Earning a degree online just got easier
Giving your career a boost with a distance-learning program now will be simpler -- financially, anyway. Plus, more on opportunities to work from home.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

If you're interested in earning a degree online - whether it's an undergraduate sheepskin; an MBA or other advanced degree; or technical certification -- Congress did you a big favor last week.

Slipped into a $39.5 billion budget package that passed both houses last Tuesday was a provision that repealed what used to be known as "the 50-50 rule," which required colleges and vocational schools to offer at least 50% of their courses in traditional bricks-and-mortar classrooms before their students could qualify for federal loan programs. Now that the 50-50 rule is history, long-distance learning is accessible to many more students.

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"This change is especially good news for 'needs-based' students – that is, people who want to enroll in degree programs but just haven't got the cash," says Vicky Phillips, who runs a web site called GetEducated.com that acts as a clearinghouse for information about online degrees and the schools that offer them.

"Up until now, private bank loans have filled some of the gap, but they're harder to get and the interest rates are higher," she says. "Under the new rules, the federal government guarantees your student loans, so you don't have to be as credit-worthy."

Phillips expects the change in the law will also encourage more vocational training programs to blossom on the Web.

"About 98% of what's out there now is from bricks-and-mortar schools, which is fine, but they tend to be liberal-arts colleges," she says. "With federally-backed loans available, however, I think we'll see more online colleges being founded to provide training in technical skills."

"Some critics have complained that this is just going to end up with the federal government subsidizing diploma mills, but that worry is really unfounded," she adds. "The funds are available only to accredited colleges."

To apply for a federally-backed student loan, or for student aid based on financial need, contact the school where you want to enroll. As you might expect, there's a fair amount of paperwork involved and, once you've provided all the information that's required, the school will do an analysis of your stats and let you know which loans (or outright aid) you can expect to get. After that, the college collects the money directly from Uncle Sam as soon as you have registered.

Before you commit yourself, though, take a look at www.geteducated.com. The site offers a free downloadable guide to accredited online programs, called "Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools for Business, Management, and Online MBAs," that gives course listings, tuition costs, and other information you'll need to comparison-shop.

For the 130 different online MBA degree programs now available, tuition varies widely -- from a modest $5,598 at Chadron State University in Nebraska if you live in that state ($10,080 if you don't) to $115,700 for a diploma from Duke, the nation's highest-priced online MBA.

Phillips notes that employers tend to prefer "backyard brands," meaning schools in their own state or in the same region, so aspiring students should try to choose a school accordingly.

Texans have the most options, with 4 of GetEducated's top-25-ranked accredited MBA programs: Texas A & M Commerce, University System of Texas, University of Houston Victoria, and the University of North Texas. But if you live anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, you're in luck: 16 of the top 25 are in the South.

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Friends, those of you who recall a discussion in my column last December about companies that recruit people to work from home. I'd be remiss not to mention one more of these that recently came to my attention: A staffing service called Double-Click (www.teamdoubleclick.com), which has been matching employers with home-based office assistants since 2002.

Founder and president Gayle Buske started this when, as a graphic designer looking for three or four part-timers to help her start a new magazine, she placed an ad online and got 500 applicants.

Double-Click provides real estate, marketing, and web design firms with "virtual assistants" -- just like a traditional temp agency, but all online. If you're seeking a home-based "office" job, check it out!

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.