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GETTING STARTED

Web option becomes a valid route to higher education

Carolyn Bigda

December 26, 2004

As any working student could attest, balancing studies with a job can be an exhausting pursuit. In my last semester of graduate school, for instance, it took record levels of caffeine to survive 30-hour workweeks and four academic courses.

But such madness can be better managed thanks to the proliferation of online degree programs that let you attend classes through the Internet--as your schedule permits.

Nearly one million students are pursuing an online degree, about 6 percent of all post-secondary enrollment, according to Eduventures, an education research and consulting firm in Boston.

The appeal is driven by greater access to and familiarity with the Web.

According to a College Board report this fall, the average bachelor's degree recipient can expect to earn roughly 73 percent more than a high school graduate over a 40-year working period. This difference is even more drastic with post-baccalaureate studies.

"There is a social demand for better access to higher education," says Gary Miller, associate vice president for outreach at Penn State University, which launched an online program in 1998. "The online environment has allowed institutions to be more effective in meeting that need."

The only question is whether online degrees are finding similar favor with employers.

In the 1990s as online education evolved, for-profit schools with corporate backing dominated the market, pioneering the technology to deliver education through the Internet. Criticism wasn't far behind, however, as degree mills with questionable accreditation churned out graduates with baseless credentials.

But recently non-profit schools, particularly state universities, have rolled out online programs. And research shows that employers are granting these degrees higher merit.

"Traditional universities already had credibility with their campus-based curriculum and a history of viable distance-ed programs," says Greg Eisenbarth, executive director of the Online University Consortium, which advises employers on Web-based education.

In the consortium's 2004 survey of human resources executives, roughly 65 percent preferred the online programs of traditional universities versus 14 percent for for-profit programs. Twenty percent were undecided.

That shouldn't be surprising: A degree earned either online or through a classroom at, say, Penn State, carries the same brand name.

Of the for-profit institutions, the University of Phoenix is the largest, with 120,000 students pursuing online degrees. Craig Swenson, provost and academic vice president, argues that, having launched in 1989, the university is on a par with traditional institutions.

"Most of the traditional kinds of institutions haven't been doing online degrees for very long," Swenson says. "The business community in some ways doesn't understand--their experience may be with programs not as rigorous."

Whether non-profit or for-profit, if you're considering an online degree, your first priority is to find a program with legitimate accreditation, since more than 100 fake online colleges operate in the United States, according to Vicky Phillips, CEO of GetEducated.com, a Web education resource.

There are a number of recognized accrediting agencies, so confirm your school's with the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (www.chea.org). You could also submit a query to GetEducated.com's Diploma Mill Police, which check for you.

Some studies show that acceptance of online degrees improves when a prospective employer recognizes the institution's name, whether through national clout or geographic proximity.

Don't let cost stop you from considering both options: Many public universities charge in-state tuition for their online programs, regardless of where students live.

At the same time, not all online programs offer federal student aid, administered through the distance demonstration program. See if your school participates at www.ed.gov.

With for-profit schools, be wary of aggressive advertising, which undermines a program's credibility among employers, said Phillips. And as with any school, you should research the degree requirements, quality of professors and student services available, such as career counseling.

There's little doubt, though, of the Web's role as a classroom.

"So much of what we do takes place in cyberspace," says Greg Eisenbarth of the Online University Consortium. "That's how people work. Why wouldn't we be educated the way we're working?"

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E-mail Carolyn Bigda at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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