Graduate school was always part of the puzzle for Jefferson Macias, a supply chain manager for Intel in Tucson, Ariz., but finding an MBA program that meshed with his roles as a manager and father meant thinking outside of the brick-and-mortar box.
While a part-time master's program would allow him to keep working—a priority for Macias—it also limited his options to schools near home. A traditional part-time program also would mean spending nights and weekends in a classroom instead of with his family. So Macias shifted his attention to an online MBA.
[Learn how to balance your online course load.]
"I wasn't entirely sold on it," he says. "But then I started seeing just a large amount of schools coming onto the scene, and that's what started to really get me interested." Macias signed on to start Washington State University's online MBA program in the fall of 2010 and graduated in December 2012.
Hundreds of colleges and universities now offer graduate programs entirely or partly online, including such established public and private institutions as the University of Southern California and New York's Columbia University. For-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University also factor into the mix of choices.
In some cases, students can earn a degree without setting foot on a physical campus; other programs blend virtual instruction with in-person residencies that range from weekend seminars to several weeks abroad.
[Get tips to succeed in an online program.]
Choosing the best path—public or private, for-profit or nonprofit, blended or 100 percent online—requires significant research, and prospective students should consider a variety of factors before settling on a program. Chief among them, experts say: accreditation.
"I learned that it was essentially the gold standard of business education," says Macias of the stamp of approval by AACSB International–The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. "It really focused me in on a few key programs."
While business students may be able to move up the ranks with an MBA from an unaccredited school, employers may be wary of the merits of the degree. Professions that require state licensure, such as nursing, teaching, or counseling, often do not recognize degrees from programs that lack accreditation.
[Weigh the costs of an online master's in nursing.]
Most colleges tout the program's accreditation on their website, but students should do some legwork to ensure the credentials are legitimate. Students can verify the accreditation of any graduate school using the College Navigator tool on the Department of Education's website.
"I was fairly certain I wanted to leave the workforce and go to a full-time MBA program, so I was looking at your traditional top 20 schools," Millon, then a strategy engineer at Lockheed Martin and now a manager with McMaster-Carr, an industrial supply company in Los Angeles, told U.S. News last year.
Millon ultimately opted for a nontraditional program after a coworker suggested Duke's Cross Continent MBA program, a hybrid of online courses and six two-week residencies in places such as Shanghai and Dubai.
That global experience, and the networking skills required to collaborate with classmates in different time zones and hemispheres, can come in especially handy for students working for an international corporation.
Online programs also help eliminate the lag time between classroom concept and workplace application. Licensed nurses pursuing a master's in their field can quickly see how well new patient care techniques work in practice, and business students studying new finance concepts can test them out almost immediately.
"I was able to take the learnings from a specific course, and immediately turn that into a competitive advantage at work," Macias, the Washington State University MBA grad, says about his statistics class. "Other teams were asking me to do regression analysis and help with regression testing statistics ... Once I was able to show them what I was doing, I became instantly a much more valuable commodity."
So valuable, in fact, that he was promoted in November 2012, a month before collecting his degree.
But you don't need to work for a multinational corporation to benefit from the online degree format. Dalene Erickson, a daycare provider, earned her master's in early childhood education from the University of North Dakota without leaving her home or business in Maryland.
"It was online or nothing," Erickson told U.S. News last year, adding that her coursework started paying off right away. As word spread of her educational pursuits, the daycare operation's wait list lengthened.
[Avoid these 10 mistakes online students make.]
While the parents of Erickson's charges seem indifferent to whether she earned her master's online or on campus, some employers are still leery of the quality of online degree programs.
But that perception is gradually changing as more marquee names venture into the online learning arena, experts say. Macias says his own employer had no issue with his online degree, as long as it was from an accredited program.
"I don't feel like in 15 years it's going to be as big of a deal as it may have been 5 years ago, or even is today," Macias says. "But I think [as] the graduates of these [online programs], we have to prove that theory out."
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.