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Online Degrees: Prestige, Acceptance, and the Big Picture

Pondering the past, present, and future of digital learning

January 24, 2019
 
 

“15-20 years from now, do you think online degrees will be more/less/same as today in terms of prestige and acceptance?” – Joe Sabado*.

It's a great question. (Thanks, Joe!)

In 2019, online degrees (courses in the UK) are all over the educational sphere. It's become commonplace for universities (either non-profit and for-profit) to offer online degree programs in a variety of disciplines.

I remember when universities first started to offer single classes (modules in the UK). These were add-ons to the full university experience. Learning was still mostly constrained to the campus environment. If you wanted to study at XYZ University then you were geographically locked in to a physical place.

Eventually, universities realized that online degrees could represent significant revenue streams. Online-only degree programs seemingly sprung up overnight and a virtual gold rush began. Fairly soon after the initial online degree frenzy, institutions took a step back and there was a transition from "we can make a lot of money" to "we can make a lot of money, but we need to provide a quality educational experience."

Historically, some of the most prestigious institutions in higher education were the slowest to adopt/implement online degrees. For-profit providers definitely made a lot of people mistrust online education. And, non-profits didn't exactly help matters (at least early on) either as they focused on revenue rather than experience/quality.

So what does this have to do with Joe's question? Well, it's partly for context-setting and partly an acknowledgement that the past and present will definitely impact the prestige/acceptance of online degrees as we head into the future.

Prestige and acceptance are two different things. Prestige is all about whether or not someone (usually interested in hiring you for a job or deciding on admission to a graduate-level program or something similar) will be biased positively or negatively towards where your degree comes from. If you earn a degree from an online program from a well known university 'brand' that obviously can be helpful (I'm not saying that this is a good thing, just a reflection of the current reality). For-profit institutions (for a lot of reasons) do not have the same level of prestige as non-profits. Online degree prestige at present is directly connected to the perceived prestige of the brick-and-mortar institution that's offering the program.

Acceptance is all about whether or not your degree meets the criteria required for either a job application or for admission into a graduate degree program or something similar. Sometimes accreditation is part of the acceptance mix. If your institution has a somewhat shady accrediting body and the gatekeeper for acceptance recognizes this, then you might not achieve the same level of entry. Again, this the current picture of higher education.

Fifteen to twenty years from now, assuming that capitalism is still the driving force behind higher education in the majority of countries, online degree program acceptance/prestige will likely remain about the same as it is today.

The online only degree will definitely become more of a regular experience as universities get better at delivering a learning experience that doesn't have to take place within an on-campus environment.

Now there are caveats to some of this. Take the Open University here in the UK. They are an online degree granting institution and they offer up a high quality experience for learners. They definitely bring an acceptance (as defined early) of an online degree to the table without any issue. However, they severely lack the prestige factor that other institutions have based on history, a lot of snobbery, and beautiful buildings. If you have a degree from Oxford University it will always have more prestige than a degree from almost anywhere else in the world. Perception is everything when it comes to prestige and certain institutions have an almost insurmountable amount of prestige.

Personally, I have a lot of issues with universities and prestige. It's a loaded term that brings all sorts of privilege, imperialism, and hierarchy to bear. Sometimes it can be difficult to parse where quality begins and prestige ends.

Higher education has increasingly become tied into a system that is far too focused on becoming employed in a 'better job.' However, at present, that is the world in which we live. Get a university degree, use it as a key to employment, and have the means to feed, house, and cloth yourself....that's the current system. I'm not saying that employability by way of higher education is a bad thing...knowledge, skills, experience all matter when it comes to a career. However, there's a difference between being a cog in a system that needs you to create endless widgets versus being part of something bigger that helps create a better world.

If you get an online-based degree twenty years from now, I would hope that as long as it comes from a reputable institution (regardless of its perceived prestige) that's been accredited by a legitimate accreditor that your credential allows you to do whatever you hope to do with it regardless of the crest atop the gate at XYZ university...if there even is an actual physical space.

*Make sure you follow Joe on Twitter. He's currently an associate CIO for a student affairs division at a university in California. If he is ever on the hunt for a CTO/CIO job for an entire university and your university has an opening, you need to contact him immediately. He's one of the best in the field.

 

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