Make a digital degree pay off

May 26, 2011: 11:00 AM ET
online degree, distance learning, digital degree

(Money Magazine) -- Think an advanced degree or some extra coursework could help you step up your career?

There are several good reasons to consider an online program. You can complete it around your schedule. You'll have no commute. You'll have access to universities beyond driving distance. And, perhaps most important, many employers are now taking distance education seriously.

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll last summer found that in 55% of organizations, job applicants with equal experience had the same chance of getting hired whether they got their degrees online or off.

But before you rush to enroll at PC U., consider these factors:

Your needs

Distance learning isn't for everyone.

"You need discipline," says Jeff Seaman of Babson Survey Research Group, which studies online education. "Otherwise, the 'anytime, anywhere' aspect frees you to put off the work."

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Take the assessment at to see whether you're suited to online study.

If you find live discussion motivating, hybrid programs that include classroom time may be a better fit.

Think, too, about what you want from the experience.

Someone looking to expand career contacts may be best served by a traditional program, which allows face-to-face networking. But for those who just need a credential to get to the next level, online study can make sense, says Penny Locey, consultant with career management firm Keystone Associates.

The school's reputation

The SHRM study, while encouraging, suggests that many employers (the other 45%) still have doubts about distance education.

"I have some clients who don't bring in anyone from an online university," says Alan Bauer of Bauer Consulting Group, a recruiting firm in El Paso. "They think they're paper mills."

Still, if you get a degree from a traditional university with an online extension -- say, NYU or University of North Carolina -- employers may never know how you got it.

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"It's not necessary to indicate on your résumé that it was earned online," says Jacob Meade of job site

On the other hand, the name of a for-profit school known largely for online education -- like Kaplan University or University of Phoenix -- may alert employers to the possibility that you earned the degree online.

Narrow your options by asking mentors which schools are respected in your field, then see if those offer online programs. Just be sure any program you're considering is accredited at

The cost

A recent survey co-sponsored by the Campus Computing Project found that 68% of private colleges and universities charge the same tuition for online and traditional programs (undergrad and grad).

Another 22% charge more for online. So compare college costs with your traditional options.

The good news: Federal aid is typically available for online programs, says Seaman.

Send The Help Desk your financial questions

And if your company offers tuition reimbursement to management-level employees -- 38% of firms do, reports Compdata Surveys, which tracks benefits -- it is likely to apply the same policies to online coursework.  To top of page

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