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

Online education holds the promise to increase access and decrease cost of higher education. Yet many community college students and employers remain skeptical about the value of online learning, according to recent research in a report from Public Agenda (, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues and work together to find solutions. “Not Yet Sold” raises important questions for the future of online education, even as it quickly becomes part of the higher education mainstream.

While employers and students recognize a niche for online classes, degrees and certificates, for now at least, they do not trust it as much as they do traditional education. Findings from this research, which was supported by The Kresge Foundation, include:

  • The majority of employers (56 percent) prefer a job applicant with a traditional degree from an average school over an applicant with an online degree from a top university (just 17 percent say they’d prefer the latter).
  • At the same time, 80 percent of employers say that online-only degrees and certificates provide opportunities for older students to get valuable college credentials. Half say online degrees help younger, first-time college students get a high-quality education.
  • 61 percent of community college students say online classes require more discipline from students than traditional classes, yet four in ten (42 percent) believe students learn less online.
  • Many community college students currently taking online classes wish they took fewer of them.

Just as online education itself is rapidly changing, we expect student and employer attitudes to shift as well. Still, we need to consider the skepticism of those on the ground, especially if we hope to avoid any unintended consequences.

As key decision makers face this changing landscape, this research provides important insights from some of those on the ground, in order to ensure that online education can better meet the needs of students and society. This research brief is part of a larger project surveying the attitudes of various student and employer groups toward issues in higher education, including online education, for-profit colleges and the needs of nontraditional students.

Download a PDF of the report: