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Is Online Learning Effective? New Study Reveals How Employers Value Online Degrees

The annual GMAC Corporate Recruiters Survey reveals the perception of top global employers when it comes to in-person versus online education

Wed Jun 26 2024

The majority of global employers have lower confidence in the value of online education compared to in-person study, according to the 2024 Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) Corporate Recruiter’s Survey.

The survey, which quizzed more than 900 recruiters across 38 countries—with just over half (51%) hiring for Global Fortune 100 or 500 companies—revealed two-thirds of employers believe in-person programs impart stronger technical skills and nearly three-quarters believe they provide better leadership and communication skills.

However, the study did find some positive attitudes towards online education from certain areas. In the US, and particularly within the technology sector, employers were more confident in Online MBA graduates and their skill sets, particularly in terms of communication and leadership. 

While there was skepticism over online education skills, employer conviction in the value of all business education was shown to have grown—particularly in the context of dynamic, modern-day work.

Regions differ on opinions towards online programs and micro-credentials 

The 2024 survey focused specifically on the technical, leadership, and communication skills graduates gain from online programs rather than a general comparison of the formats. 

Online programs have changed dramatically in the years since the pandemic; however, employers’ perception has not evolved at the same pace. The survey's shift to focusing on skills was an attempt to speed up the acceptance of online programs particularly by employers in the US who have been the most skeptical in past years.

This has been successful, in part, as the survey revealed the US is the region where employers are most open to the idea that in-person programs do not necessarily impart stronger technical, leadership, and communication skills than online degrees. Despite this, the survey found there remained a substantial preference towards in-person courses among US recruiters. 

Of US-based respondents, 44% agreed in-person programs could impart stronger technical skills than online programs, and around two-thirds believed graduates of in-person programs were more likely to have stronger leadership and communications skills.

Compared to results from the same survey carried out in 2023, recruiters’ belief in skills development across online and in-person programs has remained level throughout most industries and regions, with one notable outlier. Employers in Western Europe had a statistically significant year-over-year change, with 74% now believing in-person programs impart stronger communication and leadership skills than online programs compared to 51% last year.

Micro-credentials, such as the Quantic MBA or Harvard Business School online courses, have grown in popularity in the past few years, having only been included in the survey since 2022.  

Since then, employers’ perceptions have remained relatively stable with roughly two-thirds believing full-time business degrees are more effective for employee success than micro-credentials. 

However, US employers are gradually warming to micro-credentials while Western European employers are trending toward a stronger preference for full degrees, the survey found. 

Employers’ confidence in the value of business education is growing

Despite the differing opinions when it comes to online and in-person education, the survey revealed the future of business education looks positive.  

Employer confidence in the ability of business education to prepare graduates to be successful in their organizations has surged, hitting a new peak since the pandemic. Employers who said they had no confidence was at zero. 

The survey showed a widespread growth in confidence among employers that business school graduates outperform other employees, are fast-tracked to upper-level positions, and earn higher salaries.

Employers in Central and South Asia’s confidence surged from 47% in 2023 to 69% in 2024, while confidence also grew year-over-year in every region except the US. Confidence in graduates also increased year-over-year in specific industries, including those that welcome large numbers of business school grads each year such as consulting, finance and accounting, and technology. 

This renewed confidence was particularly high when it came to employers’ appreciation for the skills graduates bring to remote and hybrid work environments.

Notably, the proportion of employers who said they feel the skills gained through graduate business education are more important in today’s world of remote and hybrid working than in 2021 following the pandemic is almost double. 

This uplift was seen across industries, regions, and company types, and was most pronounced in leading Fortune 100 and 500 companies; the finance and accounting and manufacturing industries; and in East and Southeast Asia and Western Europe.

However, despite the growing appreciation of skills that can thrive in more flexible work environments, the survey highlighted that employers still favor traditional in-person programs over online programs.