On Online Education, Students and Employers Remain Unconvinced

Many community college students and employers have doubts about the quality of online education. New research with these groups raises important questions for the future of online learning, even as it quickly becomes part of the higher education mainstream.

New survey data suggest that, while employers and students recognize a niche for online education, for now at least, they do not trust it as much as they do traditional education. The research is summarized in a new brief from nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Agenda, sponsored by the Kresge Foundation. Findings include:

  • The majority of employers (56 percent) prefer a job applicant with a traditional degree from an average school over an applicant with an online degree from a top university (just 17 percent say they’d prefer the latter).
  • At the same time, 80 percent of employers say that online-only degrees and certificates provide opportunities for older students to get valuable college credentials. Half say online degrees help younger, first-time college students get a high quality education.
  • 61 percent of community college students say online classes require more discipline from students than traditional classes, yet four in ten (42 percent) believe students learn less online.
  • Many community college students currently taking online classes wish 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. “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?”

Previous research has indicated that online education, when done well, can lead to strong outcomes. Online learning has the potential to make college more accessible and, ultimately, affordable. As key decision makers face higher education’s changing landscape, this research provides important insights from some of those on the ground, in order to ensure that online education can better meet the needs of students and society.

More Information
Survey findings, charts and graphics are available at http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/not-yet-sold. Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #HashtagTK.

This research brief is part of a larger project surveying the attitudes of various student and employer groups toward issues in higher education, including online education, for-profit colleges and the needs of nontraditional students. To receive future findings related to this project, contact arizzolo@publicagenda.org.

About the Data
Employer data is based on telephone interviews with 656 human resources (HR) professionals from four major US metropolitan areas between April and May 2013. Student data is based on phone and online surveys with 215 current community college students, collected between February and June 2013. For more information about the methodology and survey samples, visit http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/methodology-not-yet-sold.

About Public Agenda
Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on higher education affordability, achievement gaps, community college completion, use of technology and innovation, and other higher education issues. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org, on Facebook at facebook.com/PublicAgenda and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.