Western Governor’s University, the inexpensive (and non-profit) online college that was the subject of John Gravois’s piece a year ago about the future of higher education, has become increasingly interesting to policymakers. It promises to help working people improve their lives cheaply though degrees offered online. Course credit has a lot to do with demonstration of subject mastery.

In many ways it’s very innovative. As is true of all vocational institutions, however, the effectiveness of the program has to do with what happens to the careers of graduates. And that’s still something of a mystery. Do WGU graduates get hired for and promoted to good jobs? How do employers view a WGU degree? Is it as impressive as a degree from a traditional college? Is it more impressive to employers than a degree from a for-profit college? While it’s too early to know, an NPR-StateImpact project looked at one WGU student. Her story reveals something interesting about how WGU and employment really works.

Elle Moxley reports that:

Mary Carney was running out of time. She was 55. Her two youngest children were teenagers. If she was going to finish her nursing degree, she needed to do it before she had to start paying for her kids’ college.

“I knew that eventually I was going leave bedside nursing and I wanted a transition to education, and you really need a graduate degree to do that,” says Carney, a Lebanon [Indiana] resident who earned her associate’s degree at Purdue University Calumet in 1980.

And so Carney, who was then working as a home care nurse, went to WGU. She did coursework at night, while her patients slept. She completed her bachelor’s degree in six months. It was apparently a very successful experience. As Moxley explains:

Carney didn’t have any trouble getting a job with her online degree. After graduating from WGU, she applied for a job in the pediatric intensive care unit at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital, where more than 80 percent of nurses have bachelors degrees. In-patient unit director Stephanie Tooley says for nurses, where a student goes to school isn’t important as long as the program is accredited and prepares him or her for the job.

Online college is not for traditional college students. They are not places for inexperienced people to come and make new discoveries about what they want to be and how they want to live their lives. When online college actually works it does one very specific thing: help people get better jobs.

It’s not first timers who succeed at places like WGU. It’s people who already have jobs and want another one in the same field. An online degree will do that for someone like Carney, someone with a lot of experience in a specific field. As Tooley explained, it doesn’t really matter where someone goes to college. For certain types of jobs, just accredited is good enough.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer