Go Back to School Online
What You're Getting Out of It
Howard is just as enthusiastic. "There were students in my classes who were in Saudi Arabia and Japan," she says. "It was incredible just to hear their perspectives." She credits the program with her career reinvention but values nearly as much the sense of community that arose in her virtual classroom. "I made friends with a woman from Nevada who was in 11 of the 12 classes I took," she recalls. "She came to Missouri for graduation, and I thought, 'Wow, she's been my friend for two years and this is the first time we've met!'"
With all of the online options out there, how do you know which ones are good? Fortunately, most of the major guides to U.S. colleges and universities now evaluate online programs along with brick-and-mortar institutions. Indeed, notes Franek, the 2009 edition of The Princeton Review Complete Book of Colleges features 149 online degree programs, both public and private. Some of these programs, like the University of Phoenix, exist almost solely online, but many institutions, such as the University of North Carolina and Florida State University, offer online degrees in addition to those available on campus.
Vicky Phillips, the founder of the online education Web site geteducated.com, says that her company's research has consistently shown that online degrees tied to a large public university hold more weight with employers. Degrees from institutions that operate only online or by correspondence earn the lowest approval ratings. Phillips also recommends choosing a school within the commuting area where you hope to launch your career. (To read student reviews of various programs, go to guidetoonlineschools.com.)
Above all, make absolutely sure that your program is accredited by an agency recognized by the Department of Education (ope.ed.gov/accreditation). Make no mistake -- not all accreditation is created equal. Some programs that bill themselves as accredited may in fact be what Phillips calls "diploma mills," questionable institutions that will award a paper credential in exchange for a fee, with little regard for the quality of the course work. Geteducated.com offers a free service, Diploma Mill Police, which has exposed more than 300 of them. The site also rates online degree programs, explains their accreditation, and offers admissions tips and financial aid info. For information about getting a license or certification in a nonacademic field such as real estate or fitness instruction, go to online-education.net.