A question often runs through the minds of students: “What am I going to do after I graduate?” For those considering higher education, their immediate future is pretty much set. But for the most part, what happens next is often in doubt.
There has long been a concern that employers don’t take online degrees as seriously as on-campus ones, although these days online degrees are quite common. But there are other considerations. On campus, there are the well-known stories of students forging friendships with roommates or classmates who turn out to be big-job ties. Think of the giant digital companies formed by founders who met in a dorm room (including Facebook and Microsoft).
But do those who study in all online programs make the same connections or find other ways to connect to the job market after graduation? What are their chances of being oriented towards rewarding networks?
Students enrolled in online degrees are often significantly less well off than others attending residential campuses, with approximately 30% of online student families earning less than $40,000 per year.
As a student in most online undergraduate programs, you are unlikely to find yourself in an academic environment that exposes you to wide access to influential connections or your cash-strapped family people who can find you a rewarding place.
Compared to campuses, online college enrollment is booming. In the United States, approximately 40% of college students are now enrolled in online degree programs. And enrollment at fully online colleges, like Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire, is growing.
The good news for college graduates today is that the unemployment rate is at an all-time low of 2.5%, compared to 5.8% for high school graduates without college. But digging through the data, I couldn’t find any parallel numbers on where graduates are doing online.
What, I wondered, is the future for millions of online students? What can they expect after graduating?
Lately, researchers have turned their attention to the influence of social capital – the effects of personal and network relationships – on a person’s future position in society, particularly on the consequences of where students go to the university. Two theories proposed by notable 20th century scholars stand out – one by James Samuel Coleman, an American sociologist who worked at the University of Chicago, and the other by the French structuralist Pierre Bourdieu, who taught at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. in Paris.
Bourdieu has studied how power is transferred and maintained across generations, claiming that your college marks you, replicating the class status you inherit from your family, along with your fixed social position. In contrast, Coleman argued that social capital is a powerful force that activates class mobility, with students jumping across the economic divide, some waking up transformed by the American Dream after college.
For online students, the jury is out on the theory that predicts their future. Will they be freed to break down the barriers imposed by their social and economic status? Or will they be forced – as Bourdieu’s theory argues – captive into class confinement?
The virtue of the virtual
If online students follow Coleman, virtual classes can open up options for building social capital. One way is for distance learners to join digital networks, especially those that engage them in online classroom discussions with offline participants. Studies show that the relationship between online learners and workers in industry or academia in digital classroom discussions can be highly productive, generating strong career connections.
Or they can participate in virtual internships, where students gain remote work experience. Virtual interns communicate with employers and others using a range of digital communication applications – instant messaging, project management tools and video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, among others – often quite similar the way many digital courses are delivered.
The giant financial services company, Citicorp, for example, is among hundreds of large companies that have opened up opportunities for students and college graduates. The company’s internship program is one of the most diverse in the industry. Of its 1,500 participants, 50% are women and 27% are black and Latino. In 2020, participants who met certain minimum requirements received a full-time job offer upon graduation.
With around 70% of online students working full-time or part-time, a Wiley report indicates that online learners are much more likely than on-campus students to click on links to virtual job fairs, networking events and other online employment services.
Harnessing digital communities and clicking through social media sites are among other ways for online students to access networks to start social capital. Employment service Handshake, a competitor to LinkedIn specializing in student employment, has enrolled more than 10 million college students and graduates in less than a decade. With free access, students create profiles, receive job advice and invitations to virtual career events. Just like on LinkedIn, users can connect with alumni and employees on potential job boards. More than 750,000 employers, including Google, Nike and Target, and 1,400 universities are on the platform. Handshake executives say online job hunting is far more favorable to women and minorities than connecting in person promoting digital equity.
The results of a new study of 20 million LinkedIn users, published last month in Science, make concrete the far-reaching effects on employment of social media, platforms surprisingly more powerful than friends and family. The report finds that ‘weak’ associations – such as social media acquaintances – rather than close friendships, can be up to twice as influential in getting a job.
In my online career spanning more than a quarter century, I have been drawn to friendships and engaged with colleagues, scholars and executives all over the world, totally online – dozens of men and women I have never met in person – with whom I maintain a lively correspondence by e-mail on serious academic and business matters, asking and giving advice, seeking scholarly citations or researching experts, occasionally writing references jobs or nominating a friend online for a key vacancy.
Without national data on comparative employment rates or lifetime income of online and on-campus undergraduates, it is impossible to say how online graduates will fare after college. We also can’t say whether Coleman or Bourdieu hits the mark in the online context.
It is clear, however, that the digital economy has completely overtaken the workplace. Therefore, predictions about the long-term effects of online degrees can no longer be based on historical trends, but must take into account the shocks of the digital revolution.