Battling the Stigma of Nontraditional Credentials

August 06, 2003

Back in 1992, Andrew S. Borchers was working as a systems engineering manager for a computer company by day and moonlighting as a business instructor at the Lawrence Technological University by night. He wanted to teach full time, but without a doctoral degree, his dream was beyond reach.

"I taught a lot of courses for Lawrence Tech, and they were happy with me, but, for accreditation reasons, they couldn't hire me full time without the stamp 'Dr. Borchers,'" he says.

As a married, 35-year-old father of two, he couldn't afford to quit his job and go to school full time. And he couldn't find a doctoral program near him at a traditional university that would allow him to study part time. His solution? Pursue a doctorate in business administration at a distance. He worried, though, that hiring committees at traditional universities would look askance at a job candidate with a doctorate from a nontraditional university.

Four years later, with a D.B.A. from Nova Southeastern University in hand, Mr. Borchers sailed into a full-time teaching job at Lawrence Tech. In 2001, he became an associate professor of information systems at Kettering University, his undergraduate alma mater.

His story has a happy ending, but interviews with graduates, professors, and administrators at traditional universities and at online institutions suggest that academe has not yet fully embraced job candidates with nontraditional doctorates.

Even Mr. Borchers is circumspect about his success. His employers at Lawrence Tech "already knew me and wanted me," he notes. "They had to have someone with a doctorate, but they really wanted someone with strong industry experience, so that worked in my favor." Having publications and 10 years of teaching experience didn't hurt either. "Honestly, though, when I think about opportunities elsewhere, I have the sense that it's a hit-or-miss world."

Graduates of nontraditional programs need to have realistic expections about their chances of landing a job in academe, Mr. Borchers says. "If they think they're going to get a job at Harvard or the University of Michigan, they're kidding themselves."

A growing number of people are choosing nontraditional programs at institutions like Nova Southeastern, the Fielding Graduate Institute, the Union Institute & University, and Capella and Walden Universities for their convenience. These programs are delivered in a variety of ways and cater to students in professional fields such as business, education, health care, information technology, and psychology. Except for Union, which allows students to earn degrees in any field of study, none of the institutions mentioned above even offers a Ph.D. in the humanities or hard sciences.

Most of their students are managerial wannabes, career changers, or academic hopefuls. While employers in industry seem receptive to job applicants with distance-education credentials (impressed that the candidates have an advanced degree at all), academic circles continue to be less welcoming.

Graduates of these programs who lack teaching experience and publications are a flop on the faculty hiring market. Candidates like Mr. Borchers, however, who've tested the academic waters before obtaining the degree, do best, say administrators and graduates of distance-education doctoral programs.

"We're not training people to be researchers at Harvard, Stanford, or MIT," says Randolph A. Pohlman, dean of Nova's graduate school of business and entrepreneurship. "We're training people who already have considerable industry or academic or administrative experience to move up or get jobs at teaching-centered colleges and universities," he says.

Jim Froh learned that the hard way. Recently, he abandoned his search for a permanent academic home and accepted a managerial job at John Deere. When he entered Capella's Ph.D. program in business in 2000, he was already in a temporary teaching position at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, but he hoped the degree would lead to a full-time teaching post at a top university. He chose Capella for its convenience: Aside from a required one-week residency each year, the courses in the program are mostly delivered online. After several years of fruitless searching for a tenure-track job, he was sure that this year -- the year he expects to complete his Ph.D. -- would end in success. It hasn't.

While he faults the weak economy and the tough hiring climate in academe for his failure to land a permanent job, he says that Capella's accreditation was also a factor. While the institution is regionally accredited by the North Central Association, it's not accredited by AACSB International: The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

"I was looking to teach in a good business school, but I found out that to even be considered by one, I needed a doctoral degree from an AACSB-accredited institution," he says.

Graduates of distance-education doctoral programs may find it easier to climb the administrative ladder than the faculty ladder in higher education.

"I think there's not the same bias as there is on the faculty side," says Gene Fant Jr., chairman of the English department at Union University, a traditional university in Tennessee that is not related to the distance-education Union Institute & University, in Ohio. Real-world experience and a more practice-oriented advanced degree count for more on the administrative side "because administrators are expected to think entrepreneurially as part of their jobs," he says. And while a doctoral degree is a requirement for most faculty jobs, it's not usually one for an administrative job, except perhaps at the highest levels, such as a presidency. Even at the executive level, a few candidates with nontraditional credentials have made it to the top.

Four years ago, Christopher O'Hearn was a vice president of instruction at Orange Coast College with ambitions of becoming a community-college president. He was already pursuing presidencies when he realized that not having a Ph.D. could hinder his candidacy. But he worked long hours, so he needed a program with flexibility. He also had a wife and three children in college, so quitting his job to study full time was out of the question. He decided to enroll in the doctoral program in higher-education leadership at Capella University.

Starting a Ph.D., at Capella gave him the added credibility he needed to land his first presidency at Mission College, a community college in Santa Clara, Calif., later that same year. Last summer, he left Mission for a job as president of Mt. San Antonio College (the largest community college in California), and today he's on the verge of completing his degree. He attributes his success to his doctoral work at Capella. "There's no question that my being very close to completing [the Ph.D.] was what allowed me to advance as far as I did and ultimately get this job," he says.

Not every candidate with distance-education credentials is so fortunate.

"I think a number of people with nontraditional degrees are put in a defensive position as a candidate for an academic position," says Mary Boyce, an associate professor of business and former academic dean at the University of Redlands. They're likely to meet some resistance to their candidacy, she says, unless they know someone at the institution they're applying to, or unless someone on staff there has had a positive experience with another nontraditional candidate. Ms. Boyce has a Ph.D. in human and organizational systems from Fielding. When she came to Redlands 13 years ago, there was another Fielding grad on the faculty; he was so respected that she didn't have to defend her credentials.

One of the things that students miss by going the online, distance-learning route is a strong academic network, Ms. Boyce says. "I had a great experience at Fielding, and close relationships with my faculty there, but I regretted not having the connections that students at traditional institutions have with faculty and administrators who can open doors for them."

Without that network, graduates of distance-learning programs face an uphill battle getting their applications taken seriously by academic hiring committees that have probably never heard of the distance-learning institutions.

Even if a hiring committee has heard of the institution, the stigma associated with "distance" or "online" learning can still be a strike against a candidate. Ms. Boyce says a colleague with a doctorate from Union Institute was once told that he would get further with a CV that didn't have "Union Institute" on it.

In fact, the stigma is so great that some administrators avoid using words like "online" to describe their nontraditional programs because doing so, they say, perpetuates a misperception that students are isolated from professors in the programs. They say phrases like "distributed learning" or "contract-based learning" more accurately describe their programs.

Debbie Danowski, for one, says she's upset that people are so quick to criticize her experience without ever having gone through it. She's an assistant professor of English at Sacred Heart University with a Ph.D. in education from Capella.

"A good online class can be equal to, if not better than, a face-to-face class," argues Ms. Danowski. "I think a lot of time is wasted sitting in class. In a classroom, everybody has to work at the same pace. But people learn in different ways and at different speeds. You can go at your own pace online."

Danowski is a rare breed, says Mr. Fant, of Union University, in Tennessee. Recipients of online doctorates don't often survive the paper cut in sciences and humanities searches "because there's such a glut of traditional Ph.D.'s on the market in those disciplines that employers can afford to be choosy."

Mr. Pohlman, of Nova Southeastern, says online and traditional programs are more similar than people may think. "It's been a long time since I got my doctorate [at Oklahoma State University], but I don't remember too many faculty that I talked to all the time," he says. "Our students aren't on campus every day, but they meet face to face with faculty at different times -- we fly faculty out to students or students come to campus. Students take comprehensive exams and write a dissertation, so it isn't that different from a traditional program. Our students probably have as much interaction with faculty over the phone and online as they would with faculty at a lot of traditional schools, because the full-time faculty at those schools are busy doing other things like consulting or working on research; they're not sitting in their office waiting for students to drop by."

Elitism also may be partly to blame for traditionally educated professors' mistrust of distance-learning degrees. "The dirty little secret is most professors went to graduate school for 8 to 10 years, and now all their friends have nice houses and cars, and they have debt and a not-very-good-paying job," says Mr. Fant. "If they were willing to sacrifice to get a Ph.D., then you ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to get one. I think, to many professors, it comes down to paying your dues." (Incidentally, Mr. Fant earned his Ph.D. the traditional way, from the University of Southern Mississippi.)

Whatever the reason, many graduates of distance-learning programs must contend with academics who frown on their degrees:

"I don't really like them," says one business professor at a private college in the South. (He asked for anonymity in case he ever has to hire one because applicants are scarce in his field.) "I sense that these schools try to make it easy for you to get a Ph.D., and therefore, they must not be all that good."

"Our department perceives these degrees as substandard," says a psychology-department chairman at a state university in the West. "In fact, it is not unusual for graduate students who are still in graduate programs at traditional universities to receive higher rankings than applicants who have already completed nontraditional degrees."

However, a con to some hiring committees is a pro to others, notes Ms. Boyce. "We have a lot of adult students at Redlands. Mature, mid-career faculty who bring industry experience to academia are very attractive because they have a real-world vocabulary and a kind of credibility that young academics who've never worked don't have. Many adult students with 5 or 10 years of work experience think young Ph.D.'s are next to stupid."

At least when it comes to teaching positions with online programs, candidates with doctorates from distance-learning institutions may have an advantage over those from traditional programs, adds Vicki Cook, dean of community and continuing education at Kaskaskia College, a community college in Illinois. She's a doctoral student in Capella's School of Education. "For an online teaching position, the preference would be for people who've completed an online degree or certificate program because they are much more likely to succeed in an online environment as a faculty member," she says.

Whatever people's perceptions of these programs, they're filling a need, says Mr. Borchers, of Kettering University. "Even if people look down on the degrees, realistically, in my life situation there wasn't another choice. I couldn't take five years off to go full time to a traditional school, so if they feel the need to look down or smirk at my degree, so what? What else could I do? I'd still be in industry, working crazy hours, if it wasn't for the program at Nova. Instead, I'm living the academic life."