Are Online Degrees Respected? Trends, Tips, and Types of Schools

Earning a degree can help you prepare for a career and compete in the job market. And these days, employers are increasingly accepting of online learning.
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Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
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Contributing Writer

Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D., has more than 15 years of experience in online education and training as an instructional designer, curriculum manager, and adjunct professor. She is also a certified career coach. Melissa works on research, instructional d...
Published on March 8, 2024
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Lyss Welding
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Higher Education Research Analyst

Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
Learn more about our editorial process is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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  • More than half of undergraduate college students (53%) take at least one online course.
  • Employers focus on skills and knowledge, which students can increasingly develop through a variety of online schools and formats.
  • Online degree programs are growing and offered by many institutions in many formats.
  • Find a reputable online program by researching accreditation, industry recognition, actual costs, and information about student outcomes.

Most college students enrolled in the past four years have had at least some experience with online education. Also, today's employers understand what it means to work and learn online, as many companies shifted their work and training activities online during the pandemic. That experience continues to impact how we learn and work today.

While not every employer will recognize every online degree, the same can be said for campus-based degrees and traditional colleges. Recent trends in employer partnerships, anticipated growth in the demand for online programs, and a need for online learning options in growing industries all point toward the acceptance of online education.

Featured Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Online Degrees Are Quickly Becoming the Norm

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an understandable increase in online learning, as schools closed their campuses and switched to remote and online classes.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than 6 in 10 undergraduate college students (61%) were enrolled in at least one online course in 2021. In the 2022-2023 academic year, the number fell to 53%, but this was still a higher percentage of students taking online courses than before the pandemic (36%).

The Rise of Online Degree Programs

Even before the pandemic, a few institutions were already developing online programs in addition to their campus-based options.

Pennsylvania State University was one of the trailblazers in this approach, launching Penn State World Campus in 1998. Groundbreaking at the time, it offered not only fully online courses and programs but also online access to student support services, such as academic advising and career counseling.

Public institutions may also partner with for-profit online schools to expand online learning options. One example is Purdue University's 2018 acquisition of Kaplan University to create Purdue University Global.

The continued popularity of online degree programs is partly due to the flexibility they provide. BestColleges' 2023 Online Education Trends Report shows that existing commitments are the top reason students study online.

Additionally, the expansion of online programs can benefit employers. Online programs allow existing employees to expand their knowledge and skills as they work toward promotions and job changes within an organization. These programs can also help expand the number of graduates in a particular field available for potential hire.

Some employers even establish partnerships with online schools and programs to develop a pipeline of skilled workers and offer ongoing professional development opportunities for employees.

A Deeper Look

These Fields May Be Increasing Demand for Online Degrees

Many institutions continue to prioritize online education and the expansion of offerings. In BestColleges' 2023 Online Education Trends Report, we asked college administrators about their budgets for online program development. Only 3% said they were planning to decrease funding.

These administrators also shared their predictions for growth in online programs over the next five years. Almost one-third (30%) said that health-related programs would grow, followed by computer science-related (20%) and business-related (18%) majors.

Types of Online Learning

There are many formats for online learning, and multiple institutions and organizations offer online programs.

Online Colleges and Universities

Schools that only offer online programs are sometimes called online colleges or online universities. You'll find both for-profit and nonprofit schools in this category.


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    These school types are likely to be committed to supporting online students.
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    They may have more online services available (e.g., advising, counseling, tutoring).
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    Fully online colleges often focus on supporting older or nontraditional students and students seeking a career change.


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    For-profit online colleges have developed a reputation for higher costs, student debt, and recruiting practices that do not support students.
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    Not all employers recognize degrees from for-profit online schools.
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    Unfortunately, these challenges are not exclusive to for-profit schools. It can also be difficult to determine if a school in this category is for for-profit or nonprofit.

Online Programs at Traditional Schools

Many traditional colleges and universities with in-person campuses offer online programs.


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    Hiring managers may be more likely to trust a school they are more familiar with or an online program affiliated with a traditional school.
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    Unless terms like “global” or “online” have been added to the name of the school granting the degree, academic transcripts do not typically identify whether individual courses or entire programs were completed online.
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    Access to campus-based resources can be helpful even if you're not required to be there in person.


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    Online programs offered by campus-based institutions may require students to come to campus for specific activities, such as proctored testing.
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    Traditional schools that are newer to offering online programs may be in the early stages of developing online access to all of their student support services.

Online Learning Providers

You may be familiar with platforms like Coursera, edX, and LinkedIn Learning. There are many others, and, as a group, they are sometimes called self-learning, self-directed learning, or short-term certificates. These providers offer easy access to a wide variety of topics created in partnership with experts and universities from around the world.

This style of learning has gained popularity since the emergence in the early 2000s of massive open online courses or MOOCs. (The name refers to the large number of students enrolled and the free and completely online format of classes.)


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    MOOCs provide access to a seemingly endless list of topics.
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    These platforms are sometimes free or have a very low cost to enroll.
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    They can also show your dedication to staying current and gaining new skills.


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    Completion rates on these platforms are often low.
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    The materials and learning experience can be passive, lacking interaction with instructors and classmates.
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    While the classes may be free, many platforms charge a fee for certificates of completion and formal credits.

Learn more about microcredentials — short, stackable credentials popular on MOOCs — and if these programs are worth it.

How to Find a Reputable Online Degree Program

Online education is an investment of time and money. So, it's important to find a program that is right for you and one that your current or future employer will value. Try these steps in your search for a reputable online program.

Search for accredited programs.

College accreditation is a review process that schools and some programs go through periodically to evaluate everything from their financial operations and curriculum development to faculty qualifications and student satisfaction. A school or program that has accreditation has proven that it meets a certain level of quality. Look for schools with current institutional accreditation.

Some paths also require program-specific accreditation. For example, physical therapy assistant programs must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Programs related to jobs that require licensure or certification are more likely to have this kind of accreditation.

Use the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's database to learn more about a specific school or program's current status.

Look for recognition from industry groups.

Find professional associations that support workers in specific fields to learn more about education and training opportunities. These groups may also recognize specific schools and programs offering online learning. Use CareerOneStop's Professional Association Finder to identify organizations focused on your interest.

Seek transparency about costs and “hidden” fees.

Year after year, BestColleges' annual survey of online students finds that estimating actual costs is one of the biggest challenges when deciding to enroll. When researching costs, ask an admissions or financial aid counselor about fees. These often-hidden costs can range from technology and student activity fees to application and graduation fees.

Ask for information about student outcomes.

How long does it take students to complete an online program? Where are graduates working? Are they working in jobs and careers related to their online degree programs? These are just a few questions you can ask of admissions counselors when comparing online programs.

Also, explore a school's online career services and alumni network to see how students fare in the job market after graduation.

Explore opportunities to connect with a program's students, faculty, and technology before enrolling.

Some online schools and programs provide opportunities to preview the student experience through virtual open houses and sample online courses. Purdue Global, for example, offers a three-week trial. Take advantage of these opportunities to experience being an online student before committing to a program.

Ask about transfer credits.

This is especially important if you plan to take online courses at one school and transfer them to another later on.

Some schools, like those within a state system, have agreements in place that make it easier to transfer credits from one school to another. In other cases, transferring credits from an online school to a traditional school, or vice versa, can be complicated or impossible.

Researching and comparing programs takes time. While you may be ready to enroll —and encouraged to enroll quickly when speaking to admissions advisors —be sure to ask questions and address any concerns you have before you apply and enroll in an online program.

Explore More Trends in Online Degrees

What Will My Employer Think About Online Programs?

While many employers accept online learning, job seekers should prepare to articulate why they chose to study online instead of on campus, and why that choice was a good one for them.

Online program graduates should also be ready to share the quality level of their learning experience, such as the contact they had with faculty and their classmates, resources they had access to, and skills development opportunities they participated in, such as internships, capstone projects, alumni mentoring, and other learning experiences in workplace settings.

If you are unsure what your current, or future, employer might think of an online school or program, there are a few ways to find out.

  • Ask your employer. Check with your supervisor or company's human resources office to find out if there are opportunities to learn online through existing partnerships with online programs or recommendations for self-learning topics and platforms.
  • Browse company websites and hiring announcements. Look for clues about what training and education companies expect when applying for jobs. Also look for details about how employees train within the companies you would like to work for. In-house online learning could mean a greater acceptance of online programs in general.
  • Reach out to your network. Ask people you're connected to, whether it's on LinkedIn or in person, about the education expectations at specific companies and in your industries of interest.
  • Look at employer recruiting methods. Some employers connect with specific colleges and programs, including online, to recruit applicants. Identify companies you would like to work for and research where they are working with career services offices, holding student interviews, and participating in career fairs.

Ultimately, hiring managers want to know whether you will be successful in the role they are hiring for. Online student and graduate job seekers should be prepared to share details about their programs, including examples of projects, service-based learning, and involvement in virtual student clubs and organizations.

Online students can also emphasize work skills they gained as a result of learning online, such as time management and collaboration skills, as well as the ability to learn and work with various technologies.

Fortunately, employers are more accepting of online programs than they've been in the past. As more online learners move into hiring positions across industries, and as online programs and platforms continue to evolve, the gap between online and on-campus programs will keep narrowing.

If you're considering enrolling in an online program, be clear about your priorities and preferences, identify how online learning can support your career and employment goals, and don't hesitate to ask questions before you enroll. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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