Understanding The Attitudes Of Employers Towards Degrees

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In March of 2010, the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) began overhauling rules in the higher education for-profit schools sector. Proposals included regulations under which schools have to prove that their former students are either paying off loans or are capable of doing so in order for the universities' current student body to continue receiving federal loans. Universities which fail to have at least a 45 percent repayment rate from students and where students must spend more than 12 percent of their income in repaying loans would lose their eligibility to receive federal loans (Education Opportunity Act, 2008). A contemporaneously released report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated that several for profit universities provided applicants with incorrect or incomplete information regarding the programs they were applying for, including academic requirements, post graduate placement and costs. This has led Congress to question the priorities of these schools and whether public funds are well spent when there is scant opportunity of employment for students who pursue education at such institutions (Government Accountability Office, 2010).

Most for-profit schools provide 2 year certificate courses of study as well as longer term bachelor, masters and doctorate degree programs. According to the Department, about 2,000 for-profit colleges currently participate in Title IV programs and in the 2008-2009 school year, for-profit colleges received approximately $24 billion in Title IV funds with federal loans as their main source of revenue (Government Accountability Office, 2010). The latest report by the Department regarding student repayment rates, as seen in the for-profit education companies, has raised red flags regarding the employability of graduates from these schools. During the current recession, several of these schools had an "open admission" policy that saw people rushing through the doors as they hoped a better degree would help them secure a better job. Higher education For-profit schools utilize online education as a primary, and in some cases, their sole means of teaching. However, employers have been reluctant to hire or promote graduates of private for profit institutions (Adams and DeFleur, 2006; Vault Inc., 2006). These fact, along with new expectations of the Department, puts the very existence of such schools at risk as their priority is profit, with education being merely the commodity they sell. Why employers are reluctant to hire or reward graduates who have learned primarily in an online setting is unclear.

The Problem Background

Online learning is changing the dynamics of education in this country. Some see online learning as a product of natural educational evolution brought about by technological advancements (Schiffman, Vignare, & Geith, 2007). They argue that it is necessary convenience, no different than the change from fixed landlines to mobile cellular telephones (Schiffman, Vignare, & Geith, 2007).

Online learners are able to work classes into their schedule rather than molding their schedules around those classes. Whether students prefer online learning or in-class learning depends on many factors, including how much socialization a student is comfortable with, whether he or she is prepared to commute, the classroom setting, environmental factors, teaching styles, and more (Walker & Kelly, 2007).

Adult students who go back to school after having been in the workforce for some time may feel uncomfortable in a classroom of much younger students. Returning adult students may also have children and/or aging family members whom they care for which can limit how much time they can spend away from home. Often returning adult students are still working and they do not want to spend all day at work and all evening in a classroom (Walker & Kelly, 2007). On the other hand, many students want the full on-campus college experience, and for them online learning is not the right choice. These are people who desire the interaction they would have on a college campus that they would not get sitting in front of their computer, posting to the class message board, and uploading their assignments. Whether it is a result of a generation brought up with email and texting as their primary means of communication or simply that we now have a different flavor of education to taste, it is clear that we have evolved to the point that there are two kinds of learners, those who prefer a traditional classroom setting and those who prefer the online model (Dollisso & Martin, 1999). Colleges and universities have jumped aboard the online bandwagon, likely because it is a new and lucrative revenue stream. Regardless, most are now offering both traditional and online classes for their students (NCES, 2006).

Despite the fact that online education is emerging at the vast majority of public and private universities in the United States as an equivalent form of education to that of traditional classroom attendance, online education is seen by employers of college graduates as a second or even third class education. Why is it believed that traditional education is better? Is it simply that online education is not understood? Is there a belief that it is too easy to matriculate and advance in an online educational setting, and if so, why? Do employers find that the lack of socialization in online education is a missing element of a complete education? Are there other beliefs, fables or truths about online education that create the bias these employers hold? With so many options in so many different institutions, it is important to determine if one method of education is significantly better than another when it comes to student retention and student success. Also, how we should understand these two teaching models relate to the assimilation of what students need to know as they pursue their chosen avocations or careers. There are many experiences that occur in a classroom that just cannot be received through the computer. Likewise, there are many other college experiences that are unnecessary (albeit not necessarily unwanted) wastes of time when people are simply trying to further their education in the most expeditious manner.

Older adults reentering the college ranks tend to seek the most expeditious path to their goal - a certificate, degree or new knowledge (Dollisso & Martin, 1999). This in contrast to the college experience that many young adults seek - campus life, dormitories, football games. Whether to have a college experience, or simply receive a degree may well be the single most important consideration in choosing whether to pursue a traditional on campus experience or whether to learn online. However, given the reluctance to recognize online and traditional classroom degrees as equivalent, there may be much more significant factors to consider which play important roles in successful employment and earning potential (Vault Inc., 2001; Vault Inc., 2006). If so, they should be strongly considered when a student is deciding whether to attend a traditional college, or whether he or she will seek an education through online learning.

Purpose of the Study

This study will determine whether there are definable factors which produce the bias employers have towards employees who learn through online education.

If so, suggestions will be made as to how those factors might be address in order to eliminate this bias.

Research Questions

Do employers of first degree college graduates give less credibility or recognition to academic degrees earned through primarily online education and those earned through traditional on-campus education?

Do employers recognize graduate degree online education as equivalent to traditional classroom education when considering continuing education as a factor for midcareer advancement?


A significant limitation is the relatively short length of time that primarily online learning graduates have been in the work force. Given this, there is no long term data available on their employability. As a result, conclusions reached will formulate only a piece of an initial foundation or baseline for future studies. Few studies exist of whether employers give less recognition to graduates who have pursued online learning as a primary means of study. Therefore, comparative studies will be limited. Additionally, once data is retrieved, determining the relevance of that data may be difficult as there is no benchmark to follow.


Surveys will be directed to a population selected from a 1200 member professional organization of HR professionals who mine college graduates each year to find new employees for their various organizations. They will be asked to consider only prospective employees with bachelor or graduate degrees and only current employees who have added to their qualification a new bachelor or graduate degree. Lastly participants will be asked to answer according to their organizational culture and not personal feelings as different industries may have different views about the credibility of online degrees.


For the purpose of this study, the following terms are defined:

E-learning consists of distance education and, or, online education (Bonk & Graham, 2006).

Distance education is an "institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors" (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, and Zvacek, 2003, p. 7). In distance education, students may use some type of technology in the learning process and in many cases are not face-to-face with their instructors or other students; the students may be geographically remote.

Online education is a form of distance education where credit-granting courses or education is delivered primarily via the Internet/Web to students at remote locations, including their homes. Online courses may be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. An online course may include a requirement that students and teachers meet once or periodically in a physical setting for lectures, labs, or exams, so long as the time spent in the physical setting does not exceed 20 percent of the total course time (E-Learning, 2007). Distance education and online education will be used interchangeably.

Blended education is a coherently designed learning program that is applied to a range of learning activities, ranging from a topic or course fragment, to a full course, and even a curriculum (Kim, 2007). A blended learning course is a course that consists of some coarse fragments of traditional learning types and other course fragments of e-learning types (Kim, 2007).

A blending educational learning program is a program in which at least 33% of both the courses and curriculum consist e-learning (Kim, 2007).

Human resource (HR) professionals are executives, directors, or managers who develop and manage human resources policies and practices as well as those who specialize in employment, recruitment, and placement of job applicants and establish job descriptions.

Traditional graduate is one who has earned a college degree by taking less than 30% of the course content online (Allen & Seaman, 2003).

Online graduate is one who has completed 80% or more of the coursework in a degree program via the Internet/Web (Allen & Seaman, 2003).

Credential is a bachelor degree or graduate degree

Professional employees are executive, administrative, professional, outside sales, and computer employees often referred to as "white collar" workers or exempt employees (U.S. Department of Labor, 2004).

Online degree is a degree which results from a nontraditional program in which very little physical classroom attendance is required. The programs tend to be available to students at remote locations, including their homes, primarily via the Internet. Some of the programs are offered by colleges and universities, which also have regular classroom-based programs for full-time students; others are offered by colleges which grant only online degrees.

Significance of the Study

Thus far, since the advent of online learning, employment opportunities for such graduates, relative to traditional education graduates, is poor. Whether this will continue in the long term is not yet known. A study such as this is important to online and traditional learners, but also to professors, educational administrators, curriculum designers, school placement departments, politicians and policymakers. This study should help develop a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of the issues developed by the research questions, and at the same time develop information for consideration by future learners (or employers paying for employee learning) so they can make better choices as to which learning model they choose to pursue. Administrators concerned with post graduate placement and debt repayment, education professionals considering different pedagogical rationales, and accreditation bodies will also benefit from this study, as it will provide data for consideration when determining which and how many classes should be offered online, on ground or blended in order to properly prepare students for future employment.

Chapter 2

Review of Literature

One's lifetime of education has several phases. There is formalized education at primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels; informal education at home and at work; on the job training and apprenticeships; and specialized vocational education at secondary and postsecondary levels (Sweetland, 1996). However, when people voluntarily acquire additional education beyond the secondary level, education may be viewed as an investment (Blaug, 1992). The pursuit of education, particularly postsecondary education, can lead to both individual growth and increased vocational options. Education helps develop marketable work skills, thus improving worker productivity (Bills, 2003; Sweetland, 1996). Furthermore, it makes such individuals more attractive to employers, consequently enhancing their incomes and their opportunities for securing gainful employment (Bills, 2003). Knox, Lindsay, and Kolb (1993) suggests that "investment in schooling may increase worker productivity and, hence, lifetime earnings" (p. 26).

An assumption of this study is that individuals seeking career advancements will invest in human capital and that such investments will make them more attractive to potential employers who use educational credentials as a screening mechanism for hiring.

Distance education is an "institution-based, formal education where the learning group is separated, and where interactive telecommunications systems are used to connect learners, resources, and instructors" (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2003, p. 7). In distance education, students may use some type of technology in the learning process and in many cases, they are not face-to-face with their instructors or classmates. Students may also be geographically remote, choosing to not travel to a college campus.

Distance education occurs in either synchronous learning or asynchronous learning. In synchronous distance learning, instruction takes place in several different places but at the same time. This mode of learning often uses television to connect to a local classroom with the instructor and students at a distance (Simonson et al., 2003). Examples of synchronous instruction are satellite, broadcast television, audio, videoconferencing, and two-way live broadcasts. In asynchronous distance learning, instruction takes place in different places and at different times.

In contrast, asynchronous learning allows the student to access instructional material whenever and wherever they choose (Simonson et al., 2003). Technologies, including the Internet, have increased this mode of instruction by offering online courses and online degrees to learners all over the world. Thus, thousands of U.S. colleges and universities now offer online education programs for academic credit. As long as the entrance requirements are met and the tuition is paid, the majority of these programs are open to any student anywhere (Simonson et al., 2003). The emergence of technology-based distance education has afforded students, particularly working adults, the opportunity to pursue higher education while maintaining their full-time jobs and commitments to their family. As these students participate in online education, many are seeking credentials that will make them more marketable to potential employers.

In the last ten years, online education has entered the mainstream of higher education and has become a visible component of the postsecondary landscape.  Online programs for academic credit are emerging in colleges and universities across the country at an astonishing rate. In 1999, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 1999) reported that during the 1997-98 academic year only 8% of all postsecondary institutions offered distance education programs but by the 2000-2001 academic year, NCES (2003) reported that 56% of all postsecondary institutions offered distance learning with distance education courses accounting for an estimated 12.2 million enrollments (or registrations). As of the 2006-07 academic year, 65 percent of 2-year and 4-year Title IV degree-granting postsecondary institutions reported offering college-level credit-granting distance education courses with 18 million enrollees (NCES 2006). Asynchronous (not simultaneous or real-time) Internet-based technologies were cited as the most widely used technology for the instructional delivery of distance education courses; they were used to a large extent in 75 percent and to a moderate extent in 17 percent of the institutions that offered college-level credit-granting distance education courses. The most common factors cited as affecting distance education decisions to a major extent were meeting student demand for flexible schedules, providing access to college for students who would otherwise not have access, making more courses available, and seeking to increase student enrollment (Parsad & Lewis, 2008).

The literature related to online education suggest that students are satisfied with online learning programs and will continue to have an ongoing relationship with higher education as they seek to invest in their human capital and improve their career opportunities via online learning (Folkers, 2005; Frey et al., 2004; Davis et al.,2004). Benson (2002) acknowledges that "over the past decade, online learning has evolved into a growing vehicle for providing adults with new skills, updated information, and new knowledge, often through degree programs" (p. 443). However, even as more and more colleges offer programs online, there is still skepticism among employers concerning degrees obtained through online academic programs (Carnevale, 2007).

Research into the perception of potential employers or "gatekeepers" about online degrees in comparison with those earned in a traditional format has generally asked: What does the current literature say about hiring gatekeepers' perceptions of online degrees? How do these perceptions influence their assessment of the candidate's employment qualifications?

In the literature, hiring gatekeepers are generally defined as anyone who stands between the applicant and the employer. Gatekeepers come in many forms, including receptionists, HR recruiters, and resume screeners" (Mitchell, 2003, 1). Throughout this literature reviewed, a variety of gatekeepers served as participants. For example, in some studies, the gatekeepers were HR managers and recruiters; others were actual managers for the position in which a candidate would be hired.

Within this section of the literature search, there were five published and two unpublished complete empirical research studies regarding prospective employer's perceptions of a job candidate's online degree achievements.

Empirical Studies

As this section of the review provides a comparison across empirical studies, these studies are categorized according to the industries that formed the basis for the study. The three industries are higher education, healthcare, and general industry. This is important because different industries may have different views about the credibility of online degrees.

Higher Education. Yickes, Patrick and Costin (2005), citing Giannoni, and Teone (2003), note "There is a perceptual disparity in academia that distance education is second best" (p. 3). This perception appears to carry over in higher education hiring practices. Research conducted by Adams and DeFleur (2005) regarding doctorates indicate that, given the choice of selecting "hypothetical" candidates who possessed online or traditional doctoral degree credentialing, as many as 98 percent of 109 employers surveyed would prefer to hire the candidate with the traditional degree. A later study by Flowers and Baltzer (2006) also looked at academic hiring processes and largely confirmed the above results. Their findings were similar to Adams and DeFleur's (2006) study regarding the perceptions of academia about the perceived validity of online doctoral degrees. Finally, the latest study by Guendoo (2007, 2008) found that community colleges were more receptive to online doctoral degree recipients than traditional, four-year degree universities.

Healthcare. The earliest qualitative study used a grounded theory approach. Chaney (2002) found most of the respondents made no distinction between an online degree and a traditional degree when considering applicants in the hiring process. Applying a similar comparative approach as they did while researching doctoral and bachelor degrees in various fields, Adams, DeFleur, and Heald (2007) found that given the hiring decision for a healthcare position, most gatekeepers (95 percent) would prefer the applicant with a traditional degree to one who completed an online degree. In addition, the researchers found that 29 percent would select a candidate with a hybrid degree where half of the courses were taken online (Adams et al., 2007).

Online degrees across industries. Adams and DeFleur (2006) studied the perceptions about online bachelor's degrees in the entry-level position hiring process. Findings suggest that when companies attempted to fill management or entry-level positions in accounting, business, engineering, and information technology, 96 percent indicated that they would choose the candidate with a traditional degree. Finally, Seibold's (2007) qualitative study included gatekeepers from five different industries: "telecommunications, data systems, insurance, finance and rental businesses" (p. 32). She suggests that, even with the increase of online degrees and students and nearly a decade of research, perceptions still exist in the hiring process that traditional degrees are superior to online degrees, although hybrids are gaining acceptability. Limitations of empirical studies. While other studies employed interviewing and surveys to assess perceptions, the Adams and DeFleur (2005, 2006) studies were the only ones in which participants actually looked at resumes for three hypothetical candidates with comparable experience but different degrees (online, hybrid, and traditional) and decided which they would hire for a specific job. In addition, Chaney (2002), Seibold (2007), and Adams, DeFleur, & Heald (2007) studies did not distinguish perceptions between type of degree (Bachelor's, Master's, and Doctorate) and specific domain. Therefore, additional studies to determine whether hiring an online degree recipient actually takes place and specifically in what industry and the level of degree attainment would add to the knowledge base.


Individuals will invest in themselves by acquiring education, particularly higher education credentials that many employers use as a screening device to for potential employees (Cohen, 1998). to 17.3 million students attending college in 2004 (NCES, 2006). In the 1997-98 academic year, only 8% of all postsecondary institutions offered distance education programs (NCES, 1999) but by the 2000-01 academic year, 56% of all postsecondary institutions offered distance learning programs (NCES, 2003) and as of 2007, 65% offered online education programs (Parsad & Lewis, 2008). Despite the apparent acceptance of the value providing online education has gained in the academic community, the literature largely suggests that there still may be a marked stigma attached to online degrees throughout the hiring process within those industries studied, one of which was academia.

Continued research in this area will provide insight for expanding student accessibility to quality online higher education, provide information to develop employer/recruiter education workshops (what to look for, how to break down any unfounded biases), continuing program improvement, and executing effective and ethical marketing practices (Adams, 2008). Further, results from continued scholarly work could help illuminate and mobilize higher education leadership and administration to make better-informed decisions regarding funding, managing, and evaluating the effectiveness and public perceptions of online degrees. 

Chapter 3

Research Design

This study will employ two Phenomenology and Grounded Theory methodology. Phenomenology, the study of the subjective experiences of others, deriving data through the eyes of HR professionals and applicants, will allow for conclusions to be reached on how they interpret their experiences, in answer to the first research question. Grounded Theory, looking at the specific data collected, will allow the researcher to theorize reasons for the phenomena, which will answer the second research question.

This study will rely on surveys with follow up interviews of those participants willing to be interviewed. A significant development in survey methodology is the collection of survey data through self-administered electronic surveys on the Internet (Dillman, 2007). Two types of electronic or online surveys available for data collection are e-mail and Web-based surveys.

Electronic survey methodologies offer the potential for dramatically reducing survey costs and efficiency. (Dillman, 2007; Van Selm & Jankowski, 2006; Gunn, 2002). Online surveys are particularly attractive when the population under study is distributed across a large geographic region or when the population of interest has high rates of computer use and Internet experience (Van Selm & Jankowski, 2006).

The researcher will look at data from HR professionals that considers both people who have learned online and people who have learned in a traditional setting, as well as people who have followed a blended curriculum in order to obtain their degree. The goal is to determine whether there is any consistent factors which lead such professionals to hold a bias against or in favor of any of the groups. The data will result from online surveys, online interviews and oral interviews. The qualitative research process is determined to be best method of analysis for this study.

Qualitative research methods have proven to be the superior choice for many different areas of research (Adler & Adler, 1987; Giddens, 1990). Qualitative research tends to examine the how and why of decision making as compared to the where, what, and when that is generally examined in the quantitative methodology (Wolcott, 1995). Qualitative methods do not emphasize developing statistically valid samples or on the creation of any kind of statistical support when it comes to the hypotheses that are addressed (Ragin, 1994; Kaminski, 2004). Qualitative studies are generally easier to read, easier to understand, and seem to have more relevance for the average person than quantitative studies.

Qualitative analysis requires a somewhat different approach than quantitative. The qualitative approach seeks to explore and understand a matter through insight into subjects' experiences (DeWalt & DeWalt, 2002). In comparison to quantitative research, qualitative research methods present limitations with regards to matters of reliability and validity. Reliability is affected due to the subjectivity of the methodology thereby making it difficult to replicate studies.

Qualitative studies rely on basic techniques for gathering data. These are often used because they work well and they provide a great deal of information for the researcher in a relatively short period of time (Taylor & Bogdan, 1998). They are also easy to conduct because more people can be addressed at once, and because the literature that has been created and addressed by others can be used.

Sometimes, these methods are used in combination with quantitative methods to get a better and deeper understanding of the issue or a social phenomenon, or to generate even more questions that might be needed for future research into an issue. While the researcher does not anticipate value in a quantitative analysis, such may be considered beneficial upon review of the data.

Selection of Population

The survey population for this study will consist of 300 Human Resource professionals whose job titles indicate they are responsible for employment, recruitment, and placement of college graduate job applicants in the United States. The member data base for the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) organization will be used . This professional association represents organizations in business and government engaged in human resources (HR), professional staffing, college relations, and recruiting and hiring of college graduates.

Also surveys will be directed to graduates of online and blended education. Names and contact information will be obtained through EDMC and other online educational institutions.

Candidate Biography


Block I: Prospectus approval March 2011

Block II: Proposal approval April 2011

Block III: Data collection and analysis August 2011

Block IV: Defense approval August 2011