Stigma over online courses has gone away

Employers, busy people finding classes on Web great alternative 

Patrick Murphy For The Journal Gazette

On a typical day, Megan Lichlyter comes home from her medical technologist job at St. Joseph Hospital, has dinner and spends time with husband Brian and daughter Mackenzie. It’s also common for her to begin working on her online master’s degree from Texas Tech University. 

“I can log on while I’m preparing supper,” she said, “or while the baby’s napping.”

On his typical day, Steven Michael Offerle, a computer programmer with Trelleborg Sealing Solutions in Fort Wayne, might well do the same. The divorced father of two teenagers said he usually has dinner, spends time with his kids at a ballgame or a school function, and resumes work on his online associate degree from Indiana Institute of Technology.

“It’s really just so convenient,” said Offerle, who expects to graduate this month with a degree in business administration with a management concentration.

Lichlyter and Offerle are among a growing part of the workforce continuing their education by taking classes online, often from the comfort of their home. Traditional colleges require students to attend classes on campus and interact with professors in person. Not so with online or distance learning courses.

Requirements vary from institution to institution, but students taking online courses do a large part of course work – as much as 80 percent – in their homes or another off-campus location. Students watch lectures, do coursework and interact with faculty mainly via computer.

IPFW is typical of the colleges and universities that have expanded online and distance learning programs to better meet the needs of students, said Angela Williams, director of online and credit programs. Over the last decade the school has increased its offerings and currently has 200 courses as part of undergraduate and graduate programs, she said.

“Some students blend their course work,” she said, taking online and on-campus classes.

A diverse mix of employers is seeing the value and the convenience for workers, regardless of their job or career path. Starbucks in April said it will now cover four years of tuition reimbursement for workers to earn an online undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, instead of just two years.

And McDonald’s Corp. in April also announced it was expanding a college tuition assistance program to eligible workers at all its U.S. stores, including franchises.

The moves mark the latest sign that companies are rethinking pay and benefits as they seek to attract the best workers and improve their corporate images.

Online degrees are more common and accepted part of the educational landscape, according to career counselors and people like Jennifer Schramm, manager for workforce trends and forecasting with the Society for Human Resource Management.

“More and more employers and job applicants are realizing the opportunities available online,” Schramm said. “And company executives and human resource professionals feel more comfortable considering and hiring individuals who obtained these types of degrees later in life.”

That has not always been the case. As recently as five years ago, according to a SHRM survey, companies and job applicants seemed less inclined to view online educations as favorably as those from traditional, bricks-and-mortar institutions. The 2010 survey also found:

• Only 15 percent of employers said they would consider online degrees as acceptable for job applicants seeking executive-level positions.

• Only 11 percent of job applicants identified on their résumés whether their degrees were obtained through an online program.

• None of the companies or human resources professionals responding said they viewed applicants with online degrees students “more favorably” than those with degrees from traditional institutions.

More than 8.1 million students took one or more online courses in 2015, according to the Online Learning Consortium, the country’s most prominent organization devoted to improving online education. The percentage of academic leaders rating online programs as “the same or superior” to those in traditional classrooms is a steady 74 percent.

Corporate America is also changing the way it looks at online college credits, according to a spokesperson for Trelleborg Sealing Solutions, a Swedish company that employs approximately 5,400 people worldwide, including about 400 in Fort Wayne, the company’s U.S. headquarters.

“Since the 2009 downturn in the economy,” said Lori L. Locke, Trelleborg human resources generalist, “more people are going back to school. And online degrees are a good way of balancing work and home life.”

For more than a decade, Trelleborg has offered up to $5,200 per calendar year to full-time employees working on degrees.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s an online institution or a traditional college,” Locke said, as long as the courses are job or career-related and come from an accredited institution.

Stephen Heggen is administrative director of Human Resources and Community Outreach for Lutheran Health Network, which includes St. Joseph Hospital, says it’s the skills of applicants and employees that matter.

“I’m not aware of us ever treating online differently than bricks-and-mortar,” he said. “Regardless of the delivery method, our priority would be graduation from an accredited school and, if applicable, the appropriate licensure required to practice in their field.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.