An Online Degree Can Help Advance Your Career

Advice from Virtual Education Experts

Is your lack of a college or graduate degree keeping you from advancing in your career? Many employers will only promote workers who have at least a bachelor's degree, while others won't even consider hiring someone who hasn't graduated from college or graduate school. If you are willing to go back to school, but your work or family responsibilities make it difficult to attend classes, you may want to consider earning an online degree.

Sometimes referred to as web-based or virtual education, online degree programs are a great alternative for people whose schedules can't accommodate attending classes in a traditional manner. It might also allow someone to attend a specific college because of its reputation even if the school isn't nearby.

While attending college virtually can be a great—and convenient—option for many, it is one about which there are many misconceptions. Some prospective students think employers don't regard online degrees well. There are those that think it is too difficult to do because they will be "going it alone" without the support of faculty and classmates. Others think it will be easy and aren't prepared for the work and effort it will take. Next, administrators from three web-based programs help clear up some of the confusion.

First, the Facts

If you think that earning an online degree will be easier than earning one the old fashioned way, step away from the computer now.
You will have the same requirements as any student attending classes on a college campus. If you find a program that tells you anything different, run in the other direction ... fast. As the saying goes, "your degree won't be worth any more than the paper it's printed on." When you attend a web-based college or graduate program, the only difference should be in the way it accommodates your other responsibilities.
Depending on the program in which you enroll, you probably won't have to attend a class at a set time or take exams exactly when everyone else is doing so. Make no mistake, though, you will have to sit through classes, take exams, write papers and do all the other things college and graduate students do whether you are sitting in a classroom inside an ivy-covered building or in your kitchen.

How Do Employers Feel About Online Degrees

B. Loerinc Helft, Academic Director of Online Degrees in Business (BS in Business; MS in Business Management and Leadership) at the City University of New York School of Professional Studies (CUNY SPS) says that "employers care more about what potential employees bring to the table than how they acquired that knowledge." Dr. Helft goes on to assure you that your boss won't even know the means by which you earned your degree unless he or she asks. At least at her institution, diplomas have no indication of whether they were earned online or in the classroom. The University of Southern California Web-Based Master's Degree in Social Work program (MSW@USC) also issues diplomas that bear no statement that a degree was earned online. Paul Maiden, Vice Dean of that program, reports that "we don't make a distinction between the two and find employers don't either."

Susan Cates, the Executive Director of the Online MBA program at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School (MBA@UNC), highlights a potential benefit to employers of students attending college virtually.

As opposed to employees who have to go to classes a few days a week, perhaps having to leave work early, virtual learners can get a good education without disrupting their current role at work.

Evaluating Programs

"All online degrees are not alike, in just the same way as all traditional degrees are not alike," stresses Dr. Helft. "It is not the mode of delivery that is the issue, but the rigor, depth and breadth of content, assignments and assessments, and course requirements that compose the degree that is of importance." So how do you know if a program is any good? Do your homework. Learn about "the reputation and track record of the university" advises Dr. Maiden.

Also find out if the program is accredited. "An accredited degree from a regional accrediting agency is more rigorously reviewed than from a national accrediting agency," says Dr. Helft.

Some degrees must be accredited by a specific professional association or you won't be able to get licensed or certified if that is required in your field. For example, if you want to become a social worker, the program you attend should be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), as Dr. Maiden's program is.

One disadvantage of earning a degree virtually could, but doesn't have to be, the lack of interaction between students and teachers and among classmates. If technology is used to its fullest advantage, this can be overcome. Ms. Cates says that "it is important to look for programs that leverage technology for virtual interaction—whether via webcam or Skype, videoconferencing or online discussion groups. You'll feel more connected to your professors and fellow classmates, even if you're miles apart."

Consider who will be teaching your classes. Does the online faculty also teach in traditional classrooms? Do instructors have real-life experience they can share with students. This is an important feature of any college program, whether online or traditional. Does the faculty create the curriculum? Dr. Helft points out that faculty-created courses, in which the "faculty member's expertise is brought to bear in what the students experience," are superior to institution-created courses.

Another important factor to consider, particularly if you are earning a degree in a discipline that requires it, is real-life or field experience. Social work is such a discipline and to accommodate that, students who are enrolled in Dr. Maiden's program at USC complete their field internships right in their hometowns. This, he says, "is extremely valuable for building a professional network and discovering post-graduation job opportunities."

Also in regard to job opportunities after graduation, it is very important to consider the career assistance that a college, online or traditional, offers to students and alumni. Drs. Helft, Maiden and Cates all report that their programs offer students virtual employment workshops, webinars, resume and interview preparation assistance and job listings. Another valuable resource to look for is an alumni network that can provide networking opportunities.

Is Online Education the Right Option for You?

Even if a program meets all the criteria that make it a good one—proper accreditation, interaction, faculty-developed coursework—it does not mean it's right for you. Not every student will thrive in this kind of environment. "Being in an online degree program requires self-motivation and strong time management and organization skills," says Dr. Helft. Ms. Cates agrees. "Students are juggling work, school, family, and community work—so it's important for them to have a laser focus on time management." Dr. Maiden, however, points out that students studying in "any rigorous master degree program" needs these qualities.

A student with even the best time management and organizational skills can find himself or herself "lost," when it comes to a particular subject. Many programs, including Dr. Helft's and Ms. Cates's, offer access to tutoring for those who need academic assistance. If you anticipate needing this sort of help, ascertain whether the program in which you are interested offers it.

Applying to an Online Program

Once you find a suitable program, you will have to submit an application. If you think you can just fill out an online form, select the degree you want and put it in your shopping cart, you are mistaken. The application process should be as rigorous as it is for a traditional college. Generally, you must meet certain criteria in terms of grade point average and standardized test scores, although some very reputable colleges, both virtual and traditional, no longer require those. You may have to write an essay. You might be asked to write a personal statement explaining why you have chosen to earn an online degree. You will probably need letters of recommendation as well.

If you find a school that will just accept anyone regardless of his or her ability, you may run into either one of two problems: the coursework may be too easy in order to accommodate everyone who has been accepted or it may be too challenging for some students in spite of their being accepting. You want to get into a program that is right for you. It should be one in which you can succeed academically and it must provide you with the education you want and need. That means you will learn what you need to in order to have a successful and fruitful career.

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