online degrees

Online degrees: Separating the solid from the flimsy

October 26, 2012: 9:37 AM ET

Online degrees can be just as effective on the job market as the traditional kind, but not all programs are created equal. Here's what to look for before you enroll.

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I quit school a few years ago before finishing a bachelor's degree in business, because of financial pressures, but so far I've managed to work my way up through several promotions at my current company. However, my boss just told me she wants to recommend me for another step up the ladder, but positions at that level require a college degree. So I'm considering going back to school, which I always meant to do anyway.

The thing is, with my work schedule, I'm going to need a lot of flexibility, so I'd like to earn my bachelor's online. But do employers generally view online degrees as on par with the in-person kind? Also, do you (or your readers) have any advice on how to choose the right program? — Joe College

Dear J.C.: You don't mention whether you've already tried Googling, say, "online degree programs," but, if so, you've no doubt been bombarded with advertising from for-profit schools. The University of Phoenix alone spends over $200 million a year on television and Internet pitches, according to an estimate from Madison Avenue trade paper Ad Age. Nothing wrong with advertising, of course, but in some respects it does make the process of choosing the right online school more difficult.

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Here's why: more than 7,000 U.S. colleges and universities now offer long-distance degree programs -- and about 85% of those are traditional brick-and-mortar schools that have expanded into cyberspace over the past few years. Yet traditional colleges don't have the marketing budgets that the huge for-profit schools have. So unless you actively seek out brick-and-mortar schools' online offerings, you may never know they exist.

"Prospective students should be wary of Internet 'guides' to online education that get paid to promote for-profit schools," says Vicky Phillips. "It's called pay-per-lead advertising, and it means the 'guide' gets X dollars for each person it steers to a for-profit university." Traditional colleges don't have such deep pockets, so thousands of them are unlikely to turn up in such directories at all.

"Not only that, but the for-profit schools have tens of thousands of students, while the online bachelor's-in-business program at a traditional university can only accept, say, 30 at a time," she adds. "So even if traditional colleges could afford to pay for online leads, it wouldn't make sense for them to do so. They're operating on an entirely different scale."

Phillips has been researching and comparing online degree programs for 20 years, which is about as long as they've existed. She runs a consumer-information web site called GetEducated.com that you might want to check out. The site includes a comparison tool that lets you evaluate and rank schools using 12 different filters. These include type of specialization in your major (business with a minor in finance, for instance); non-profit versus for-profit; secular versus religious (many Christian colleges now offer long-distance learning); and whether the school's programs are 100% online or "hybrids," meaning you'll have to show up in person several times per semester.

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Another filter is price. "An online bachelor's degree can cost anywhere from $16,000 to $122,000," Phillips notes. "They are definitely not all alike." GetEducated.com also offers reputation scores based on reviews by current and past students.

In general, Phillips believes online education has gained wide acceptance among employers. "People do worry that companies won't recognize an online degree as equal to the in-person kind," she says. "But our research shows that job interviewers have no problem with it -- as long as they see two things."

First is accreditation by a legitimate accrediting agency -- which can be tricky, since some for-profit schools claim to be accredited by phony agencies they've invented themselves. To make sure any program you're considering is genuinely accredited, check with the Council on Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.

Second, Phillips recommends you concentrate your search on long-distance degree programs offered by state universities or private brick-and-mortar schools that are likely to be familiar to employers in your state or region, or that have a particularly solid reputation in your industry. "Whatever reputation a school has will carry over to its online-degree programs," she notes. "So a 'brand name' an employer recognizes and respects will matter a lot more than whether you earned the degree online or in person."

Talkback: If you've earned a college degree online, how did you choose which program? If you're an employer, would you look askance at a job candidate's online sheepskin? Leave a comment below.

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