Companies that recruit college students and recent graduates changed their hiring practices in response to COVID-19 — where and what you studied matters.

Over 6 in 10 Business Leaders Have Slowed College Hiring Due to COVID-19


  • A majority of business leaders who recruit college grads have slowed or stopped college hiring.
  • Among business leaders who recruit from online programs, nearly 7 in 10 have slowed hiring.
  • However, 74% of business leaders who actively recruit college students think the quality of online edu has improved due to COVID-19.

College students and recent grads face a tough job market, according to a new BestColleges survey. Since the coronavirus outbreak, a majority (63%) of business leaders recruiting college students have "slowed" or "halted" college hiring.

On top of canceled career fairs and information sessions, college graduates are contending with an economic recession and a massive — and potentially long-lasting — shift to remote work. In response to these changes, businesses are fundamentally altering their college recruiting and hiring practices.

The BestColleges survey, conducted through YouGov, polled more than 500 senior business leaders at companies that hire college students. The survey focused on employers' college recruiting practices in the first wave of the pandemic and their perceptions of online versus on-campus education.

"The survey's findings provide confirmation that the coronavirus outbreak has affected current and future employment opportunities for college students," said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., an online education advisor for BestColleges.

Even though overall college recruitment is down, employer perceptions of online education have improved. According to the survey, 74% of business leaders agree that the quality of online education has increased as a result of changes due to COVID-19. What's more, 50% actively recruit from online programs.

"Widespread remote work during COVID-19 has introduced more business leaders, companies, and industries to virtual communication and collaboration," Venable said. "While it's difficult to say for sure, the massive shift to remote work may underscore the continued importance of online learning."

Employers Want to Know If You Have an Online Degree

While the majority of business leaders agree that the quality of online education has improved due to COVID-19, business leaders still want to know whether a degree was earned from an online or in-person program. Seventy-one percent reported that their companies screen job applicants to find out.

Exactly why companies screen applicants this way is uncertain, but it may have nothing to do with a perceived qualitative difference between online and on-campus programs. Even business leaders with positive views of online education want to know how a degree was earned. Among respondents who think online learning is equal to or better than on-campus education, 58% screen job applicants to determine whether their degrees were received online.

Venable helped shed light on these findings: "Given that students pursuing a degree online are likely to differ in key ways from on-campus students, such as in their career readiness and motivations, screening applicants in this manner could simply come down to different recruitment strategies for different kinds of job candidates."

Indeed, the majority (68%) of business leaders say that their company or organization employs different strategies when recruiting from online versus in-person programs.

Opinions of Online Education Vary by Age and Industry

In the college hiring survey, about half (49%) of respondents who actively recruit college graduates called online college education "better than" or "equal to" on-campus education. However, where employers land on the question of online versus in-person education is strongly linked to age and industry.

Young business leaders who actively hire college graduates are far more likely to prefer online education or view it as equal to in-person education. Almost two-thirds (64%) of business leaders aged 18-34 actively hiring college graduates believe online education is better than or equal to on-campus education, whereas just 36% of business leaders aged 55 and older feel the same.

While opinion is somewhat divided on the quality of online education, certain industries, such as education, are more likely to hold a favorable opinion of online degrees. Teachers and school administrators are more familiar with online learning and understand its importance for the future of higher education. Leaders in industries such as real estate and construction also believe online education is better than or equal to on-campus education.

“As more people become comfortable with technology-enhanced interactions, and experience positive outcomes, we may see continued acceptance among industries and employers.”

— Melissa Venable, Online Education Advisor for BestColleges

Other industries are divided. In manufacturing and transportation/warehousing, for example, almost even percentages call online education better and on-campus education better. Some industries are less certain. Among media/arts and entertainment professionals, one-third are unsure which learning option is superior.

People-centric fields like media and restaurants are less open to online education, and some of the most tech-centric fields also prefer in-person degrees.

Businesses Recruit Online Students From Specific Majors

In line with the finding that certain industries hold a more favorable view of online education, business leaders who hire from online programs are also more likely to recruit students from specific majors.

According to the BestColleges survey, one-third of business leaders who favor online education have pivoted to target certain majors, while just 20% of those who think online learning is worse have done the same.

These findings could relate to the unique value of online education in certain industries where career readiness is important. "One area where online education excels is specialization and acceleration," Venable said. "Time-efficient, fast-track programs can place students in specialized fields, like education, quicker than on-campus programs."

“Firsthand experience as an online learner may impact acceptance. Employers who have taken online courses and who are in organizations that have had success with school partnerships … may also see online education as increasingly valuable.”

— Melissa Venable, Online Education Advisor for BestColleges

Another reason some industries value certain online majors may be the reliance on online education to help current employees retrain and upskill. As discussed in a coming BestColleges report, 47% of business leaders surveyed say their organizations offer discounted tuition programs for employees to attend online schools or programs.

In the same report, nearly three-fourths (72%) of business leaders who actively hire college graduates say their companies maintain educational partnerships to offer benefits to employees, like training and discounted tuition for online education. Of the business leaders who recruit students from online programs, 77% report having an educational partnership.

College Degrees Continue to Hold Value on the Job Market

In March, the class of 2020's job outlook took a sharp, dismal turn as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. By April, soon-to-be college graduates found themselves job hunting along with nearly 15% of Americans who were unemployed.

College graduates today are entering a much fiercer job market than they likely anticipated, but when competition is stiff, diplomas matter even more. As the economy begins its slow recovery, experts agree that the new job market will be more digital, more global, and more competitive.

“Online learners are not only gaining knowledge related to their academic field of study but are also learning how to communicate at a distance in a professional context, manage their time effectively, and troubleshoot technology resources.”

— Melissa Venable, Online Education Advisor for BestColleges

Jobs that require degrees haven't taken the same hit from COVID-19 as jobs that don't require degrees. Currently, employment losses remain concentrated disproportionately among lower-wage workers. Unlike some careers that don't require college degrees, desk jobs can be performed entirely online.

Learning online during the pandemic could benefit college students when they enter the new workforce. With so many U.S. companies offering remote work, digital skills are more important than ever. For students who want to see how their college courses will serve them in the real world, virtual learning provides practical, hands-on experience.


Methodology

BestColleges commissioned YouGov PLC to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov PLC. The total sample size was 953 senior decision-makers, 534 of whom were involved with or working for organizations that directly recruit college students and/or recent college graduates. Fieldwork was undertaken May 29-June 1, 2020. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards.

BestColleges' full college recruiting survey, as well as two separate surveys conducted prior to the coronavirus outbreak, provides insights into students' career goals, employers' perceptions of online education, and recruiting and hiring practices.