 23 percent were undecided. When the debate ended, 44 percent agreed with the motion.

RELATED: See Is College Necessary For Financial Success?

The questions that exist about online colleges begin with the value of taking online college courses. There are services like edX and Coursera which present very structured courses that are very similar to courses taught on campus, the main difference being you are not on campus.

According to a 2013 study of online college students conducted by the Learning House Inc. and Asianian Market Research, 44 percent of students enrolled in a fully online college program did not consider attending an on-the-ground college prior to signing up for online courses. The study also surveyed people who had completed an online college degree and approximately two-thirds said it was a valued experience.

The study reported that online courses were chosen in most cases based on three factors – reputation (based on accreditation or feedback from other attendees), price and freedom from specific class meeting times.

RELATED: See Paying for Community College

The Distance Education and Training Council accredits online college courses and programs. Leah Matthews, the executive director of the DETC, said in an interview with the website that the employment marketplace is coming onboard to online degrees and education. She cited the physical therapy program for the online University of St. Augustine in Florida, which reported that its program attendees are getting job offers prior to completing their degrees.

“That’s because the University of St. Augustine delivers a very unique combination of distance learning, highly qualified faculty from all over that engage with these students in very good practices in that field, and then they have incredibly well staffed and well equipped clinical sites for students to come and practice their occupational area,” Matthews said.

Many online programs like the one at St. Augustine combine an on-site research factor into their course load. Such laboratory experience is usually rated as valuable when the courses are evaluated by accreditation services.

There are several problems related to online classes, one being accreditation and the other being completion.

Another type of online learning comes from something indelicately referred to as MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Course, which is not part of a curriculum, although most are affiliated with a brick-and-mortar college. Often these are one-topic quick hit courses taught by a team of educators from different institutions. They are also often free of charge. Completion of the course earns the student a certificate of recognition.

EdX is the product of a collaboration of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is considered a marketplace for MOOCs. In the summer of 2013, edX reported that its 17 courses from the 2012-13 academic year had more than 841,000 registrants. Only 43,000 students completed the course to the point of receiving their certification, which is a completion rate of only 5 percent.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera, another college course platform for MOOCs, said her research shows that most students who register for an online course are doing so more as an academic lark. “Their intent is to explore, find out something about the content and move on to something else.”

The value of an online education to a future employer depends on the employer, but many companies are accepting online degrees as an indication that the potential employee knows how to work independently, and is motivated to work through courses that could very easily be dropped or ignored.

Online graduates are also often people who have already been in the workforce, which is why they took online courses in the first place, for their flexibility of schedule that allowed them have a job while studying.

The Society for Human Resource Management conducted a survey of employers in 2010 and found that only one-third treated an online degree the way they did a brick-and-mortar degree. But that was four years ago.

 A study by the magazine Inside Higher Ed showed that 58 percent of faculty members at on-the-ground universities were more frightened than excited over the growth of online education.




About the Author

Kent McDill

Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.

In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.

McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.

McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy  Buffett and all things Disney.