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What Grad School Admissions Officers Think of Online Bachelor's Degrees

When Patrick J. Miller completed his bachelor's degree online through the Oregon State University Ecampus, he decided law school was his next step.

"Initially I was concerned that law schools may consider an online degree to be somewhat inferior to a traditional degree," said the 32-year-old Pennsylvania resident, who's now a law student at Pennsylvania State University--University Park, via email. Miller, who completed his freshman year in person at Villanova University, also had a professor speak to his on-ground classroom performance in a letter of recommendation.

Though the fact that he earned his degree primarily online didn't come up during interviews, Miller might still be onto something. Experts say prospective online bachelor's degree students who plan to eventually pursue graduate school should consider how grad program admissions officers typically view the credential.

In most disciplines, experts say, admissions officers review applicants based on various factors and won't reject them strictly because of an online undergraduate education.

Grad school admissions officers usually won't instantly know whether applicants earned a bachelor's degree online, says Sean-Michael Green, associate vice president of graduate enrollment at the University of New Haven, who focuses on arts and sciences, business, engineering, criminal justice and forensic sciences.

But sometimes, the topic comes up in letters of recommendation or personal statements, for instance, in which case the reputation of the school and its accreditation typically outweigh the online format. So long as the school is legitimate and accredited, it usually isn't a problem, Green says.

Many competitive law and medical schools, however, may be more hesitant to accept fully online degrees, especially as these fields have been slower to adapt to online learning, experts say. Some highly competitive on-ground MBA programs might also view them with closer scrutiny than traditional applicants, though this varies.

[Explore how online education has impacted various graduate disciplines.]

"The higher the ranking of an institution, or the more what we call 'applicant demand' for seats in the class, it's probably a little less likely that online degree students will be admitted because there's so many people applying," says Rosemaria Martinelli, a senior director at Huron Consulting Group who specializes in higher education admissions and enrollment. "For the next tier of schools, it's really much more situational."

Often, she says, applicants' reasons for pursuing a bachelor's online become part of their overall story.

"Contextualizing why you did an online degree -- What were your tradeoffs? What did you learn? And why you're prepared for an intensive in-person degree -- I think is really important," Martinelli says.

[Learn how to tell if an online program is accredited.]

"We're looking at the reputation of the school itself, the rigor of the coursework they took, the grades they got in that coursework -- but the delivery method would not really be a factor there," says Cindy McCauley, director of master's admissions at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, which offers blended and in-person MBA programs.

Experts say admissions officers will, however, conduct further research and ask the applicant questions about online programs at lesser known institutions, and potentially review whether he or she acquired the interpersonal and collaboration skills they would have in a traditional classroom.

Grad school admissions officers at schools that heavily incorporate online learning are probably more likely to accept an online bachelor's, experts say -- especially if the degree holder is applying to an online graduate program.

When Pete Baksh of Orlando, Florida, who holds a bachelor's degree from UF Online at the University of Florida, applied to online MBA programs, some interviewers asked him about his greatest challenges as an online student. But they didn't hold the online degree against him.

"All of those viewed my experience in undergrad as being a plus because of the nature of these grad programs," says the 42-year-old. He's now a student in the Indiana University--Bloomington's Kelley School of Business online MBA program.

[Discover five tips for applying to online MBA programs.]

Prospective students who might eventually want to go to law or medical school, however, should pursue online undergraduate education with greater caution, experts say.

Some of the most competitive law schools may not accept online bachelor's degrees or will view them warily, says Anna Ivey, who founded a consulting firm for college, law school and MBA admissions, though she says she's seen that overcome for specific circumstances like military deployment, and that perception could change in the next few years.

"There is a strong preference for students who are familiar with the classroom experience and with relating to other students as cases and issues are discussed," Edward Tom, assistant dean of admissions at the University of California--Berkeley School of Law, said via email. He says the school hasn't accepted any students with fully online bachelor's degrees.

Medical schools may also be more skeptical about online courses, says Dr. Sahil Mehta, founder of the med school admissions consulting company MedSchoolCoach. Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, for example, won't accept online classes to fulfill prerequisites.

"I think it partly reflects the fact that it's hard for us to gauge the quality of the instruction of the online courses," says Paul T. White, assistant dean for admissions at the John Hopkins medical school.

Dr. Valerie Ratts, associate dean for medical school admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, says that while online courses are accepted to meet some prerequisites, such as math courses, the school hasn't had an applicant with a fully online degree.

"This would give me reservation, especially in science courses where labs are required," she says.

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.

Jordan Friedman is an online education editor at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at jfriedman@usnews.com.

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