Views of Online Education, Alternative Schools Turn Increasingly Positive

 January 13, 2021
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You might think the coronavirus spread has changed the face of higher education. The safest campus has become a virtual one, making online education an inescapable reality rather than simply an option. At the same time, some students are reconsidering the value of a four-year program compared to other possibilities.

This trend has been years in the making. Google’s July announcement of a six-month certificate program that would prepare students for in-demand jobs was surely in the works before COVID-19. And coding boot camps — sometimes financed through income-share agreements instead of student loans — have been gaining popularity for almost a decade.

Americans’ attitudes toward online and alternative (non-university) credentials are also changing. A new Student Loan Hero survey found that nearly 1 in 2 U.S. adults (47%) believes in-person and online degree programs are weighted equally among employers. Likewise, less than 1 in 5 (17%) said that if they were a hiring manager, they’d only select bachelor’s degree-holders.

Key findings

  • Americans are split on the value of online education, with 45% believing that employers favor job candidates with in-person program degrees, while 47% say both are weighed equally. (Read more)
  • The perceived value of a bachelor’s degree has dropped in most circles, though 31% of college graduates say a four-year degree or advanced degree is better than an alternative credential. (Read more)
  • Most think high school administrations undersell alternative education paths, with 77% reporting that traditional degree programs are over-emphasized. (Read more)
  • Even more respondents (85%) hope alternative education becomes more widely accepted, with 62% viewing Google’s new certificate program as a good substitute for a traditional college degree. (Read more)

Online education seen as good value for the price

Whether it’s for work or for school, the face-to-face experience has more credibility — it just does. Perhaps this is because you’re fully present in a way you can’t be from home, where you might have other things competing for your attention.

So the belief, as mentioned above, that employers prioritize in-person degree programs over online (45%) — or at best, rate them the same (47%) — shouldn’t come out of the blue. Nor is it surprising that less than 8% say employers prefer an online credential to one earned in the classroom.

On the other hand, a majority of respondents said an online master’s of business (MBA) program is just as valuable as an in-person one (36%), compared with those who said the online degree was less valuable (29%). Men were more likely to see the virtual program as a weaker option (38%) compared with women who felt this way (19%).

As is always the case in pursuing higher education, cost is a major consideration. A majority of respondents (40%) said they would rather pay $25,000 for an online MBA than fork over $75,000 for an on-campus program. Just 16% would go the in-person route even if the sticker price were triple that of the online version.

College degree loses cachet in some circles

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then perhaps the real value of a college degree is determined by employers. We pursue degrees to learn, yes, but more so to qualify for our desired careers.

Whether a bachelor’s degree should still be required for jobs that don’t require a special technical education is an open question. Some bachelor’s holders would in fact prefer to hire a fellow grad, as noted above, but most wouldn’t care.

Specifically, 38% of respondents said that if they were a hiring manager, they would be willing to consider applicants who attended community college, while 28% said the same about those with a trade school certificate, and 36% were open to applicants who didn’t continue past high school.

Just 13% of respondents said they thought employers should only hire candidates with a bachelor’s degree, while a majority (64%) said education requirements should depend on the job.

Whether actual hiring managers feel this way was outside the scope of our own survey, but other research points to mixed opinions among those who actually do decide who gets the job.

Do employers really care about bachelor’s degrees earned via in-person education?
  • About 9 in 10 of 600 human resource leaders polled in 2018 said they would approve job applicants who don’t list a four-year college degree on their resume, according to education technology company The Learning House.
  • On the other hand, 3 in 4 hiring managers surveyed in 2018 reported that it’s “very important” or “essential” to complete a college degree program, according to the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
  • Some well-known industry leaders like Apple, Google and Netflix don’t require all their employees to have four-year degrees.

Hiring decisions aside, we also asked respondents whether they “can’t help but judge people who did not attend a four-year college.” Overall, 32% at least “somewhat agreed” with that statement, while the majority did not.

Baby boomers (aged 55 to 74) were the age group least likely to say they judged others for not attending college.

Despite high school guidance, high hopes exists for alternative education programs

Recent high school grads might be more open to all things internet when compared with those from earlier generations. But even if they feel more at ease with an online experience, their views are also partly shaped by high school guidance counselors.

Nearly 8 in 10 of our respondents thought high school administrators place too much importance on the traditional four-year degree. This could be the result of high school counselors rushing to help students earn college credits and win scholarships.

If this is in fact the case, it could deter some students from alternatives like trade schools, online bootcamps or community colleges, even if those might be better options for their particular situation.

Still, a strong majority see the educational environment moving toward more options rather than less, with almost 9 in 10 of respondents reporting some level of hope that alternative education programs are becoming more mainstream.

For example, more than 6 in 10 said Google Career Certificates are a good alternative to a four-year degree. As of November 2020, Google’s program offered training for IT support specialist careers, and the company had plans to add tracks for aspiring project managers, UX designers and data analysts.

Pursue the educational path that suits you best

Whether we’re talking about in-person versus online or about traditional degree programs versus career training, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

With the pandemic affecting admissions, it’s especially important for students to pave their own way:

  • Don’t feel comfortable in lecture halls among dozens of peers? See if your school has a good online option, or consider transferring or taking a gap year.
  • Don’t see the need to pay for four years of training? Examine all the (possibly shorter) routes to your preferred employment.

As you’re navigating these options, seek out counsel from a variety of places. If your high school’s college counselor isn’t discussing career schools right alongside typical options, ask them for a rundown. You might also consider:

Along the way, keep costs in mind. Like our respondents, for example, you might value an on-campus degree but ultimately choose an online program if the price is significantly lower. Or if you crave the classic college experience to sample a variety of classes and majors, consider spending your first two years at a community college to decrease your overall education spending.

If you move your education online or spend significantly less time in school, there’s a potentially awesome consequence: Your student loan borrowing should decline, too.

Published in News & Policy, Press, Research