Online Graduate Degrees Hit a Sweet Spot of Quality, Convenience

From full master's degrees to professional certificates, online classes offer a wide variety of styles and subjects.

An online student works on a project.

Online degrees from nonprofit institutions generally carry the same admissions, faculty and graduation requirements as traditional programs, educators say.

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While distance learning is hardly new, technology has now made it possible – and attractive – for hundreds of highly regarded U.S. institutions to offer their postgraduate degrees to students around the world.

While some doctoral programs are being offered online – usually in professional fields like health sciences – the real growth in online graduate education has been in master’s degrees, says Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to the improvement and advancement of graduate education.

A 2012 study by Eduventures, a Boston-based higher education research and advisory firm, reported that 35 percent of all master’s degree students are taking their courses at least 80 percent online, a jump of nearly 16 percent in just one year.

Many prestigious institutions now in the game impose modest residential requirements on online students.

As part of MBA@UNC, a three-year-old program of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, students must participate in at least two three-day immersion weekends in cities like Johannesburg, Istanbul and Chicago, where they network with business executives, gain insights into specific industries and get career counseling.

[Check out the journey of one online student.]

At Auburn University in Alabama, the two-year master’s in real estate development brings its distance learners in for six weeklong campus residencies, plus a four-day field trip to visit a real estate development project.

Before considering an online degree, educators recommend that you first candidly assess whether you have the discipline to beat back the distractions of home life – a new baby, evenings out with friends, the lure of social media. When studying is added to the mix, the pressure can be intense.

On the other hand, one of the advantages of working while getting a degree is that you get to apply new knowledge to the workplace in real time. Each of the 28 students pursuing Brown University’s new Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership degree came to the program having identified a "critical challenge" for his or her organization that needed to be addressed, says Angela Sherwin, director of the program.

Experts say accreditation is one of the most important factors to look for as you consider your options. The Department of Education offers an online database of about 6,900 accredited postsecondary institutions and programs. The curriculum and the amount of work demanded should be the same as for an on-campus program, experts say, and costs should be pay as you go. A quick, easy program paid for all in advance should raise a red flag.

[Find out how to tell if an online program is accredited.]

In general, online degrees from nonprofit institutions have the same admissions standards, content, graduation requirements and faculty instructors as their on-campus equivalents, say educators. And these days, employers generally don’t care how a degree was earned, says Kelley Michael Ross, senior analyst at Eduventures.

"There may be a question if the degree is from a for-profit institution, but that has more to do with the perception of quality standards at for-profit institutions than the fact that it is an online degree," he notes. Over the past few years, a number of for-profit schools have been plagued by scandals involving low graduation rates, high rates of student loan defaults and a poor record of job placement.

[Learn what jobs an online degree can open to you.]

You should also consider what type of experience you are looking for. Generally, there are two categories of courses.

Asynchronous ones can be accessed at any time. Synchronous classes are lectures streamed live at a certain time, and all students are expected to be "present." These lectures are videotaped, in case attendance is impossible.