Rather than go to college after graduating from high school, Scott Marrone opted to join the armed forces. After a three-year stint in the Army that ended in 2001, Marrone was equipped with expertise but no college degree. While in the Army, his facility with computers earned him a position as a network systems administrator, which he thought would serve him well as he transitioned into the "real world." He was able to earn contract positions at computing giants IBM and Microsoft but was told pointedly by superiors that despite his experience and information technology certifications, he would never be hired full time without a college degree. "The job market was very challenging," he says. "I realized that just having experience without a degree wasn't going to cut it."
In his mid-20s and supporting himself, Marrone knew he couldn't afford to take time off from work to earn a degree, no matter how badly he needed one. His solution: enroll in the University of Phoenix and take courses online. Though the school is accredited as traditional universities are, Marrone wondered if employers would be receptive to an online degree. "I was a little skeptical of it," he admits. "But out there in the real world, we've got real problems and real demands. I couldn't stop working."
He treaded water in his career while attending school, but he emerged in 2008, five years after he first enrolled, armed with not only a bachelor's degree but also a master's in technology management. Despite his initial worries, he was pleased to find that potential employers had no qualms about his online education. Now Marrone is the information technology manager for building materials firm ASC Profiles. "They're just looking for degrees," he says. "No one looked any differently on an online degree than an on-campus degree."
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Marrone's story is not uncommon. Many Americans opt to go back to school well beyond their teenage years. Some opt to do it to finally earn a bachelor's degree and others in order to add a graduate degree to their résumés in hope of accelerating their careers. Either way, completing a college degree later in life can be a daunting task. Most who do so are supporting themselves—or a family—and can't afford to take a few years off to complete an education. One way to circumvent this problem is to earn a degree online, which can be done from the comfort of home at a time convenient to the student. Those who have made that sacrifice say that balancing a full workday with an online class load is draining but ultimately worth it. "Being sleep deprived definitely did take its toll," says Jessica Guberman, who received an online master's degree in psychology from Capella University in 2001. "But I never got to the point where I wanted to stop doing it."
Guberman, who jumped into a job in the nonprofit sector immediately after graduating from the State University of New York–New Paltz, soon realized that her aspirations to receive a master's degree might be derailed by her 50-plus-hour-a-week job. A magazine ad for Capella piqued her interest and seemed like a viable solution. Still, she, like Marrone, had some reservations before she took the plunge. "I was a little hesitant because I hadn't heard of anybody else doing it before," she says. "I didn't want to sit in front of a potential employer and have them say, 'Nope, that [degree] doesn't count.' "
But after reviewing Capella's accreditation credentials, Guberman decided the school gave her the best option to support herself while advancing her education. Because Guberman attended the school in online education's infancy, Capella offered her pointers for handling employers who might be wary of hiring someone with an online degree. In interviews, she was able to highlight how curriculum online was similar to that of traditional schools, and she claims that employers were impressed with her choice to attend school, online or not, while still working. Guberman is now the executive director for public relations at Community Options Enterprises, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the disabled.
Several years ago, Becky Bravo, who had a bachelor's degree and nearly a decade of work experience, wanted to go back to school. A military wife, Bravo moves often with her family, and she felt a graduate degree would expedite her job search each time she moved. Unwilling to sacrifice time with her daughters in order to attend classes, Bravo turned to American InterContinental University's online program, and in 2009 she received a master's degree in education. Last September, her husband's job required the family to move from Texas to North Carolina, but Bravo's new degree helped her land a job at a private school just 15 days after the move. The Bravos will be moving again, this time to Florida, at month's end. Bravo is undaunted by an unemployment rate that remains above 10 percent and is confident that the skills she honed as an online student will earn her a job soon after arriving. "I don't imagine it will be too difficult to find a job," she says. "[Employers] expect you to be computer literate. They expect you to know your stuff."