Online Degrees Grow in Popularity and Prominence

Even Ivy League Schools Are Touting Their Online Programs

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Until recently, an online degree was more likely to be associated with a diploma mill than a legitimate institution of higher education. Granted, in some cases, this reputation was well-earned. Many for-profit online schools are unaccredited and have been the target of federal investigations and lawsuits as a result of their fraudulent practices, which include charging outrageous fees and promising jobs they can’t deliver.

However, many of those schools have been driven out of business. And now, online degrees and certificates are becoming more popular with students and employers. What’s responsible for the change in perception?

Prestigious schools

Such Ivy League schools as Yale, Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Dartmouth offer either online degrees or certificates. Some of the many other top-rated schools with online programs include MIT, RIT, Stanford, USC, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Purdue, and Penn State.

“More prestigious universities are embracing the online degree,” according to Dr. Corinne Hyde, assistant professor for USC Rossier’s online masters in teaching degree. Hyde tells ThoughtCo, “We now see top-ranked schools taking their degree programs online and delivering very high quality content that is equivalent to, if not in some cases better than, what they’re delivering on the ground.”

So, what’s the lure of online education to top schools? Patrick Mullane, executive director of Harvard Business School’s HBX, tells ThoughtCo, “Universities see online education as a way to broaden their reach and more effectively fulfill their missions.” He explains, “They see mounting evidence that when online programs are done well, they can be as effective as in-person education.”

Natural progression of technology

As digital technology becomes more ubiquitous, consumers expect their learning options to reflect this level of pervasiveness. “More people in all demographics are comfortable with the on-demand nature of technology and the quality of product or service it can deliver,” Mullane says. “If we can buy stocks, order food, get a ride, purchase insurance, and speak to a computer that will turn on our living room lights, then why can’t we learn in a way very different from how most learned in the past?”


Technology has also produced an expectation of convenience, and this is one of the primary benefits of an online education. “From the student’s perspective, there is a massive appeal to being able to pursue a desirable degree without having to pick up and move across the country, or even without having to commute across town,” Hyde explains. “These degrees are generally highly flexible in terms of where students can be while completing the work, and they offer access to the same high-quality resources and faculty that students would receive if they were in a brick and mortar classroom.” While juggling school with work and other demands is challenging at best, it’s obviously easier when not tethered to a physical class that is offered at times that are set in stone.


Online programs have also evolved in terms of quality and implementation. “Some people immediately think of impersonal, asynchronous courses when they hear ‘online degree,’ but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Hyde says. “I have taught online for eight years and build outstanding relationships with my students.” Using webcams, she sees her students live for weekly class sessions and routinely has one-on-one video conferences when not in class.

In fact, Hyde believes that online education provides greater opportunities for connecting with her pupils. “I can see the environment in which students are learning – I meet their kids and their pets – and I engage in conversation and application of the concepts to their own lives.”

While she might not meet her students in person until the commencement program, Hyde says she has developed relationships with them long before then – and often, these relationships continue afterward. “I work very hard to create a true community of learners in the classroom by engaging in deep, thoughtful conversation, mentoring them in their work, and staying connected with them on social media once my class is complete."

Learning Approaches

Online programs are as diverse as the schools that offer them. However, some colleges and universities have taken online learning to another level. For example, HBX focuses on active learning. “As in a Harvard Business School classroom, there are no long, drawn-out faculty-led lectures,” Mullane says. “Our online business courses are designed to keep learners engaged throughout the learning process.”

What does active learning entail at HBX? “Open responses” is one of the exercises that allows students to think through decisions as though they were the business leader in a given situation, and describe the choices they would make. “Interactive exercises like random cold calls, polls, interactive demonstrations of concepts, and quizzes, are other ways HBX utilizes active learning.”

Students also take advantage of technology platforms to ask and answer questions among themselves, in addition to having their own private Facebook and LinkedIn groups to engage with each other.

Just in case learning

Even when students don’t pursue an online degree program, they can get advanced training that can often lead to career advancement or meet the requirements of an employer. “More and more students are turning to online credential or certificate programs to learn a specific skillset, rather than going back to school for a master’s program or second bachelor’s,” Mullane says.

“A colleague of mine has called this shift one from ‘just in case learning’ (which is characterized by the traditional multi-discipline degree) to ’just in time learning’ (which is characterized by shorter and more focused courses that deliver specific skills).” MicroMasters are an example of credentials for employees who have a bachelor’s degree and might not want to pursue a full-blown graduate degree.  

Check out this list of the most popular online degrees.

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Your Citation
Williams, Terri. "Online Degrees Grow in Popularity and Prominence." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Williams, Terri. (2021, February 16). Online Degrees Grow in Popularity and Prominence. Retrieved from Williams, Terri. "Online Degrees Grow in Popularity and Prominence." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).