Online College Choices and Degree Program

By: Mary Tran

College degrees once warranted crack-of-dawn classes and armchair chats during professors' office hours. These days, crisply-rolled diplomas are much closer at hand - mouse-clicks and keystrokes within reach.

For the last five years, record numbers of students have booted up their computers in pursuit of Associate's, Bachelor's, even Master's degrees.

'The options are numerous, all with subtle differences,' says Jerry Slavonia, CEO of CampusExplorer.com, a Web-based college resource. 'Evaluating the programs on your own can be challenging.'

Online schools took root in the early 1990s. According to a recent study by the Boston-based consultancy EduVentures, eight percent of post-secondary students -- more than 1.5 million people -- are currently studying for cyber-degrees.

The University of Phoenix-Online Campus has become the largest post-secondary institution in the U.S.: With more than 117,000 students, it's twice the size of the second-largest U.S. college.

The biggest benefits afforded by such schools, experts say, are access and flexibility. The college-age population now clocks in at historic proportions, and is expected to grow continually during the next decade; bricks-and-mortar classrooms are crowded. Meanwhile, government education subsidies are shrinking. Online schools let students don the college cap after working hours.

'If we get clear evidence that they can allow you to complete your degree quicker, or get you a comparable salary at the end of it, and if tuition rises continue to outpace inflation,' says Richard Garrett, Senior Research Analyst at EduVentures, 'I think people less able to pay for a traditional college experience will see online as a more and more attractive option.'

Forensic science, health care and homeland security are among the many Bachelor's of Science already sought by online learners. Westwood College Online, in Denver, offers one in fashion merchandising, while the Art Institute of Pittsburgh-Online Division, in Pennsylvania, trains aspiring video game developers.

Though many programs may appear similar on-screen, insiders caution that online schools take a myriad of forms. Factors to consider include a school's reputation and accreditation. Where are its alumni working? What about job-placement rates? Are traditional services like counseling and tutoring available to online students? The next generation of education focused web sites like CampusExplorer.com are helping students navigate these issues.

Kate Kelleher, Pittsburgh's Online Division Vice President, says mirroring a traditional college program is essential to her school's success. 'By offering services via social networking sites and the like, we try to provide a holistic experience, versus just plugging into the wall.'

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