Reflections on an Online Education

By Aaron White, Guest Writer (OMGM ’18)

A few of weeks ago a member of my online cohort posted an article on our WhatsApp group, What Employers Think of Online Business Master’s Degrees. A conversation ensued that kick-started my brain to think about the history of online education, the preconceived notions we have about online education, and the intrinsic value of an online degree.

The story of online education in the U.S. starts out in 1892 at the University of Chicago, with the advent of the ‘correspondence degree.’ As time progressed so did technology, and universities benefited from it. Around 1915 correspondence courses began utilizing the radio, and by the 1950s they took advantage of the television. In the mid 90s the computer – coupled with the internet – made its way into the American home. Up to that point, universities did not see correspondence education as a way to generate profit; they simply operated on a cost-recovery basis.

Courtesy of Money Under 30

That shifted by the late 90s into the early 2000s, as institutions like University of Phoenix and Kaplan University saw an opportunity to use the internet to gain popularity and profit. The rise of these for-profit institutions created a negative stigma around online education, and in some ways devalued an online degree’s worth through seemingly predatory and dubious practices. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 15.6 percent of the total student population in 2003 were taking at least some form of ‘distance education’ class, and 4.9 percent were completing their programs exclusively through distance education.

Fast forward to 2015 and those numbers shoot up to 29.7 percent and 14.3 percent respectively, with all indications pointing towards continued growth. One key difference between then and now is that the private for-profit universities have actually seen a downturn in their enrollment numbers since 2012; the biggest loss to online enrollment at private for-profit universities – over 90k – occurred in 2015. Simultaneously, public institutions like Thunderbird/ASU saw their biggest gains to online enrollment – over 200k.

This begs the question: do these numbers demonstrate a shift away from from the previously held negative perception of online education toward more positive views? I asked my online cohort to tell me about their own preconceived notions about online education, and about how others react when they talk about being an online student.

One of the first responses I received was from Brian Holmes (OMGM ’18), who told me: “The biggest preconceived notion that I had prior to beginning the program was that online programs were “cheap” in nature.” Before my extensive history as an online student, this aligned with some of my own views about what online education was. As more responses rolled in, I started seeing a different pattern emerge.

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It started when Maria Rose (OMGM ’18) wrote, “when I tell people I am doing a Master’s online, most of them are interested and ask me how the program works.” As additional responses flooded my inbox, I saw that people were more inquisitive than judgmental and that any negative preconceived notions, whether personal or otherwise, were quickly dispelled either through conversation or personal experience. This hit home when Patrick McGregor (OMGM ’18) wrote that “the stigma that we’ve been accustomed to regarding online education has shifted and [online programs have] become largely accepted.” The ever-growing availability of and enrollment in online programs, especially at public universities and not at private for-profit universities, seems to validate the idea that the quality of these programs is more widely accepted.

With perceptions changing, I couldn’t help but wonder if this has an effect on the intrinsic value of an online degree, specifically an online Master’s degree. When figuring out the intrinsic value of a company you can calculate the value and depreciation of all the assets in combination with all the liabilities, you can use historical sale numbers and forecast according to trends, until you assign a final number as the intrinsic value; but at the end of the day this is still precision guesswork. When it comes to something that’s a bit less tangible, like a degree, finding the intrinsic value gets even fuzzier. Sure, we could come up with a similar concoction. First, we add a nice sized chunk of tuition. Then add a couple spoons of student loan interest. Let that simmer for a bit. Add a dash of the schools ranking (just for good measure).  Finally, briskly whisk in your projected earnings for the next 30 years. And BAM! You have your intrinsic value.

Yet if there is one thing that I have learned at my time at Thunderbird, it is to dig a little deeper and go beyond what we see on the surface. So what else can change the intrinsic value of an online Master’s degree and is there a difference between a online degree and a “regular” degree? Alexandra Rivera’s (OMGM ’18) comment hit home: “I may take classes towards a degree online, but my understanding definitely comes from the experiences and friends I make during my time at Thunderbird.” I think this is something on-campus students and online students share, and it has a tremendous impact. The friends that we make, the experiences we share, the understanding we gain, and the alumni network we are born into; these all make up the Thunderbird Mystique and that adds the greatest intrinsic value to our degree. This leads me to conclude that there is virtually no difference between a brick and mortar degree and an online degree, Master’s and Bachelor’s alike. If there is any perceived difference, it is only in the eyes of the beholder.

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