Q. I'm considering getting a master's degree to make myself stand out more in this tough job market. What are the pros and cons of online degree programs?
A. Getting a sheepskin without parking costs and a commute is an obvious plus. Online programs may be good for people who are shy, have physical or hearing disabilities or have reasons they have to be at home. And there can be advantages for people who are visual learners, better at retaining information that they see rather than hear.
"Lectures are very auditory, and some people are not auditory learners," says Russell Poulin of WCET, a group that researches technology-enabled policy and practices in education.
For an online program, you'll need to be comfortable using a computer, and, ideally, it will have a high-speed Internet connection. Don't assume the work will be easier.
"What is required to be learned is the same," says Poulin. "Students often need to exert more self-discipline in keeping up."
In surveying 183 public universities that offer courses online, his organization found that two-thirds charge the same tuition for traditional classroom programs. Twenty-two percent charge more for online classes, and 10 percent charge less.
But regardless of tuition levels, many universities charge additional fees for online course work that classroom students don't pay, such as special IT fees.
The survey did not include online-only programs run by such for-profit schools as Kaplan, Strayer and the University of Phoenix.
How valuable are online degrees?
Potential employers may have no way of knowing that your degree didn't come from classroom work. And if they do know, it may not matter: Human resources reps have begun to view online programs more favorably than a few years ago, recognizing that they're a new reality, especially for boomers seeking advanced degrees.
Nearly 80 percent of companies that took part in a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management said they have hired online-degreed applicants within the past 12 months.
But all else considered, six in 10 hirers surveyed said that they still prefer applicants with a "traditional" degree.
Some tips when considering online degree programs
- Be wary of websites that promise to match you with the best college. They're often operated by companies whose business is to generate leads about applicants for admissions offices. They'll ask you a few questions — and for your contact info — and then may bombard you with emails and phone calls about programs from sponsoring schools.
- Search locally first. In-state tuition at a public university or college may be the best deal, generally lower than at religious schools or for-profit schools. "Institutions that are locally based often have a greater commitment to serving students locally," says Poulin.
- Check with employers and professional groups. Ask their opinions on how online programs — and which schools — favorably impact employment and promotion opportunities. Some companies have relationships with certain schools. Also, check websites such as electroniccampus.org and collegechoicesforadults.org.
- Make sure that any online degree program in which you enroll has been fully accredited by a recognized accreditation agency. Otherwise, no matter how hard you study, your degree won't have much value in the workplace.
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Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.