Not Yet Sold: What Employers and Community College Students Think About Online Education

September 13, 2013

Online education provides the flexibility some students need to combine school with work and family responsibilities. For others, it is the only way to stay on track and complete requirements for often oversubscribed or problematically scheduled courses. At the same time, many community college students are underprepared for college and may be better served by in-person instruction or hybrid approaches than by online-only instruction.

This research, supported by The Kresge Foundation, takes stock of the experiences and views of people directly affected by online learning in higher education: employers and community college students.

Main findings include:

  1. Although employers see a positive side to online learning, most prefer applicants who earn their degrees in the classroom.
  2. Community college students are split on whether the quality of online education is comparable to classroom instruction.  
  3. Many community college students wish they took fewer classes online.
  1. Although employers see a positive side to online learning, most prefer applicants who earn their degrees in the classroom. Most employers believe there is a niche for online education, especially for older students. At the same time, many employers remain skeptical of the quality of online programs compared to traditional programs and feel online programs require extra discipline from students. They say that they would prefer a job applicant with a traditional degree from an average school over an applicant with an online degree from a top university.
  2. Community college students are split on whether the quality of online education is comparable to classroom instruction. Most community college students think online classes are harder and require more discipline from students. But they are split on whether online classes teach students the same or less than in-person classes.
  3. Many community college students wish they took fewer classes online. Many community college students who take classes online say they would prefer to take fewer rather than more classes online than they currently do, perhaps because they feel online classes require more discipline and are harder to pass, and because they think students learn less than they do in in-person classes.

The findings summarized in this report are based on a survey of human resource professionals and a survey of community college students.  

The survey of human resources professionals was fielded via telephone in April and May 2013.  The sample included 656 human resources professionals from the Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit and El Paso-Las Cruces metropolitan areas. Interviewees were randomly selected from organizations listed in the Dun & Bradstreet database. In the Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Detroit areas, organizations with 50 or more employees were included; the El-Paso-Las Cruces sample included organizations with 10 or more employees. All respondents said that positions in their organizations “sometimes,” “often” or “always” demanded a postsecondary credential.

The nationally representative survey of current community college students was fielded February and June 2013 via telephone and online interviews. The sample included 215 current community college students. All interviewees were enrolled at a community college. The majority (94 percent) were completing classes toward a certificate or degree at this school; 6 percent said they were taking classes but not looking to graduate with a certificate or degree.

Public Agenda designed the survey instruments and analyzed the data.

Download this report for details on the methodology and sample characteristics.  For more information, email research@publicagenda.org.