Online Degrees

(CareerBuilder.com) -- Going back to school is an appealing option for many people, but they cant afford to quit their jobs to be a full-time student. If this sounds familiar, there might be a solution that allows you to go to school and continue working: an online or distance-learning program.

Online colleges and distance-learning programs are ideal for full-time professionals because they can earn a degree without driving to a campus or attending classes, and they can learn on their own schedule.

While all of this sounds alluring, there are a few things to consider before starting online classes. 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 it?

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.

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.

Not all employers feel the same way, however. Brandon Mendelson, a former business owner, says he wouldnt 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.

But what about those who dont have time to make it to school every day? Luckily, one of the biggest perks of earning an online degree accommodates that very issue.

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.

Tom Johansmeyer, who earned his MBA online and is currently working on his doctorate, is a perfect example. He says an online program was his only option for going back to school.

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.

Not having face-to-face interaction with a teacher, however, can be seen as a disadvantage for some students.

Scheer says its easy for online programs to be fraudulent and nonaccredited, so theres the possibility of being scammed or unable to transfer credits to another school. Finally, some employers simply dont accept online degrees from any school, accredited or not.

Are you interested in going to back to school online? Here are six things to consider when looking for a quality online degree program:

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.

The Department of Education says that researching the accreditation is essential. Diploma mills are usually accredited by fake agencies. Its important to make sure the accrediting agency is one recognized by the department or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Does the school offer technical help and easy access to speak with advisers, professors and the help desk?

A red flag would be earning a bachelors degree in just months.

Students should pay as they go and be charged per credit hour, rather than per program.

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.

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