Is an online degree worth less?

by Erika Torres
34 comments

I need your advice.

I have decided to return to grad school to get my Masters in Public Administration. My bachelor’s is in English and Italian Studies. When I graduated college, I worked as a journalist but eventually switched to public relations.

The reason I am pursuing this degree is so that I can be considered for management positions in the future. Out of seven people in my department, three will be retiring within the next three to seven years. There will be a lot of job titles shifting and I want to be qualified.

My company is one of those that really value education. While I have about 5 years in PR experience, I have only worked in this particular field for about a year and a half (when I started this job). I think a master’s will give me that edge to stay competitive when compared to other qualified outside candidates.

The cost of a higher education

I still have about $21,000 in student loans left from my bachelor’s–what the hell am I doing considering taking on more debt for higher education?

Well, I’m lucky in that my company will pay up to 75% for my degree, in addition to a stipend for books. If I play my cards right, I can actually pay for my degree as I go, since my company reimburses after each semester. Of course, this will cause sacrifices in other areas, such as saving and paying off debt, but I truly believe this will be an investment in my future.I could essentially get my master’s degree for as little as $5,000-10,000. With $10,000 being on the high side.

Managers in my department can easily make six figures. And I know that as soon as I get my master’s, I will get a bump in pay no matter what.

Options, options, options

So with the whole “Is it worth it to go back to school?” question out of the way, here is where my real dilemma stands. As of right now, I am narrowing it down to TWO options.

Option 1

Option 1 would have me waiting until March 2013 to start school. I would be attending a “distance learner” program at a CalState University. I would only have to go to campus (a 30 minute drive) on the first and last Saturday of each six-week class session. Online classes are held every Monday and Wednesday for three hours, and assignments are turned in each week.

Option 2

I would attend an adult learner program beginning in late August from a pretty new university, that is affiliated with a well-respected local university. However, the diploma would have the name of the new university, which is not very well-known. Essentially, this school is known as an online program, but you do attend classes once a week with assignments online.

Pros and Cons

Age

Everything in me wants to do Option 2. I want to start school as soon as possible before I lose motivation. And if I’m really being truthful, if I do Option 1, I will be almost 31 by the time I graduate, as opposed to 29/30 with Option 2. I don’t want my master’s degree to be a reason we delay starting a family.

WINNER: Option 2

Cost-wise

Both programs would be about the same amount of money, with Option 2 costing $70 more per unit, or about $2500 more over the course of the program. I don’t think that’s enough of a difference to choose one school over the other.

WINNER: Tie

Distance

Option 2 would require driving two minutes from where I currently work. It is literally right down the street. So I would get the class experience as well as the online component. Option 1, I would have to drive 30 minutes and pay for parking but I would only do this 4 times over 12 weeks–albeit on Saturday mornings!

WINNER: Option 2

Prestige

While neither school will have the prestige of my bachelor’s degree, I am not dumb to the fact that some employers regard some degrees better than others. However, since I don’t plan on leaving my job and want to continue growing in my company, I feel like it wouldn’t or shouldn’t matter as much where I get my degree, as long as I have it.

Option 1 is definitely more well-known in our area than Option 2.

WINNER: Option 1

Which should I choose?

And this is where I ask your advice. Which one should I choose? Should I wait it out and go for the degree at the well known school even though I don’t like anything else about it? Or should I follow what I want and settle for the “online program” which is super close and I can get my degree done faster?

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34 comments

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Jenny July 1, 2012 - 9:21 am

I just finished my master’s degree. Some of my classes included online components. What I realized was that I learned so much from going to class and talking things over with my classmates. I did not feel like I learned anything from posting stuff online to complete the online components. Even if it was posting questions and commenting on a message board- the conversation was not nearly as in depth or meaningful as the conversation that took place in person. If you want to learn and get a “good” education I would do the in class school. I realize you are planning to stay at your job, but nothing is certain. If you are going to put in the time I think you should go all out and get the best education possible.

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Sophie July 1, 2012 - 2:40 am

Hi Erika!

I’m studying for my masters part time while working full time – so my first note is that you’re in for a rough ride. You can also expect an increase in your cost of living because you’ll be busier and tired, and we all know what that means: more takeaway.

My masters is only available face-to-face (no online components) because my work is paying for it, and I’ve found that I”m actually grateful for that. You can learn a certain amount just by showing up to lectures, which is more or less mandatory. My point? It’s easier to go to a lecture at night after working all day than to force yourself to complete coursework online. With online coursework you have to find internal motivation, instead of the external motivation of knowing you’ll be behind everyone else if you don’t go to a lecture. Plus, part of the point of completing a professional qualification is to strengthen your professional network. Your next boss, colleague or best friend could be sitting in that lecture getting to know everyone, while you’re at home alone completing the degree online.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve found out while studying for my masters 🙂 there are students completing my course partly or wholly online who get through the whole degree without making any friends or learning anything… which would make my really regret the choice to do it online!

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Nutmeg June 30, 2012 - 8:58 pm

I work for a completely accredited online community college, it is in no way a scam nor a joke degree. It is in a network of 10+ other community colleges that are brick and mortar and it is just as accredited (actually, we did better on out Higher Learning Commission evaluation than a few of the in person colleges) as the other schools in the network. We have around 50,000 students from all over the United States and offer tons of outreach programs to GED earners, overseas military, incarcerated students and dual enrollment high school students. It’s a pretty impressive little empire.

However, if I ever worked anywhere and was faced with hiring a candidate that received a degree from this college, I’d probably pass them over. This is because I know what the quality of the coursework is like, how the courses are created, what the teachers are like and how easy it is to earn a degree from this institution. If I had no idea from an insider’s perspective, I’d probably assume it was the same community college degree anyone can get.

That being said, plenty of amazing universities are offering online masters degrees that are in no way different from their in person material (except for less in person presentations). In fact, I doubt you’d even have to let them know it was an online degree unless they asked. And even if they do ask, an accredited online master’s degree through a well known university is still a great accomplishment. In all honesty, as someone who works in the online education environment, I strongly advise option 1. Keep in mind that March of 2013 will be here sooner than you think it will.

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SavvyFinancialLatina June 30, 2012 - 1:35 pm

I think you should go with what you think is best. But I do think you should go to the option with the best reputation. Your company is paying for 75% of it.

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Meghan June 28, 2012 - 6:55 am

I have a similar situation! When I’m done with my current program I need to get my Bachelor’s in commerce before I can start my CGA designation. There’s a university with a good reputation affiliated with my college I could take it through, but I can’t take my CGA concurrently and there’s no night school or online option- it would take me so long to complete. There’s another program at a different school that allows me to get my Bachelor’s and CGA concurrently, and do it all online a lot faster. However, that one is really expensive ($1600 a course before books) and has less of a reputation than the other school, though it is accredited and a fairly good school. Such a dilemma!

For your situation, if you plan to stay at your workplace, I’d go with option 2, as long as the degree is accredited from that particular school; if you ever end up being laid off or leaving voluntarily, your experience should speak for itself, regardless of where your Master’s came from.

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Alex June 27, 2012 - 11:13 am

Very interested to hear the comments. Thank you for the post!

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Stacy June 27, 2012 - 11:10 am

As a college academic advisor for a MPA program, I have to say one of the most important things to look for in a program is a strong accreditation. For an MPA program you should make sure the school has NASPAA accreditation or it’s not really worth your money.

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Cat@BudgeBlonde.com June 27, 2012 - 10:59 am

Would it be okay to ask the advice of the people where you work, i.e. the people who could be giving you the promotion?

Here is my experience which is in a different field. On my end, I went for the slightly less prestigious masters program coming from a top 30 undergraduate school because the “lesser” school paid for it. Yet, that has not affected me in job searches. The names of your two schools will be together on your resume. Future employers will know that you A. Went to a high ranking undergraduate institution and B. Went on because you wanted to better your education. Also if you decide to have kids sooner, it might be nice to be closer to home.

I don’t regret going to my program. It was rigorous – just as rigorous as any other M.A. would be. It just didn’t have a “name” like my undergraduate institution.

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Felicity @ Waist & Wallet July 6, 2012 - 10:38 am

I agree. If you have anyone in your company that you think of as a mentor, then you should ask their advice.

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Vanessa June 27, 2012 - 9:57 am

I completed half an MFA via an online program at an expensive private school before transferring to get my MA from a traditional program at the University of Central Florida. The difference between the two programs (aside from what aspect of English I was studying) was night and day. In my experience programmatic differences are what really matter when you’re in the thick of turning in assignments and learning so I would think about what you want from your teachers and classes first and foremost.

At the time I started, the program at UCF was brand new and I was worried that my degree wouldn’t be as prestigious, but a good friend said “you can get a great education anywhere because it’s about what you put into it.” He was so right, and looking back I am amazed at how much I grew at UCF, and how much our program grew every year! I am so proud to say that I am now a teacher there full-time in part because of how great my program was…I would have NEVER had that opportunity at the other school.

Going to UCF vs. doing the online program meant driving 1-hour each way to attend classes and teach at least three days a week, which meant making diddly-squat for longer than I care to think about. You’re lucky neither of your options will cost you that kind of sacrifice, but in the end, no matter what YOU have to sacrifice, the best thing you can do for yourself is to make choices now that will leave you feeling like you got what you wanted (and hopefully, more)!

P.S. My husband is in his second (and last) year of his MBA from a 100% online program from a brick and motar school in Kansas and loves it. The program he’s in is newish for that school but was one of the only advertising-specific MBA programs that he could find anywhere. He could have gotten a much more prestigious MBA from somewhere else, but the speciality this program offered was what he wanted; after years in PR he landed his first advertising career-job a few months ago with a great company that he probably wouldn’t have gotten without being in his MBA program. We’ve both learned that prestige regarding degrees is totally relative.

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Teacher Girl June 27, 2012 - 9:52 am

A lot of discussion on this one! Go with your heart, and just make sure that you are positive that this new school is all it is cracked up to be.

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kim June 27, 2012 - 9:43 am

Go with the known school because you don’t know that you’re going to stay at your job forever – that’s the spice of life. Your company may implode (remember most Enron folks never saw it coming), you might get a crazypants boss and have to leave, you may need to move for a relative – you never know. A traditionalist may not like an online degree, but their fears will be reduced if the degree is from a known brick-and-mortar school. There are too many traditionalists out there to go with the new school, and there won’t be an alumni network to tap. When there are two equal people with only the school name difference, the brick-and-mortar school will always win.

So excited that your job will pay 75% and you’ll get a bump in pay when finishing! I’d hop on that in a second!

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Amandalynn K. Sawyer June 27, 2012 - 7:12 am

Ok girl – I KNOW that Option 2 fits more of your style – BUT I have to say before you got into your pros and cons – I chose Option 1. My reasoning here is that I went to a new school, that was parented by a world renowned school, and there were SO MANY PROBLEMS. Administration was horrible, school management was atrocious, there are way too many errors while they are in the learning stages PLUS they even filed their certifications wrong in the beginning and it wasn’t until the first batch of graduates got out that we realized our degrees werent valid in THE STATE WE LIVE IN – just in the North East (New York) Region!

I would seriously look into it further and see if you can get some guarantees – maybe talk to some existing students to see how they think it rates or if they wish they had chosen the other option. See how they have managed with the Financial Aid Office, Attendance, Administration, Teachers, etc. This is your education, you don’t want their fresh start to hold you back. My school was in business 2 years when I started, It wasnt until 3 months later when the first group actually graduated. I know that I cannot get into most Master’s Programs with my degree – I have been told by several schools that I have to go back for a ‘double bachelors’ at an accredited school before I can obtain one. I started with 100k in loans, thankfully I am down to about 60 or so now… but to have a worthless degree to show for it, I am less than excited.

I have a friend who lives abroad right now, who has taken on the CSU Masters program that you speak of. (Perhaps its for a different major) but it truly FLIES BY and she said that its more of an experience and less of a interference because you only have to go in 2x a month. You still get OTHER Saturdays that you can plan fun things on – and this doesn’t take up your weeknights or overwhelm you. You are responsible for doing your online work when you get home – that’s it! And I know just by seeing your blog posts that you are self motivated and a motivated, hard worker. You can do the second option – and do it better than most!

I know for a fact I would have chosen the CSU option 😉 ESPECIALLY because work is paying 75%! I would hop on that band wagon in a second! LOL.

I am proud of you for taking the leap, whichever you decide! Be sure to post a photo of you in your robes! Oh how I want one of those! ♥

XOXO

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Micah June 27, 2012 - 7:06 am

Tough decision. I work in marketing for a university and those strictly online universities are our biggest competitor right now. Because they’re convenient for people and perceived as more affordable, but we’ve found they actually cost more than our online program. Weird, right?

Anyhow.

I think you have to make the decision that works best for you — financially and logistically. You said option 1 would take you one to two more years to complete. Is that one to two years going to be a dealbreaker? And it would be about $2,500 cheaper. That’s significant savings to me. But … again, I think it’s up to you and what will work with your plans.

Good luck. And good for you for wanting to advance your education.

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Melissa June 27, 2012 - 6:43 am

I think I’d say it depends on the nature of the program itself, and I don’t know enough about MPAs to comment, though I feel like I’d be more likely to go to the recognizable school, if the cost was the same.

Example: I’m starting teacher’s college in the fall, and I’m going to a lesser-know private university (it’s an American school that teaches the Ontario curriculum; there aren’t actually private universities in Ontario) because I was impatient and didn’t want to wait to start, and some other reasons. No one’s heard of it. That said, everything I’ve heard about teacher’s college is that it’s your placements and networks that really seal the deal re: jobs, not your coursework, so I felt comfortable with it. If I was getting a Master’s in English or Information (two other paths I considered), I would absolutely, no question, go to a name-brand school if I could, because when it comes to higher-level academia, those things do matter. They’re not make or break, but they do matter. (Plus, online-only and private schools tend to be easier to get into, so I’d worry employers would think I wasn’t smart enough to get into a better school.)

Either way, CONGRATS on your decision to go back to school! Best of luck!

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One Frugal Girl June 27, 2012 - 5:32 am

I would definitely choose the brick and mortar school. I know a lot of people who have received online degrees and they just aren’t highly regarded in most industries. Those same people often say the classes and coursework are much easier than traditional schools and maybe that’s why those in the industry look down upon them. I received my master’s from George Washington University in DC. In my case a few hiring managers and employers also went to school there and they seemed to like the idea of hiring an alumni from the same university. A number of them started the interview by telling me about their experiences and asking about mine there. If you’re going to go through the trouble of classes and school work you might as well get the most bang for your buck. Plus even though your current employer may accept the degree other employers may not give it as much weight. At your age you probably won’t stay at the same company for the rest of your career, so you might want to take that into consideration as well.

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KendraD June 27, 2012 - 5:18 am

I got my master’s through a traditional brick and mortar school. It took 2 years, full-time. While I was lucky enough to be on full scholarship for it, the cost would have been over 100k if I’d had to pay for it. As it was, I ended up with around 20k in student loans for those 2 years – mostly to cover living expenses due to a contractual agreement to not work while I was in school.

My husband is currently working on his MBA and he’s getting it on-line. What we learned while researching for his program, is that it really all comes down to accreditation. For him, it was essential to find a program that was AACSB accredited. His program will end up taking about 3 years, including summers; but will cost less than a fraction of what mine did.

I don’t know if there are any overall accrediting bodies for a MPA, but if there are, I’d check to make sure your program meets those standards. Do you have a mentor at work who you can talk to about this? Someone who can let you know if there’s a difference to the company between to the two programs?

I’d be inclined to go with the 2nd option myself, because I’m impatient and would rather start sooner too. Also, even if you do leave the company, you’ll have the MPA on top of a Bachelor’s and hefty work experience. So, a newer university shouldn’t cause a problem.

Best of luck!

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Jessica @ Budget For Health June 27, 2012 - 4:36 am

I like option 2 also. It’s becoming very common for people to get a masters through an online program and I see advertising everywhere. I have quite a few dietitian friends who got their bachelors from a well-respected school then pursued an online masters once they got a job that offered tuition reimbursement. I agree with kate- as long as there aren’t any negative connotations for the program, go for it!

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JenniS June 26, 2012 - 8:05 pm

I would be torn as well, it’s definitely a difficult decision.

I realize grad school is important, and your future success *could* depend on your Master’s degree.

But, it won’t necessarily. If you are staying at your job (like you’ve mentioned you want to) your Master’s degree will just be a check in the box. If you’re being considered for a management job it’s because they already know you and like you and think you’d be good at the job. It’s not like you’d be applying and the name of your grad school would make you stand out from a crowd at a work place where everyone already knows you.

I think if you were studying something that required studying “under” a big name to launch your career, then yes, take the well known school. From the sound of it (which I get just from this post, none of my own research in MPAs) it’s not one of those cases. Maybe I’m wrong here though.

Also, school is not life. Your desire to not push off having a family makes sense.

I guess my advice is to go with your gut for Option 2.

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Kathleen @ Frugal Portland June 26, 2012 - 8:02 pm

Do Option 2. No downside, in my opinion, especially if you want to stay where you are!

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Michelle June 26, 2012 - 7:25 pm

I think if you plan on staying at your same job, then whether the school is online or not probably will not matter. I think either way you will be making a good decision.

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jobo June 26, 2012 - 5:41 pm

Honestly, I don’t think it matters if the school is primarily online. you are DOING the work, you are GETTING the degree, done and done. And since most schools now offer so much of their programs online, I don’t think it will even matter as time goes on. More and more schools are going this route. So I say go with the one that makes the most sense for you, and I think that sounds like option 2! I think this is a smart decision to pursue, since it’ll break you into an area further that you want to work in and manage in. Proud of you! 🙂

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Well Heeled Blog June 26, 2012 - 5:10 pm

I don’t think you can make a *wrong* choice here – and it’s great that your company both supports and rewards a graduate degree. I was facing a similar choice between a school that is good and a school that has a bigger national reputation. I decided to go with the bigger name, because I figured that’s something that will go with me for the rest of my life. The costs are the same, so I’d go with Option 1. Cal States are a known quantity in California, whereas Option 2 is, like you said, much more unknown.

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Hannah June 26, 2012 - 4:50 pm

I’m a graduate student advisor so I’m happy to talk to you about any of your questions and options! I don’t work for a MPA program so no conflict of interest I just have a ton to say on the topic and I don’t think you want an essay here 🙂

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kate June 26, 2012 - 4:38 pm

I have a Master’s degree from a 100% online program through the University of Wisconsin. I suppose if one wasn’t paying too much attention it wouldn’t register that it was a distance program. However, in paying attention to my resume the fact that I worked in CA for the 5 years leading up to my degree it’s fairly obvious that I wasn’t in Wisconsin. The online program hasn’t hurt my position at all.

There are two factors to consider. I feel like there are some programs that are widely advertised and known as online programs and I didn’t consider them when I chose my program. I did have the fear that my degree would be dismissed on face value.

That being said, I also feel like doing a distance learner program is less of a stigma for a Master’s degree than for undergrad, especially if you have an undergrad degree from an established and respected University, and especially for business related degrees. Executive and fully employed programs are fairly common for MBAs and other business degrees because it’s assumed that you’re not putting your career on hold to go to school but working full time and going to school.

I say consider the reputation of the school/program only if it may have negative connotations. Otherwise, choose based on the quality of the program and what you’ll take from it. I tried an MBA program at a local university and hated it because I wasn’t challenged by the program or my classmates. When I took the online program I encountered other students who were dedicated to the program and furthering their careers, going above and beyond and fantastic professors.

Good luck!

PS, can you start at option 2 just to get going and transfer credits later? Then you don’t have to wait but still get the CalState degree.

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Newlyweds on a Budget June 26, 2012 - 5:03 pm

I could do as you suggest and transfer to Option 1, but I am only allowed to transfer two classes, and my graduate date would pretty much be the same (aka I’d be one month shy of 31 by the time I finish)

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Caitlin June 26, 2012 - 4:28 pm

The only caveat with your first option is you need to research the accreditation of the online school. I assumed all colleges that give out degrees are accredited at the same level, but that is not the case. My husband did an online program for his BA and, while we were researching MBA options, we learned that many schools will NOT acknowledge degrees from national accredited (sounds backwards but regional is tougher to get) schools.

Public administration is a fairly competitive field post-graduation with a lot of graduates fighting for limited number of jobs. Unless you see yourself at your company forever, I think you will do better going to a more recognized program (yes, that’s my way of saying I vote for Option #2).

Good luck!

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newlywedsonabudget June 26, 2012 - 4:33 pm

The school is actually regionally accredited, and I actually had no idea that regionally was better than nationally! SO thanks for the info.

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Andrea @SoOverDebt June 26, 2012 - 4:13 pm

I’ll just leave this here…

When I was a supervisor, I had a wonderful employee who had a degree from an online school (Phoenix). She was working in a position that paid $8 an hour because she couldn’t get anyone – not even our company – to hire her for a bachelor-level position despite great work history and references.

Is CalState an actual brick and mortar university that happens to offer an online program? If so, I wouldn’t worry about it. But if it’s a strictly online school, you could have a very hard time getting a job.

Most of my master’s degree program was online, but it was through a well-known state university. My diploma doesn’t look any different from the ones from people who attended all their classes in person. But if it had been from a school like Phoenix or Capella, I doubt I would have ever gotten a job in my field.

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newlywedsonabudget June 26, 2012 - 4:48 pm

Well I already have my bachelor’s. And I actually know someone from my company who just completed their MPA from Option 2. And he’s doing it for the same reason I am: to be considered for management positions. I actually DO plan on staying at my job until I retire, although I know that you can never be 100% sure…

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