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The Job Candidate's Education: Brick-and-Mortar vs. Online Degrees

As the number of people enrolled in online degree programs expands, recruiters must learn to assess a wider range of educational standards as part of the recruiting process.

The Job Candidate's Education: Brick-and-Mortar vs. Online Degrees

By: Catherine Conlan

Once upon a time, it was relatively simple to assess a job candidate’s education.  Not so anymore, given the evolution of online learning, which continues to grow. 

A report from the Babson Survey Research Group says the number of U.S. college and graduate students enrolled in at least one online course rose by almost 4 percent between 2013 and 2014. 

For employers, online learning and online degrees can cause confusion on a resume, especially if the institution is unrecognized. Thus the task of evaluating degree programs and the institutions that issue them can be a challenge, particularly for those less experienced in recruitment.  

“For greener hiring managers, the online degree versus brick-and-mortar degree debate may prove a perplexing one,” says Kate Zabriskie, founder and CEO of Business Training Works, a business training company in Port Tobacco, Maryland. 

“Seasoned HR managers, however, realize that to truly evaluate talent, you must key in on certain resume aspects, and conduct a formal interview with your prospect. Online degrees should not prove a disqualifier or proper evaluator of position-fit or talent,” adds Zabriskie.

These expert insights can help you evaluate online learning pedigrees against brick-and-mortar degrees.

Focus on the Institution, Not the Format
One of the reasons it can be a challenge to compare online and “real world” degrees is that there is such wide variety in the quality of institutions that issue degrees. 

When online degrees first appeared, they were often associated with for-profit universities that had reputations as “degree mills.” But as more reputable brick-and-mortar institutions offer online degrees as well, online degrees are losing their stigma.

“Hiring managers should hire candidates with verifiable degrees from colleges and universities that are in good accreditation standing, whether online or on-campus degrees,” says Dawn Spaar, director of adult and professional studies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

Accreditation means the institution has achieved standards set by a peer review board. An institution will often display its accreditation status on its website, or you can check with the U.S. Department of Education.

Understand the Degree Program
Once you’ve determined the status of the institution, you’ll need to dig into what the applicant went through to get the degree. Some reputable institutions offer online degrees that are just as rigorous as real-life ones, experts say.

To determine the rigor of the program, look at the courses and curriculum that went into online and on-campus degrees to see if they’re of similar quality, says Beverly Magda, associate provost of strategic partnerships at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. 

Take the time to research the faculty and their credentials in various programs as well. “If the educational institutions hire faculty to solely teach online, confirm that they have similar credentials to the faculty that teach on-campus,” she says.

Then, review the learning outcomes that the degree programs have, says Sy Islam, an assistant professor at Farmingdale State College in Farmingdale, New York. If a student has graduated from a social work program at a particular college, for example, what should they have learned? 

Compare that with the job description you have, he says, to determine whether the candidate can be reasonably expected to have the knowledge and skills you need in the position.

Consider the Candidate’s Context
Finally, remember that a degree is one data point within someone’s resume. Their achievements, past jobs and career trajectory are just as important when it comes to indicating what an applicant got out of their educational experience. Assessing those can give you a clearer idea of whether the candidate can succeed at your organization.

“Review the resume for the applicant's core skills and identify what they can do based on the resume,” Islam says. “Do those qualifications match the position? If the answer is yes, then the applicant should stay in contention for the job. if the answer is no, it’s best not to interview them.”

During the interview, use behavioral interview questions to learn how the candidate approaches challenges and projects; also consider doing an assessment of some kind to determine their skill level. 

“While a candidate’s educational history is important, in some cases where they went to school -- or whether that education was online or brick-and-mortar -- may be less important than the skills the applicant gained in whichever school they went to,” says Islam.