At 21 years old, Lawson Mansell holds a bachelor’s degree with no debt.
He paid for it with a part-time job, no scholarships and with only modest financial support from his parents.
“I did my entire degree in my bedroom or in Starbucks,” said Mansell, a Beaufort native who received an online bachelor’s degree in political science from the New Jersey-based Thomas Edison State University. “I tried to do it as cheap as possible. I only spent around $15,000.”
As tuition at colleges throughout the country continues to soar out of reach of many middle-class Americans — the average four-year tuition at four-year S.C. schools has increased 18 percent since 2012 — Mansell is one of a growing number of students who are turning to online schools to get a degree.
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But as the number of students receiving a degree at an online school increases, so have questions about whether online degrees will actually lead to gainful employment.
Studies and experts suggest an online degree isn’t going to stand in the way of an applicant getting a job. But those earning online degrees might have to adjust their resumes or market themselves differently, said James Taylor, a Charleston-based regional manager and spokesman for recruiting agency Robert Half.
“What we’re seeing in the marketplace, employers accept (online degrees) to a much greater degree than even a few years ago,” Taylor said. “More savvy companies understand it’s an extremely competitive market for candidates.”
For entry-level jobs, the benefit of an online degree is the most pronounced. Nearly two-thirds of employers say it does not make a difference on whether an associate’s degree was obtained online or in person, while just under half of employers say the difference doesn’t matter for a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2010 Society of Human Resources poll that interviewed 449 of its members.
“A bachelor’s degree is almost like the bare minimum. I don’t want to go into debt over the bare minimum,” Mansell said.
Between 2012 and 2016, the number of students nationwide taking multiple online classes increased 18.4 percent, according to the most recent available data from the National Center for Education Statistics. In raw numbers, 516,138 more students were taking multiple online classes than four years prior, statistics show.
“I think the trend is to go online,” said Carl Blackstone, president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber. “At the end of the day, a lot of companies want to fill gaps, and they don’t always need a four-year degree. Nor do they want people saddled with debt.”
The University of South Carolina has responded to the surge in demand. Since its online Palmetto College opened in 2013, the number of bachelor’s degree programs has increased from seven to 13. Enrollment in online classes has increased 96 percent in the past five years, USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in an email. Almost 30,000 students have taken a course through Palmetto College, Stensland said.
Palmetto College is not designed for students to take four years of classes online. That’s not unusual.
Mansell spent only his last year taking classes through Thomas Edison State University. His first three years of online classes were through Lumerit Scholar.
At USC, “We mostly offer major course work for those students to complete an unfinished bachelor’s degree and those looking to take the next step from an associate degree,” Stensland said.
Students who complete an online degree do so without any asterisk or caveat attached to the degree. In other words, a criminal justice degree from USC Upstate looks the same whether the student takes classes online or in person, Stensland said. As a result, that shouldn’t affect the starting salary of students, Stensland said.
Other schools, such as Midlands Technical College and Columbia College, have online degree programs. But USC’s Palmetto College was ranked as the top place to get an online degree, according to thebestschools.org.
Mansell said he would recommend getting a bachelor’s degree online. Though, he noted that students who received an in-person education got other perks, such as making connections with professors or others in the industry that could help them get jobs.
“Online does not provide the soft skills you get from a brick-and-mortar school,” said Blackstone, of the Columbia Chamber. “Any chance you can get to interact with the general public on a regular basis is great.”
Mansell made his connections in the political world by volunteering for congressional candidate Curtis Bostic against lame-duck U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford. Through his connections at the Bostic campaign, he locked down an internship at Sanford’s Beaufort office, a part-time gig that eventually turned into a full-time job as a staff assistant. As Sanford prepares to cede his seat to Democrat Joe Cunningham, Mansell is looking for a new job.
Students who get an online degree can turn it into a positive. Especially if students are working while also pursuing a degree, it shows work ethic and basic “soft skills” such as being able to socialize with co-workers, Taylor, the job recruiter, said.
“Those skills have become more in demand, not less,” Taylor said. “If you’re getting an online degree because you’re working, you should be able to display those people skills.”
Online degrees have suffered a setback in recent years as fraudulent or incompetent online schools have made headlines. The best way to gauge the quality of an online education is by checking whether the school is accredited, Taylor said.
“If a person is going to consider an online degree, as they should, they need to do their research and see if it’s accredited,” Taylor said.