Online Education Still Has to Prove Itself

A new survey has found that some are still skeptical about the value of online education.

According to the survey from the nonprofit Public Agenda, and sponsored by the Kresge Foundation, many community college students and employers have doubts about the quality of online education. New research has raised important questions for the future of online learning, even as it is becoming part of the higher education mainstream.

While employers and students recognized a need for online education, the survey revealed that they do not trust it as much as traditional, in-person education. The survey also found:

  • The majority of employers (56%) preferred a job applicant with a traditional degree from an average school over an applicant with an online degree from a top university. Just 17% said they preferred the latter.
  • At the same time, 80% of employers said that online-only degrees and certificates provide opportunities for older students to get valuable college credentials. Half said online degrees help younger, first-time college students get a high quality education.
  • Sixty-one percent of community college students said online classes require more discipline from students than traditional classes. Yet four in 10 (42%) believe students learn less online.
  • Many community college students currently taking online classes wished they took fewer of them.

“Just as online education itself is rapidly changing, we expect student and employer attitudes to shift as well,” said Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research at Public Agenda, based in New York City. “Still, we need to consider the skepticism of those on the ground, especially if we hope to avoid any unintended consequences. If students aren’t certain they’re being well-served, and if online education might make them less competitive in the workforce, what can we do to better meet their needs?”

Hagelskamp added that previous research has shown that online education, when done well, can lead to strong outcomes.

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. The Kresge Foundation works to expand opportunity through grantmaking and investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, community development and place-based efforts.

The employer data in the survey is based on telephone interviews with 656 human resources professionals from four major U.S. metropolitan areas between April and May 2013. The student data is based on phone and online surveys with 215 current community college students, collected between February and June 2013.

More information about the survey, including charts and graphics, can be found here.

Future findings on this topic can be requested at