Are Online Colleges Respected?

Are Online Colleges Respected?

Key Takeaways

  • Online degrees at accredited colleges and universities, whether brick-and-mortar or online institutions, are generally recognized by academia, industry and society.
  • Every online program has its unique characteristics, including its curriculum, learning outcomes and format, and degree requirements.
  • Accreditation is the first and foremost factor when considering the respectability of online degrees offered by colleges and universities, followed by factors such as institutional reputation, technological resources, student support services, and flexibility and accessibility of online college courses.
online student at work

Prospective students who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree in online colleges ask the oft-repeated question, “Are online colleges respected?” Such a question is valid, considering that online degrees have been around for less than 40 years. The first online master’s degree was offered by The New School in New York City in 1985. In 1989, the University of Phoenix was the first college offering fully online degree programs in 1989. In contrast, traditional degrees offered by brick-and-mortar institutions date as far back as 1636, when Harvard University was established.

But while online degree programs don’t have the established reputation of traditional colleges and universities, their popularity is on the rise! According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 9.4 million undergraduate students - or 61% of all students pursuing college degrees - are enrolled in at least one online course. Furthermore, about 4.4 million undergraduate students are enrolled in online courses exclusively.

Online students earned their undergraduate and graduate degrees in these online degree programs. In the 2019-2020 academic year, more than 150,200 students earned their associate degrees online, while 297,976 students earned their bachelor’s degrees online. More than 159,000 students earned their master’s and doctoral degrees via online programs, as well. In 2023, these numbers grew to the point that almost 50% of students were taking some form of online class. By 2027, it is predicted that almost 57 million students will be online learners.

The bottom line: Since their introduction, online degree programs have undergone significant changes in their curriculum, online learning formats, and overall quality. As a result, online education has become and continues to be recognized by academia, industry and society.

The technological innovations that complement online learning, such as video conferencing tools, learning management systems, and digital collaboration tools, have also contributed to the increased recognition of accredited online degree programs. The rising popularity of MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses has allowed traditional students to participate in online learning. This format has enabled students to study at their own pace while earning a traditional degree. Such diversity in learning experiences further strengthens the acceptability of online degrees.

online student in class

Factors in Determining the Respectability of Online Colleges

The best online degree programs have the following characteristics that make them excellent choices for ambitious individuals who want to earn online degrees that are respected and recognized by academia, industry and society. We want to emphasize that while regional accreditation is the top factor in determining the respectability of online schools, it should be complemented by the strong presence of a positive institutional reputation, online learning experiences, and student support services and resources. We suggest a holistic view when considering the respectability of online degree programs to ensure students are receiving the type of education they are wanting.

Regional Accreditation

The process of regional accreditation among online colleges involves the evaluation of their academic programs, facilities and amenities, and student support services, among other aspects, in accordance with predefined standards of quality. In the case of online colleges and universities - or distance learning at brick-and-mortar colleges - the formal recognition comes from the regional accreditation agencies, namely:

  • Accrediting Commission for Community & Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges & Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges & Schools Commission on Colleges or SACSCOC
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

If an online degree program you’re interested in is offered by an institution accredited by one of these agencies, then your online degree will be recognized by academic institutions and employers.

Many online programs also have programmatic accreditation, such as in the fields of healthcare management, pharmacy, business, and engineering. The programmatic accreditation means that the online programs comply with the rigorous industry standards set by professional organizations, such as AACSB, ABET and CAHME.

Regional accreditation is of utmost importance in the respectability of online colleges and universities for the following reasons:

  • Quality assurance, meaning the online programs follow standards of quality in their curriculum, faculty credentials, and learning outcomes
  • National and international recognition, a must when transferring credits and for out-of-state and foreign study and work opportunities
  • Confidence among students, their parents, employers and academic institutions in the knowledge and skills learned in the online degree programs
  • Access to state and federal student aid opportunities, as well as access to research and grant funding

Even regarding established institutions with online programs, we suggest verifying their regional accreditation status by checking the official websites of the specific regional accreditation agency. In a few cases, the regional accreditation agency can be different between the brick-and-mortar institution and its online school, as is the case with the University of Massachusetts Global (WSCUC) and the University of Massachusetts system (NECHE).

Institutional Reputation

Unless you’re interested in enrolling in an online program at one of the most respected online universities, you should also check the overall institutional reputation of the online colleges on your shortlist. This is because institutional reputation has a crucial role in shaping the perception of respectability of an online college and its academic programs.

As such, online students and graduates of established institutions will agree that industry professionals recognize their online degrees because of their long history, tradition and track record. In contrast, new institutions offering online degree programs usually bring fresh perspectives, innovations and dynamism, such as through cutting-edge technology, teaching methods, and online learning formats. Industry professionals also recognize online degrees from new institutions, particularly in emerging fields like climate change, smart plants, and energy storage.

We suggest reading alumni testimonials and success stories, stakeholder reviews, and lists of the best online schools for a general overview of institutional reputation. This is true even for a respected online university, such as the University of Florida or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide, because the online learning experiences will be different from one online college to the next.

online professor teaching class

Program-Specific Factors

When considering several online programs in your preferred field, such as in nursing, engineering or business, you must take a closer look at its features. These include their respective curriculum (e.g., online courses and in-person requirements), faculty credentials, and industry recognition, which are the foremost factors in determining the respectability of online degrees.

Academic programs offering online degrees usually publish either a web or a PDF version of their curriculum, including the prerequisites, course sequence and course descriptions, and learning outcomes. Prospective online students can then determine whether the college courses align with their academic and career goals.

Of course, the opportunity for career advancement with an online degree is predicated on the recognition accorded to it by the industry it will be used in. You must then check whether the online degree and the online college offering it are viewed as respectable and credible by employers in the industry.

You should also ensure that your online degree and the knowledge and skills you learned during your studies are relevant to the job market. For example, your bachelor’s degree in software engineering should ideally be awarded by an ABET-accredited online program for the computer and information technology industry to accept it as an academic qualification for entry-level positions. Otherwise, your time, money and effort will likely be in vain.

Online students typically learn from on-campus professors, just like in-person students. In many online programs, live streaming of classes allows both on-campus and online students to participate in class discussions simultaneously. The professional credentials of professors are then instrumental in the enjoyment of positive online learning experiences among students, not to mention in their growth in industry-specific knowledge and skills.

On this note, you must check the professional credentials of whatever online program you’re interested in. The best online programs feature faculty members with advanced degrees, usually doctoral degrees, as well as an extensive research portfolio and relevant industry experience. Many online programs provide basic information but you can also request relevant information from the institution if it isn’t provided on the official online degree program website.

Transferability of Credits

Transferability of credit is a crucial aspect of respectable online programs because it facilitates the seamless transition between colleges and universities. This is true whether it’s an associate degree from a community college with credits transferred to a bachelor’s degree program at a four-year university or it’s the transfer of credits between bachelor’s degree programs offered at different universities.

Prospective online students must then check the transferability of credits earned in the online degree programs they are interested in. The best way to do so is by checking the credit transfer policies and articulation agreements. If the information isn’t provided on the online program’s official website, then request the information. Note that regional accreditation usually means credits earned in the completion of college courses in an online program can be transferred to another regionally accredited institution.

Keep in mind, too, that every accredited online program has its own prerequisite courses before students can take certain online courses in the curriculum. For example, in a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, students must complete math courses that meet the academic standards of that particular online program. Even when you have completed the math prerequisites in one online degree program, you may still be required to retake the courses or take an assessment exam.

technology in online education

Technological Resources and Student Support Services

With contemporary information technology, the dichotomy between on-campus and online learning isn’t as well-defined as it was before the advent of online learning communication and collaboration tools. Indeed, many online programs adopt a blended learning model where online students benefit from a mix of synchronous and asynchronous web-based courses, as well as live streams from on-campus classrooms and in-person meetings (e.g., on-campus orientations, internships, and workshops).

The most respected online colleges offer their online students a wide range of technological resources and student support services that contribute to their positive learning experiences. These aspects are made possible with communication and collaboration tools such as Zoom, Google Workspace, and Miro.

When considering the suitability of online programs for your best academic interests, you must consider the following technological resources.

  • Access to a user-friendly, comprehensive and intuitive learning management system (LMS) where online students can access their learning materials, course requirements, and references, as well as interact with their peers and professors, participate in classes, and submit assignments and projects. The best LMS, such as Moodle, Canvas and Blackboard, integrate multimedia elements in online classes, too, to cater to different learning styles as well as be accessible to different devices (e.g., laptops, smartphones, and tablets).
  • Presence of adaptive learning technologies that allow students to progress at their own pace and receive constructive feedback for their academic performance.
  • Access to online learning resources like digital databases, libraries, and open educational resources that, in turn, facilitate research and learning opportunities for students.

The best online colleges usually make access to these technological resources available on a 24/7 basis. Online students can then be accommodated regardless of their time zones and personal schedules.

Many online programs also provide students with experiential learning opportunities that can either be in virtual or in-person formats. The most popular examples are immersive virtual laboratories using augmented reality and virtual reality technologies, real-world case studies, and interactive simulations, as well as virtual or in-person internships. Such a wide variety of online learning options contributes to the enduring popularity of online programs, a popularity that may rival that of on-campus programs.

In terms of student support services, respectable online colleges provide their students with 24/7 access to technical support, such as troubleshooting issues with the LMS. Online learners are also provided with a wide range of support services for their academic, career and life success, such as tutoring, counseling and writing services, career development programs, and mental health services.

Of course, students pursuing online degrees praise the flexibility, accessibility and affordability of respected online programs and the colleges and universities offering them. Add the rich opportunities for networking among your peers, professors and alumni, even among local and national employers, and earning an online degree makes perfect sense!

student in online college

Students’ Submitted Questions on Online Colleges Being Respected

Jen asks, “How do I know if my degree is recognized?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: An online bachelor’s degree program must be offered by a regionally or nationally accredited school for the college degree to be recognized. Note that regional accreditation usually applies to colleges and universities with an academic focus and are public schools or nonprofit institutions. National accreditation is typically for career programs with degree and certificate programs as well as for trade and vocational schools. You can learn more about accreditation here.

Be sure to check the accredited school’s reputation in the community, too, from alumni testimonials, employer reviews, and other reliable sources of information.

Nancy asks, “How much is an online degree worth?”

Dr. Jed Macosko’s answer: An online college worth its salt, so to speak, offers virtual degree programs that allow current and prospective online students plenty of opportunities to increase their knowledge and skills in their chosen field. Just as with in-person degrees, online degrees usually provide students with both didactic instruction and hands-on learning experiences, including laboratory work and internships done fully online or in a hybrid format.

In the end, the value of a college degree will largely depend on the way that its holder leverages it for career advancement and income-earning purposes.

Lincoln asks, “What do employers think of online degrees?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: Many employers and hiring managers acknowledge the academic excellence of respected online degree programs, particularly those offered by established colleges and universities. As such, professionals with online degrees are typically just as respected as those with college degrees earned via in-person programs.

Plus, employers focus more on the workplace-ready knowledge, skills and experience of prospective employees than on whether their college degree was earned online or in person. We suggest highlighting knowledge and skills specific to the job you’re applying for instead.

Jessica asks, “What should I look for in an online degree?”

Dr. Jed Macosko’s answer: Again, look for regional or national accreditation, check for faculty credentials, and determine the effectiveness of the technology resources and student support services for positive online learning experiences.

Billy asks, “How does society view online degrees and colleges?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: Favorably! However, the online school that you earned your college degree from must meet the above-mentioned standards of quality.

Do you have a question about this topic? Ask it here