Raising the Question

How much does the reputation of the college or university where a person earns an online doctorate affect that degree’s value in securing a strong career path and a good salary? Conventional wisdom seems to tell us that reputation is important in virtually every area of human interaction. Let’s take a closer look at this question.

A Closer Look

Most experts in the dynamics and trends in higher education, as well as potential employers, admit that a college’s or university’s reputation affects their graduates’ career prospects. There is no final verdict on just how much the reputation of an institution impacts its graduates’ job prospects and earning potentials. However, correlations of varying degrees of strength can be drawn between institutional reputation and how an online doctoral degree is perceived by potential employers. The rest of this article will take a look at the overall importance of institutional reputation for an online doctorate as well as the varying degrees of importance institutional reputation possesses in different fields of online doctorates. Other considerations beyond reputation will also be discussed that will help potential online doctorate students make an informed and balanced decision about the importance of reputation in selecting an online doctoral degree program.

What’s in a Name?

When Shakespeare’s Juliet posed this question to Romeo in Romeo and Juliet she was surely making a tangential point about the priority of individual character over mere names and familial associations. However, in the context of institutional reputation, the question applies in a different but related manner. The name or reputation of a given college or university reveals some important characteristics of that institution and how that college or university is perceived by the broader academic world as well as potential employers.

Not Merely a Matter of Perception

Reputation has a great deal to do with perception. However, perception is often rooted in objective and discernible traits that have been stable over a period of time. This is often the case for institutions of higher learning. In important ways, an institution’s reputation may reveal positive and desirable qualities about a college or university and its online doctorates. Or, a poor reputation may raise red flags about a college and its online doctorates whose avoidance could save trouble down the road. In general, a college’s or university’s reputation will often be the first indication of whether or not an institution of higher learning has achieved and maintained a longstanding record of academic quality and stability.

A good or high reputation indicates that an institution as a whole has achieved and maintained standards of excellence across its academic programs over an extended period of time. This means that an institution of high reputation has assured that its degrees, whether undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral-level, meet or exceed accredited standards of academic integrity, thoroughness, and rigor. To achieve this goal would have required excellent and stable faculty over an extended period as well because great teaching needs great teachers.

A poor reputation, on the contrary, would indicate that a college or university has been commonly perceived to have failed to measure up to adequate standards of academic excellence. Another possibility is that a college or university has not been in existence long enough to establish a clear reputation. In such cases, students looking for a quality online doctorate will need to base their decisions on other factors, which will be discussed a little later.

Great education also needs great students. This means that along with excellent programs at all levels of education and outstanding faculty, institutional reputation flows out of the interaction between faculty themselves, faculty and students, and between students. All these components would likely affect online doctoral studies as well. A key ingredient for a great reputation is for students after graduating to achieve success in their careers and vocations. Because institutional reputation is hard-earned, universities and colleges will do their best to maintain their standing. Online doctorates share in the overall reputation of an institution and very likely benefit from the high standards that made their institutions successful in the first place.

Does Reputation Factor More in Certain Fields?

A college’s or university’s reputation clearly factors into how degrees, including online doctorates from that institution, are evaluated in terms of both quality and marketability. However, there is a question of the extent to which reputation factors in various disciplines. According to some studies, institutional reputation is much more important in online research doctorates than in doctorates having a professional focus and application.

To give some practical examples: an online Ph.D. in English literature will likely depend more upon institutional reputation, particularly with respect to career and job opportunities, than, for example, an online Doctor of Business Administration. Several possible reasons lay behind this. However, there are a couple of key reasons why this might be the case. The first is that online research doctorates are primarily suited to training future academics. Because there are more holders of a Ph.D. than academic positions. Graduates from prestigious Ph.D. programs will be in the prime position to fill up open academic positions in top programs and then overflow into less prestigious degree programs.

Another reason for the bias towards Ph.D. graduates from institutions with a high reputation is likely because of the presumed excellent training coupled with the difficulty of non-experts to accurately evaluate the ability and potential of the Ph.D.’s research. Where the success of an engineer’s or dentist’s work will be fairly obvious to non-experts in many cases, the originality and clarity of a dissertation or thesis on an abstract philosophical topic, for example, will not be so widely accessible. In such a situation institutional reputation serves a kind of clearing-house for candidates seeking a limited number of research positions.

There are surely more reasons, but a third reason why institutional reputation in research degrees is more important in online doctorates, as well as onsite doctorates than in practice-based doctorates, is because there are more jobs in the professional fields than in academic areas. Higher need and demand for experts in the various professions translates into more jobs. Lower need and demand for researchers means fewer positions. This makes getting a job in a research position more difficult than a professional position. Because of these factors, institutional reputation seems to be more important for research online doctorates programs than practice-based and professional online doctorates.

Don’t Let Institutional Reputation Become the Only Factor

While the reputation of the school where one earns their online doctorate is important, and in some fields is very important, reputation should not become the sole focus or criterion for choosing an online doctorate. Other areas deserve consideration beyond reputation. Here are a few considerations beyond institutional reputation that should be taken into account when selecting on online doctorate:

  • Accreditation
  • Specializations
  • Faculty
  • Cost
  • Competition

Accreditation

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “The goal of accreditation is to ensure that institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality.” Accreditation is awarded by private educational associations called “accreditors”. Accreditors are recognized by the Secretary of Education and award accreditation to institutions of higher learning on a regional or national level. The Department of Education recognizes only those accrediting associations that have applied to the Secretary of Education. The Department of Education then determines the scope of accrediting agencies’ activities, namely, whether the activities will be regional or national. It is important to note at this point that there are many accrediting associations that do not seek recognition with the Department of Education and therefore are not recognized by the same department.

Clearly, a college or university with an outstanding reputation will have achieved necessary accreditation as an institution for its online doctorates and for its, where needed, specialized online doctoral programs. When considering online doctorates offered by colleges or universities of less prestige, it is very important to determine if a school has received accreditation. This will ensure that the school and online program you are looking into has demonstrated a standard of excellence that is recognized by the academic and employment communities. If a program is accredited, even if not at an institution with a high reputation, there is a basic assurance that money spent in an online doctorate will be toward a degree of value that can serve as a way to advance or change one’s career.

The U.S. Department of Education lists four “important functions” of accreditation:

  • Accreditation includes an assessment of the academic quality of the post-secondary-level programs at an institution of higher education
  • Accreditation stimulates continuous improvement in the quality of institutions and their academic programs
  • Accreditation brings together faculty and staff in institutional and academic planning and improvement
  • Accreditation allows colleges and universities to set standards in preparing students to qualify for professional certifications and licensures and to make improvements where programs fail to meet such standards

Types of Accreditation

The Council of Higher Education Accreditation lists

  • Regional Accreditation
  • National Faith-Related Accreditation
  • National Career-Related Accreditation
  • Programmatic Accreditation

Regional accreditation applies to institutions in a limited geographical area and accounts for eighty-five percent of the accreditation of colleges and universities. Forms of national accreditation account for about fifteen percent of accreditation. Often for-profit schools will obtain national accreditation. Programmatic accreditation concerns programs of study or degree programs offered at a college or university that prepare for specialized or professional occupations that are overseen by external governing bodies in addition to educational and accrediting agencies. Governmental certification and licensure requirements or certification and/or licensure in a number of medical fields require additional accreditation that is program-specific.

Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation by an accrediting association recognized by the Department of Education is both the most common form of accreditation as well as the most desirable form of accreditation. With regional accreditation comes a more direct experience of the institutions’ and/or programs’ quality and areas of needed improvement. Regional accreditation normally applies to the college or university as a whole, inclusive of its different degree programs.

There are seven regional accreditation associations in the United States that oversee the academic quality of institutions of higher education in their geographical areas.

  • Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges-Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 10 Commercial Blvd. Suite 204, Novato, CA 94949 (California, Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands)
  • Higher Learning Commission, 230 South LaSalle, Suite 7-500, Chicago, IL 60604-1411 (Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Learning, 3624 Market Street, 2nd Floor West, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other areas)
  • New England Commission on Higher Education, 3 Burlington Woods Dr., Suite #100, Burlington, MA 01803-4514 (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and internationally)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, 8060 165th Ave., Northeast, Suite 100, Redmond, WA 98052 (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and internationally with distance programs offered by institutions accredited by them)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, GA 30033 (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Latin America, and other international sites through distance learning programs
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission, 985 Atlantic Ave., Suite 100, Alameda, CA 94501 (California, Hawaii, and the Pacific Basin, and internationally through distance learning programs)

National Faith-Related Accreditation

Faith-based schools and degree programs often require a level of specialized expertise that falls outside the scope of the associations for regional accreditation. Faith-related accreditation on a national level provides a measure of quality assurance regarding the level of instruction students receive at an and institution. It is quite common for faith-based institutions that focus upon faith-based studies to be less concerned with regional accreditation because their educational concerns are in areas different from what regional institutional accreditation considers. Studies intended to prepare students for faith-based ministries, for example, will often not need regional accreditation, but still require independent corroboration by a competent agency to ensure academic and ministery preparation standards are being met. National accreditation can be religion-specific or interreligious and interdenominational. Religious schools and institutions will often seek national accreditation through one or more of four accrediting agencies:

  • Association for Biblical Higher Education Commission on Accreditation, 5850 T.G. Lee Blvd., Suite 130, Orlando, FL 32822
  • Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools, Accreditation Commission, 11 Broadway, Suite 405, New York, NY 10004
  • Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools, 10 Summit Park Dr., Pittsburgh, PA 15275-1110
  • Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, Accreditation Commission, 15935 Forest Rd., Forest, VA 24551

National Career-Based Accreditation

Career-related accreditation, like faith-related accreditation, is sought instead of regional institutional accreditation in programs of study that are profession or occupation-oriented. These national accrediting bodies will recognize private institutions of higher education that educate students for professional, technical, or occupational careers. National career-based accreditation is also provided for distance education institutions that offer degree programs primarily through distance learning, having no brick and mortar counterpart. There are two national career-related accrediting agencies:

  • Accrediting Council of Independent Colleges and Schools, 1350 Eye Street NW, Suite 560, Washington, D.C. 20005
  • Distance Education Accrediting Commission, 1101 17th Street, NW, Suite 808, Washington D.C. 20036

Programmatic Accrediting Organizations

Programmatic accreditation pertains to individual programs offered within institutions of higher education. There are currently dozens of programmatic accreditation agencies that function nationwide. These accrediting bodies help ensure that professional standards for certification and/or licensure are being met in academic programs. Programmatic accrediting associations currently recognize over 19,000 degree and certificate programs nationwide. Here are some examples of doctoral degree programs that require or at least often have gained programmatic accreditation:

  • Psychology (PhD & PsyD): American Psychological Association Commission on Accreditation, 750 First Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Psychological Clinical Science Accreditation System, 1800 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-1218)
  • Marriage and Family Therapy (PhD): Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 112 South Alfred Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-3061
  • Athletic Training (DAT): Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education, 6850 Austin Center Blvd., Suite 100, Austin, TX 78731
  • Healthcare Management (DHA): Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education, 6110 Executive Blvd., Suite 614, Rockville, MD 20852
  • Counseling (PhD): Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, 1001 North Fairfax street, Suite 510, Alexandria, VA 22314
  • Audiology (Au.D): Accreditation Commission for Audiology Education, 11480 Commerce Park Drive, Suite 220, Reston, VA 20191; Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2200 Research Blvd., #310, Rockville, MD 20850-3289
  • Business Administration (DBA & PhD): Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, 11520 West 119th Street, Overland Park, KS 66213; International Accreditation Council for Business Education, 11374 Strang Line Road, Lenexa, KS 66215
  • Public Policy (DPA): Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration, 1029 Vermont Ave., Suite 1100, Washington, D.C. 20005
  • Education (EdD & PhD): Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, 1140 19th Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036

Specializations

Do not become overly attached to reputation and prestige to the detriment of other values that may be present in an online doctorate offered by a college or university whose reputation is not as high as others. A very important consideration concerns an online doctorate’s areas of study. Some programs may not be available through a school with a high reputation but are offered at other schools. A further consideration, which will be important for doctoral students and may turn out to be the deciding factor in choosing one school’s program over another’s, is that online program’s specializations. Doctoral work is highly focused, and certain online doctorates will have just the right specialization to match your interests and career goals. If an online doctorate from a college or university with a slightly lower standing offers the specialization that fits your needs, it likely may be the online doctorate for you.

Faculty

Finding the right programs and specializations can sway one away from a top tier online doctorate. Who the faculty members of an online doctoral program are should be a central aspect of the process of making a decision about what online doctoral program a person will pursue. The opportunity to receive instruction from and collaborate with a faculty member whose work you know and appreciate can be immeasurably more valuable in the process of learning your profession than the indirect prestige that comes from graduating from an institution with a high reputation.

Figuring out which faculty or faculty member is right for your doctoral studies aspirations can be tricky, and there is no perfect method. However, there are some resources for evaluation and comparison of online doctoral faculty:

  • Institutional Reputation: This one is obvious and is the main point of this article. Nevertheless, it is an important first initial point to consider because the best schools and doctoral programs attract the best professors. The following websites will help you discover which faculty and professors best fit you doctoral goals:
  • Professor Ratings: This is a bit more difficult to assess because oftentimes peer evaluation and student evaluation will be conducted “in house” and this information will not be made public. However, you can get a sense of how students look at a given professor at:
  • Look at Quality of Research: This will not be foolproof but will help provide some leading indicators of professorial quality. Some important factors to consider:
    • Publications:
      • Quantity: Does a professor have a sufficient number of professional publications to demonstrate activity and competency in the field?
      • Quality: Does the professor publish in respected journals and with respected publishers?
    • Memberships:
      • Does a professor maintain membership in professional associations in their field? Usually, this information will be provided in their C.V.
    • Special Grant Projects:
      • Have faculty or individual professors been awarded grants to carry out research and/or experimentation in their field? This information will often be found in their C.V. as well as departmental pages.
  • Special Research: Is a professor not only respected in their wider field of expertise but also, and more importantly, engaged in research in areas that you are specifically interested in studying on the doctoral level?
  • Awards: Professors and Universities are very happy to let everyone know about the successes of their professors. Check department webpages and their news feeds to find out if professors in the areas of your doctoral interests have been the recipients of awards, honors, and other recognitions.
  • Full-time/Part-time Faculty Ratio: While this may not seem directly related to the quality of an entire faculty, department, or individual professor, it may have an impact on professorial quality. This is because part-time faculty make a fraction of what full-time faculty make. Often part-time faculty teach more courses, many times at different institutions to make of the difference in pay. So, even if a professor has many of the other qualities we’ve listed, the sheer workload may cause them to be less engaged and effective than a full-time faculty member.
  • Salary: Schools that pay more will create competition and attract, very often, more qualified faculty. Web resources such as Chronicle Data, and Inside Higher Ed can provide information on faculty salaries.
  • Find and Read Professors Publications: Departmental webpages, Academia.edu, and personal blogs are great places to look for works of professors in a field and to compare between professors. Then check libraries, Google Books, Google Scholar, and internet searches.
  • Sample Courses: Online doctoral degree programs will often offer sample courses for prospective students to check out. Take advantage of these to help you make your own evaluation. After all, you’ll be taking the courses and you’re the best judge of whether a professor or faculty will be a good personal fit.
  • Former Students: If you can find former students of a doctoral faculty or a given professor, see what they have to say. This will provide personal perspectives for your consideration when making your decision.

Cost

An online doctorate from a college or university with an outstanding reputation almost always comes with a higher price tag. If your future is not in academia, you may be surprised at how school reputation does not predict actual post-graduation earning. According to Payscale.com professional and practice-oriented degrees from institutions that are not commonly considered to have outstanding reputations, actually, produce graduates with higher earning than those who have graduated from prestigious colleges and universities.

When looking at the cost for your online doctorate you’ll need to consider several factors:

  • Supplies: e.g., books and other course materials
  • Necessary educational equipment
  • Fees: School and Activities
  • Last but not least, Tuition
    • Per year
    • For the entire program
    • In-state vs. Out-of-State

Competition

A final aspect to consider when thinking of what online doctorates to apply to is competition. In addition to reputation not always being a predictor of high earnings along with the likely higher cost of earning an online doctorate at a college or university with a high reputation, is that admissions requirements, as well as competition, are higher than they are for other online doctoral programs. The hopeful online doctoral student should weigh these considerations in deciding what online doctorates to apply for and, once accepted, which to enroll in.

Admissions to Doctoral Degree programs offered by universities with a higher reputation will likely be more competitive amongst applicants in, among others, the following areas:

  • Previous undergraduate and graduate GPA: If you want to earn an online doctorate through a prestigious school, now is the time to start getting great grades
  • Well-roundedness: Doctoral degree programs at schools with an outstanding reputation aren’t just looking for one-dimensional academics. They are interested in students with diverse interests and talents who are willing to serve the broader community
  • Test scores: Whether it’s the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or another such test, schools with a top reputation will give a leg-up to applicants with outstanding scores on graduate/professional studies readiness tests.

Wisdom Is in Finding a Balance

In all this, the path of wisdom is found by achieving a balance between field of study, cost, faculty, specializations, and competition. Different students will prioritize the costs and benefits of each factor in a unique and personal way. There is no single “right” formula for choosing an online doctoral degree program. However, being aware of the importance of a college’s or university’s reputation and how reputation’s importance varies in different fields, is central for making the best of the time and money invested in earning an online doctorate. Not all institutions are equal and not all programs, even in the same area of study, will be identical. The key is to discover the program best suited to you in a harmonious balance of pros and cons.

Reputation: Summing Up

We have discovered how institutional reputation is important when choosing an online doctorate. However, as we have also seen, the importance and impact of a college’s or university’s reputation will vary widely, depending upon whether one is hoping to enter a career in research and college-level teaching or is, rather, disposed to employment in a profession. On the one hand, a doctorate from an institution with high standing is very important in research and teaching careers. On the other hand, not so much institutional reputation, but, rather, manifest competency is most important for practice and profession-oriented online doctorates.