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The Recruiter’s Tale

In a recent column, I asked the question, “Who is driving the online locomotive?”—in other words, who exactly is pushing the idea of offering more and more (not to mention bigger and bigger) online classes? Because that’s certainly where higher education seems to be headed.

I concluded that the people who hire college graduates are not among the culprits, citing a recent Chronicle survey in which prospective employers reported positive impressions of all types of higher-education institutions—except for online colleges. Of course, as I noted (and as several readers pointed out), there’s a big difference between getting an entire degree online and taking a few online courses en route to getting a degree. But employers’ general lack of regard for computer college suggests that they find the online-learning environment a bit suspect.

Not long after that column was published, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine that reinforced my perception of employers’ attitudes toward online classes.

My friend is a partner in a large, multinational professional-services firm. I wish I could say more, but even though he gave me permission to quote him in this post, he really doesn’t want to be identified. Suffice it to say that his firm is one of the best known in its industry, with a client list that includes many of the world’s most recognizable brands.

One of my friend’s duties, as a partner, is to serve as the primary recruiting and hiring manager for the regional office where he works. In that capacity he frequently visits college campuses, coordinates with human-resources folks at corporate headquarters, and interacts with his counterparts at other firms. So even though some might dismiss his thoughts as merely “one person’s opinion,” I’m convinced that this particular person knows what he’s talking about—that he speaks not just for himself, and not just for his firm, but for a large and lucrative profession.

What he said to me, after I told him about my column and some of the responses to it, was, “Oh, we would never hire somebody who took online classes.”

Never? Really?

“Well,” he admitted grudgingly, “I suppose a few online classes wouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker. But if someone has a degree from an online college, or we can tell from their transcript that they took a lot of their classes online, we wouldn’t consider them. I think that’s pretty much true for any of the big firms in our industry.”

Think about that statement, just for a moment, in light of Jeb Bush’s recent prediction that, by 2018, more than 80 percent of professional degrees will be earned online.

When I asked my friend why companies like his aren’t interested in people who took “a lot” of classes online, he explained, “The biggest problem with most of our new hires is that they already think everything can be done electronically. They’re always on their computers and handheld devices, e-mailing or texting clients and colleagues. As their supervisor, I’m constantly having to remind them that our business is based on personal relationships. I literally have to tell them to get out from behind their computers and go talk to people. That concept is largely foreign to them.”

He concluded, “I’m sure online classes are fine for teaching certain specific concepts. But that’s not really what we’re interested in. We can teach those concepts ourselves. What we really value in a college education is the interpersonal skills that students develop while they’re in school. Online classes just don’t teach those.”

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