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Want an online U.S. degree? Know the costs

Stigma on e-degrees down, but watch out for false promises


 

One way to get an edge in this job market is to earn an advanced degree. Just don’t assume doing it online will be easy. Online master’s programs are often cheaper and more convenient than traditional ones, but they also present challenges.

“You’re home alone and have to motivate yourself. It’s not the same as sitting in a classroom where you have a social support group,” said Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, an accrediting agency based in Washington, D.C.

Online education is nevertheless becoming more widespread. In 2007, more than 3.9 million students took at least one online course, a 12 per cent increase from the previous year. That’s according to the Sloan Consortium, an online education advocacy group.

Regardless of how you earn your degree, remember that it’s not a ticket to six-figure paycheque or job security – consider the slew of MBA casualties on Wall Street in recent months.

But if you think it will give your career a kick, here are a few points to keep in mind.

PICKING A SCHOOL

Many traditional universities also offer online courses. At some schools, such as Duke and Columbia universities, select master’s programs are entirely online.

If you’re not set on getting a degree from a traditional institution, online-only schools can be viable options. For instance the University of Phoenix offers master’s programs in business, education health care and psychology. Other career-focused schools, such as DeVry University, also offer master’s programs online.

Beware of any online outfits promising quick and easy degrees. These so-called schools might ask for US$1,000 or more in tuition and have names that echo those of prestigious universities. Mailing addresses are often P.O. boxes.

“It’s tempting when the economy is tanking and the unemployment rate goes up,” said Alison Southwick of the Better Business Bureau.

If you’re not sure about a school’s credentials, the U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited schools on its website, www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation. You can also check the site of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation at www.chea.org.

Traditional universities generally apply the same admissions standards and deadlines for online students as for everyone else. At online-only schools, admissions are typically on a rolling, monthly basis.

COURSE WORK

Course work won’t be any easier with online programs. In fact, at traditional schools the online materials should be comparable to what’s taught in classrooms.

As with any course, you’ll be expected to hand in periodic assignments. Meeting deadlines might be a struggle if you’re accustomed to the structure a classroom provides. The trade-off is that you study when and where you please.

“You don’t have to drive across town after work or juggle babysitting appointments,” said Lambert of the Distance Education and Training Council.

You might also interact with classmates and professors more than if you were in a lecture hall packed with hundreds of students. Chat rooms, frequent email exchanges and online message boards are often integral elements of online courses.

For certain degrees, such as in the medical profession, you’ll likely need to complete some in-person training.

COSTS & FINANCIAL AID

Online degrees are typically cheaper than traditional programs, but tuition is still considerable.

At the University of Phoenix, for instance, tuition for full-time graduate students was US$13,500 in 2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. At the American Intercontinental University Online, it was US$21,300.

That doesn’t mean you can’t ease the hit to your wallet. Employers will often help.

A 2007 survey of large companies by the business consulting firm Mercer found 87 per cent of respondents offered some form of aid for education.

Professional associations also offer scholarships and stipends. If you’re daunted by your chances of landing a national stipend, look for programs sponsored by local chapters. The Asian American Journalists Association, for instance, offers stipends at the national and local level.

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

The stigma of online degrees among employers is abating now that more traditional universities are embracing distance learning, said Coy Renick, president of The Renick Group Inc., a recruiting firm in Roanoke, Va.

That’s not to say a degree from the University of Virginia will be viewed in the same light as a degree from an online school. But it matters less than it did in the past, Renick said.

Employers might not even realize you earned your master’s online.

“Unless it says University of Phoenix, it won’t be obvious,” Renick said.

The decision to get a master’s degree ultimately boils down to whether you think an advanced degree of any sort will boost your career.

According to the Census Bureau, median earnings for people with a graduate or professional degree was US$61,000 in 2007. That’s compared to US$47,000 for people with just a bachelor’s degree.

One way to gauge whether an advanced degree will benefit you is to talk with your human resources department. Ask what new opportunities additional schooling could open up or how it could affect your pay.

Even if it won’t have an immediate impact, any edge you can get is worth considering in this job market.

– The Canadian Press


 

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