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Are Online Degrees Legit?

There’s no need to make the case for online education–it’s the most convenient way to get a higher degree. But what about that degree? Is it worth the same as the campus credential? Five years ago online degrees were still a new phenomenon, and many employers did not know what to make of them. Today they’re a common sight on elite resumes, and the stigma has faded. With 20% enrollment growth per year and a proven track record in the workplace, online programs are finally commanding the respect they deserve.

The Online Education Phenomenon
“Online enrollment is skyrocketing,” announced The Wall Street Journal last year, citing research by educational consulting firm Eduventures. Online education remains the fastest growing sector in higher education, with a 24% increase in enrollment in 2006. By 2008, one in ten college students will be enrolled in an online degree program–approximately 2.13 million students. Between “strong consumer interest in online delivery” and “the growing acceptance of online education by constituents, including faculty, students, and employers,” the future of online education is secure.

Why Go Online?
It’s easy to see why online education has enjoyed phenomenal growth in the past five years: convenience, convenience, convenience��� plus improved instructional quality and growing availability. The distance education format brings the university home, and within reach for anyone who wants to advance or change their career, update their knowledge in a specific field, satisfy continuing education requirements, or simply enrich their lives.

Online education has evolved to accommodate the needs of a new market. The typical student today is not an 18-year old fresh out of high school, but a working adult balancing school with work and family commitments. “People choose online educations because their lives don’t fit into the model offered by the traditional college,” comments Monster.com’s Learning Coach Susan Aaron. Online degrees can be completed in less time (an average 2-3 years for a traditional 4-year degree), and most importantly, on the student’s own time.

Can’t Argue with Results
But aside from convenience, online education offers equal or greater educational value as compared to a traditional campus program. The ROI of the degree in the workplace is well attested by independent market research. A recent survey by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) found that more than seventy percent of corporate supervisors rate the distance or online degree as “just as valuable” or “more valuable” than traditional degrees in the same field.

Academic leaders couldn’t agree more. The Sloan Consortium’s 2004 study found that “three quarters of academic leaders at public colleges and universities believe that online learning quality is equal to or superior to face-to-face instruction.” Initially skeptical, traditional campus universities have since embraced the online format and made great strides in improving educational quality. 81% of U.S. higher education institutions surveyed offer at least one online course, and 67% of administrators cite online education as “a critical long-term strategy for their institution.”

Virtually the Same, Only Better?
The value of the online degree stands to reason given the educational quality it represents. The curriculum has always been virtually the same regardless of the delivery method. And with traditional universities jumping into the game, the line between online and on-campus is fading fast. Many programs incorporate both formats and offer literally the same degree, without indicating whether the degree was completed online or on-campus.

But can virtual education be better than the ‘real thing’? Certainly doctors, scientists, and engineers will still need to make their way into a real clinic or lab for training. But other prospective college students may prefer the virtual classroom. Interactive technology has improved to such an extent that the gap between student, instructor, and peers nearly disappears. Live chats, streaming video technology, and multimedia visual aids have created a new kind of classroom community.

It’s a format that many students find more engaging and democratic than the traditional lecture hall. Students become active participants in their education. There’s no snoozing in the back row during lecture, or slinking back in your seat as two or three students dominate class discussion. “Distance students must take greater responsibility for their education,” observes Dr. Joe Boland, Director of the Center for Distance Learning at Georgia Institute of Technology. “They are as much a part of initiating interaction and class participation as the professor.” Online students don’t just view a lecture, they post responses to it, discuss it with peers, interact with the professor. Written exchanges give every class member the floor, and produce more thoughtful responses.

Employers, meanwhile, can appreciate both the solid education and the personal qualities the online format encourages in students–namely, discipline and initiative. A survey of hiring managers found that some prefer online students because “they are self-motivating and good at time management.”

How to Find the Right Online School
The online format has evolved into a state-of-the-art instructional mode that rivals face-to-face interaction. But not all online degree programs are created equal. It’s important to do some quality control before committing to a school.

The number one factor to look for: accreditation. An online school is only good enough for you if it comes with a stamp of approval from either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), or a regional accrediting agency recognized by one of these national boards. Accreditation is the surest way to avoid a “degree mill,” a fake school that sells degrees online. CHEA examines school performance in several important areas: “expected student achievement, curriculum, faculty, services, and academic support for students.”

Beyond accreditation, you can compare the educational quality of different programs by checking into:

To gauge the prestige of an institution (and the cache of your future degree), ask recruiters, your boss, or others in your field for respected names. Or check out surveys by respected publications. U.S. News & World Report offers a comprehensive ranking of colleges, and Business Week publishes biannual rankings of online business and MBA programs.

The virtual classroom has transformed the face of college education. In the past five years, online education has evolved into a dynamic learning mode that rivals the quality of face-to-face training. Traditional universities have joined maverick online degree providers to incorporate the new distance education technology. Online degrees today are more than legit–they’re an integral facet of higher education in the U.S.

Publish date: June 3, 2008