Dear HR,

I am a 30-year old mother of three who is looking to return to work in a couple of years when my kids are all old enough to go to school. In the mean time, I thought I might take some online college classes and get a degree.

Some of the other moms I’ve talked to are taking classes at an online-only college from out west. I did some Googling, and the college doesn’t have great reviews. But, when I talk to the other moms, they say the classes are very easy, and they will be able to finish their degrees in just a few months.

Do employers care where I get my degree? Will I be able to find a job with a degree from a school with a questionable reputation?

Thank you,

Skeptical, but Hopeful


Do employers care where I get my degree?

Dear Skeptical, but Hopeful,

Congratulations on taking the first steps towards crafting your dream career! While your kids are small is a great time to get a degree. Having a degree will definitely help you when you return to the workforce—especially if you find online internships where you can gain experience while you pursue your degree.

Your question is a good one, and one we see a lot. There are a great many for-profit universities out there who target mothers and working individuals for their degree programs. Their sales pitch is fantastic. They tell you that you can earn your degree in just a few months by committing just a few hours a week to homework. Do you have college credits already? Great! They transfer them right over, with few questions asked. It’s almost too good to be true! That’s because it IS too good to be true.

Accreditation Means a lot to Colleges and Employers

For-profit universities offering this spiel usually have what’s called national accreditation. That sounds awesome, right? It’s not. National accreditation boards are not as rigorous as regional accreditation boards, and thus credits earned at a nationally accredited university will not transfer to a regionally accredited university or even to another nationally accredited university. So, if you start a program with one of these universities, you are stuck with that university to finish your degree no matter what. Just FYI, all state universities are regionally accredited, as are community colleges and most good non-profit private colleges.

Once you’ve earned that degree from that for-profit, nationally accredited university, you will find that your job prospects are limited. Many employers will not recognize the degree, and yes, reputation matters. Employers do look at how other students from that college are doing in the workforce, and if they aren’t doing so well with that “easy A” degree, they will assume that you won’t either. So then you have another problem: You need a better degree.

Now, remember how we talked about accreditation and how national=bad, and regional=good? If you take your degree from that for-profit, nationally accredited university and apply for a higher degree (say, an MBA or Master of Arts) at a local, regionally accredited university, you will not be admitted. That’s right—you have to have enough regionally accredited college credits to meet the minimum admission requirements.

Do the Math on the Online, For-Profit University

Does that easy online degree sound bad enough yet? How about this: The for-profit colleges are 2-3x’s more expensive than traditional colleges and universities, and their students graduate with more debt. Even more, students who graduate from for-profit universities are more likely to default on their student loans than those who graduate from regionally accredited non-profit universities.

How to Earn a Legit Degree while your Kids are Small

Don’t let this discourage you, though. You can still earn an online degree while your kids are toddlers. Local community colleges and your state universities offer online degree programs from AA, BA, and BS programs. Many universities offer graduate programs, too. So, use Google Maps to find your local colleges and start looking at their websites. Call advisors at a couple of those colleges and talk to them about what it will take to register for their programs. Likely, all you need are your high school transcripts. You may need to take a placement test, but there are study guides, so don’t panic.

In the long run, you will spend less money and earn a degree that employers respect. You will probably meet many other people with whom you can network and find a job when you’re ready. It’s a win-win all the way around. Seriously, call your local colleges and universities right now, before a well-meaning friend refers you to their university and some slimy for-profit degree salesman (I mean, “advisor”) starts calling you.

Best wishes,