That Lingering Stigma Over Online Degrees

online education

In 1989, the University of Phoenix Online debuted its first degree program. By 2011, the world’s most popular for-profit school boasted 307,871 enrolled students, the most of any degree-granting college in the United States—and an MBA program. That wild growth and its for-profit status left the school with the dubious distinction of being little more than a diploma mill.

It’s a reputation that online degrees have been trying to shake off ever since. Despite the lingering stigma, several Top 20 business schools have joined the digital fray and are lending their legitimacy to online credentials. But can the online degree ever really shed its early Scarlet Letter?

As recently as 2009, the Graduate Management Admission Council reported that only 9% of surveyed companies actively recruited candidates from online MBA programs, whereas 77% recruited full-time MBA students. Seemingly bad news for online biz grads.


But five years later, some online education analysts claim the tide is changing. Vicky Phillips, founder of, has followed the online education space for more than 20 years. According to Philips, a school’s brand factors in far more heavily than the format. “As long as the MBA is offered by a bricks-and-mortar school, that MBA program’s reputation follows it online,” she believes. “If you ask an employer the difference between a University of North Carolina MBA earned online or on campus, they’re going to rate those approximately the same. They don’t care.”


What employers do care about, however, is whether the institution is non-profit or for-profit. “The stigma has declined progressively against online education in general, particularly  in the last three years,” Phillips points out. “However, the stigma has stayed high against for-profit universities.” In other words, recruiters from Goldman Sachs or McKinsey aren’t going to be wowed by an MBA from Rochville or even bigger brands like Strayer.

Darden Dean Robert Bruner says internships have become the pathway to full-time MBA jobs

Darden Dean Robert Bruner

Still, employers are more open to online education from established non-profit players like the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which offers MBA@UNC, and Indiana University’s Kelley Direct online MBA. These schools typically use the same faculty and follow the same curriculum across their full-time and online programs.


Plus, technology has improved drastically since the days of projector screens and dial-up modems. “I’d say that the comparison of online education today to the old distance-learning, closed-circuit TV systems is not just a comparison of apples to oranges,  it’s almost a comparison of rocks versus diamonds,” says Robert Bruner, dean of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “And I think it’s going to get better and better,”

While Darden doesn’t offer an online MBA, the school does run an Executive MBA program, which blends online coursework with in-person residencies. Bruner maintains that the hybrid format is key. Personal relationships established during the on-campus sessions make for more meaningful interactions when students are sitting behind their computer screens. “Online is a promising complement, but I don’t think it’s a substitute,” Bruner maintains.

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