Career Advice Tuesday – “Know What Signal You’re Giving”

March 22, 2011

Dear Mike & Lee,

What are your thoughts regarding college degrees from online sources (ie: Phoenix Online) vs real colleges (ie: University of {Insert State Here})?

I have been in the IT field for close to 15 years and in the InfoSec field for the last three.  I have several certifications with the most recent being the CISSP certification.

While I have some college experience, I never actually completed my degree.  Recently I’ve been thinking about how to complete my degree.  The easiest way will probably be through an online school.  However, I know there used to be a stigma that online schools were not nearly as good as real world schools.  Has this changed?  What are your thoughts regarding online schools?

Potential Scholar


The usefulness of a degree is entirely in what you’re going to use it for.   Degrees are signals that should tell a potential employer something about you.  When it comes to degrees, there are a few common things that having a degree can signal:

  • Level of Competence: A degree can often signify that you have achieved a level of competence within a given region. For example, someone who has a degree in Computer Science is likely to have some amount of knowledge about algorithms, programming and computer architecture.
  • Ability to Persist / Complete: While not often the top of mind, one of the biggest signals that a degree signifies is that the holder actually accomplished what they set out to do.  This is the largest difference in signalling between one who went to school and got a degree and someone who went to all the classes but never received a degree.
  • Common Pedigree: Graduates from a given school often share similarities - Harvard graduates differ from Berkeley graduates in more ways than the coast they went to school on.
  • Competitiveness with one’s Peers: Those who have graduated from a “top school” are often perceived to have a higher ranking among their peers than those from lesser schools.

There are other common signals around degrees, but for the sake of the conversation, these are the ones we’ll throw out there today.  (Readers: feel free to leave other signals that come to mind in the comments.)

Our question to you is simple: what are you trying to accomplish by getting your degree?  Is it just to show that you have a certain level of knowledge and that you can complete it?   If so, the University of Online Diplomas is probably sufficient.  Is it to show a Fortune 100 that you’re a member of the “Old Boys Club”?  Then we’d suggest getting your applications to Yale and Harvard ready.   Or is it to show people where you’re from that you’re one of them?   For example, if you’re from Texas, a degree from one of the local schools (UT, Texas Tech, etc.) would be better at suggesting that you’ll fit in to a local company than being one of those “uppity Ivy Leaguers”.

Realize, we’re talking in stereotypes because signaling IS about stereotypes to some extent.  The investments you make in your career are going to label you in ways that people are going to perceive through their own filters – the filters of a Harvard graduate about the University of Phoenix will be very different than those of a fellow University of Phoenix graduate.

And, when choosing an investment, it’s those filters that you need to take in to consideration.  The question you’re asking isn’t precise enough: some people will have a stigma about online schools.  But we don’t know enough about who you’re planning on working for or where you’re hoping to go in your career to know whether you’re likely to encounter said stigma.

If you know, great.  If you don’t, then we’d encourage you to think about what you’re hoping to show potential employers through you having a degree and choose the path that gets you there most effectively.

Mike & Lee

Posted by mmurray | Filed Under Career Advice Tuesday 


3 Responses to “Career Advice Tuesday – “Know What Signal You’re Giving””

  1. Christian Ponce on March 23rd, 2011 9:32 am

    PS I totally agree with Mike and Lee on this. The best thing to do if you are looking at getting a degree in order to advance is to look at the positions that you would like to have. If the position mentions the degree (say BS in Comp Sci or MBA) and you have it then you are in the running, your experience is just going to add to it. If you see a position where it is strongly preferred, it basically means without it you are going to have a really hard time even being considered.

    All that being said, your concern is regarding the validity of online programs. I freely admit that I have a stigma about the ITTs, Phoenix, and Devry credentials as I have gone the traditional route. If it doesn’t required hard work to get it then what real value does it provide? Just my opinion. Having personal friends who are Ivy leaguers, getting into school is the hardest part, once your in its a cake walk.

  2. Mike on March 23rd, 2011 4:01 pm

    I am currently going to Kaplan University for a BS in computer science with a major in Info Security and computer forensics. There is always going to be people who prefer one type school over the other. just because the school isn’t a brick and mortar school doesn’t mean that the school is a cake a walk. My school is online and the demand for quality work is just as demanding as it is anywhere else.
    You need to find a school that works for you and is offering what you want. For me I want to enter the Info Sec field and Kaplan is offering me what I need.

  3. Billy Boatright on April 19th, 2011 6:18 pm

    I chose University of Phoenix to finish my degrees (BSB/IS & MIS) only after I realized that the State of California recognizes my mom’s degree from there (5 years ago). I have been to both “brick and mortar” schools and online, I feel the online learning experience is a little better. My argument is this, when was the last time you had to take a test at work versus the last time you had to do research for a project. During my masters program, I had to come up with 1200-2000 words on a different subject every week for 72 weeks. It takes me longer to study for certs now, but my research skills have gotten so much better than when I was at a traditional school.
    Also, if you are afraid of the stigma, find your local “traditional” school and find out what online degree programs they offer. For example, at UNLV (where I live) offers 7 strictly online degree programs, none in computers though :-(
    Good Luck!!!