Do online colleges make the grade?

But for the working adults who make up the majority of the online student body, Gansler says it's not an issue. "They're getting a degree to advance their career, not to be a professional student. So the notion of transferring credits would only occur if they went on for an M.A. or a Ph.D."

There's a similar dynamic at work in getting credibility in the job market, Dr. Breneman says. He finds that for most online graduates, their degree "helps them in their jobs internally, but they don't use them to launch a new career. That is true of most adult programs. In many cases, their employers pay the tuition, and they're not expecting they will go work for somebody else. It's almost like a fringe benefit of employment."

The challenge of using an online degree in the job market is greater for entry-level positions, says EduVentures' Gallagher. They are more commonly accepted for continuing education credits, though it varies by industry, he adds.

But beyond entry level, says Gansler, "Life experience is what counts, not the school you went to, which is a very rough proxy for whether you will be able to perform in a work environment."

Online education doesn't suit everyone, Gallagher says. "It's widely accepted among educators that online courses are more difficult in most cases because you need to be a self-directed student. We estimate that it's a good fit for between 33 percent and 50 percent of students."

"This is a niche market that largely focuses on adults," says Breneman. "They don't kid anybody that they are doing general education or liberal arts studies. What they offer is closer to training than education. So they're not going to take over from traditional universities, but they are substantial players. They're here to stay."


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