Online colleges and distance learning programs allow workers to earn a degree without the hassle of driving to campus or attending classes. For full-time professionals, the option of learning on their own schedule is ideal. In a Zogby poll, 88 percent of those surveyed said that more people would complete a college degree if they didn't have to quit work and if they could balance their personal and work obligations.
While earning an online degree might seem like the answer to your back-to-school prayers, there are a few things to consider. How long will it take to earn the degree? How much will it cost? How do I know if a school is legitimate? And most importantly, how will employers perceive my online degree?
"Not all online programs are created equally," says Mary Ann Shurtz, executive vice president of Stratford University in Falls Church, Va., which offers both campus and online courses. "Because of this, the value of the degree and education one receives will be greatly influenced by the program they choose."
How do employers perceive online degrees?
To many people, a degree is a degree -- but to others, there can be an issue of trust, or lack of reputation and familiarity, says Marc Scheer, a career counselor and educational consultant based in New York City.
"Traditional programs have been around for hundreds of years, but online programs are relatively new [and] employers tend to be less familiar with them," he says.
Employers are getting there, however. In a survey done by online institution Excelsior College and Zogby International, 61 percent of CEOs and small business owners nationwide said they were familiar with online or distance learning programs.
Not only are they familiar with them, but 83 percent of executives in the survey say that an online degree is as credible as one earned through a traditional campus-based program. Employers said such factors as the accreditation of the college or university, the quality of its graduates and the name of the institution awarding the degree were among other things they considered to make an online degree more credible.
Dannie McClain, a category manager for Town and Country Linen, says she thinks getting a degree from a school with both online and traditional programs has helped employers view her degree as credible. Initially hired without a degree, McClain now has a double online degree in marketing and business from Michigan-based Baker College, which also has online programs.
"I think gaining my degree from a 'true' college that offers online courses in addition to regular ground courses helps in my employer seeing this as a 'true' degree," she says.
Not all employers feel the same way, however. Brandon Mendelson, a former business owner, says he wouldn't consider an applicant with an online degree -- even if he had everything he was seeking. He says he thinks that students get only a fraction of the learning experience online.
"I want someone who made the full commitment," he says. "These days, there are no excuses. Your job will pay for school; colleges have day care facilities that are usually free; so actually going to the school gives a candidate the edge in my book."
Advantages of online learning
But what about those who don't have time to make it to school every day? Luckily, one of the biggest perks of earning an online degree accommodates that very issue.
"Online degree programs are designed to help adult learners with busy lives earn their degree without being tied down to class times and without having to go to campus," says Jeff Caplan, dean of strategic enrollment management at American Sentinel University, an online university.
Michael Rogich, director of the center of online learning at Saint Leo University, based in Florida, says studying online is just as effective as studying traditionally, and in some sense is more powerful.
"With adult students, your options are either part time or online," Rogich says. "Online, the student has more access to a good program and is constantly connected to instructors and fellow classmates."
Tom Johansmeyer, who earned his MBA online and is currently working on his doctorate, is a perfect example of that. He says an online program was his only option for going back to school.
"I was working as a management consultant and spending 40 weeks a year on the road," he says. "With that kind of travel schedule, it would have been impossible for me to get to a classroom."
Indeed, online learning can benefit some students more than classroom learning. For example, some students might not learn as well in a classroom if they are shy or disengaged in group settings. In this case, Scheer says online students may benefit from their programs by interacting with students like themselves. Additionally, online discussions can be more inclusive and productive than classroom debates, especially because online forums offer more opportunity for participation.
Disadvantages to online learning
Not having face-to-face interaction with a teacher, however, can also be seen as a disadvantage for some students.
"Being able to attend when you want means you have no face-to-face, so there are no real-time answers to questions you have," McClain says. "You either have to wait for someone to reply to a forum, e-mail the instructor or hope that there is someone on IM that can answer you."
Scheer says it's easy for online programs to be fraudulent and nonaccredited, so there's the possibility of being scammed or unable to transfer credits to another school. Finally, some employers simply don't accept online degrees from any school, accredited or not.
Tips for finding a quality online degree
Are you interested in going to back to school online? Here are six things to consider when looking for a quality online degree program, according to Shurtz:
1. The reputation of the school. Is it an institution that provides only online degrees or does it have physical locations as well? Having actual campuses helps to establish credibility. A red flag would be the existence of only a post office box or suite number.
2. The accreditation of the institution. The Department of Education says that researching the accreditation is essential. Diploma mills are usually accredited by fake agencies. It's important to make sure the accrediting agency is one recognized by the department or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.
3. Does the school offer technical help and easy access to speak with advisers, professors and the help desk?
4. How quickly the degree can be earned. A red flag would be earning a bachelor's degree in just months.
5. Program fees. Students should pay as they go and be charged per credit hour, rather than per program.
6. The work involved to earn the degree. Diploma mills require very little work and often take life or work experience into account. Legitimate programs require the same amount of work one would expect attending class on a campus.
Rachel Zupek is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.
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