Time magazine, as part of a package on rethinking college, yesterday featured a pretty important article about technology in higher education. Kayla Webley, in looking at the future of education, asks a crucial question. What happens to people who attend online college? Can they get jobs?

As she writes:

With the national unemployment rate hovering near 8%, getting a job is exactly why many adults pursue a degree, online or otherwise. The question is: Can an online degree help you land a job at all?

An increasing number of students are hoping that the answer is yes. The growth in online education over the past decade has been nothing short of meteoric: a November 2011 report by the Babson Survey Research Group found that more than 6.1 million students took at least one online class during the fall of 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year and nearly four times the number of students taking online courses a decade ago. Still, concerns persist over the quality of online education and the usefulness of an online degree in getting a job — although for many it is the fact that most online universities are run as for-profit entities that is the root of the issue, rather than the medium in which they teach.

Leaving aside question of learning, which is difficult to investigate, much of the appeal of online education appears to be for essentially vocational programs. Older, working class people can go to college while working during the day. That way they don’t have to take off time to go to college to get the degree they need to get better jobs.

But if that’s the point of online education, it is worth asking how well it works. What does this “concerns persist” mean in terms of actual employment? Webley seems to think that we’re moving toward a place where people respect online college:

Perceptions of online-only degrees are slowly shifting. According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers’ views of online education have improved over the past five to 10 years. More than half of human-resources managers SHRM surveyed for an August 2010 report said that if two applicants with the same level of experience were applying for a job, it would not make a difference whether the job candidate’s degree was obtained through an online program or a bricks-and-mortar university. Seventy-nine percent said they had hired an applicant with an online degree during the previous 12 months. But 66% said candidates who obtained degrees online were not viewed as favorably as job applicants with traditional degrees.

This is potentially interesting, but it’s not all that enlightening. Almost 80 percent of those surveyed indicated that they hired someone with an online degree. But for what sort of jobs? And were they hired immediately after finishing these online programs or at some other point in their careers? Were they hired for jobs that traditionally went to people with academic degrees, or were they hired for blue-collar jobs where they might just as well have skipped colleges?

So, in short, at this point, we don’t really know much about the job prospects of people who went to online college. This doesn’t mean that online colleges are worthless, however.

It appears that the greatest use of online colleges appear to occur for those who have jobs already. This is especially true if someone is employed in one of those highly bureaucratic jobs where a degree from anywhere means automatically more money and eligibility for promotion. In that case online education would be great for one’s career. But that is, frankly, a function of an employers’ job regulations, not the quality of a business like the University of Phoenix.

The real measure of online college occur by comparing such colleges to real colleges divorced from experience. I can’t imagine that getting an online degree and then trying to look for a job is really going to work that well. In this economy, it’s hard enough finding a job with a degree from a real college.

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