Is Cyber U for You? 3 Questions to Ask before You Enroll

Obtaining a degree can be as easy as point and click.

Back-to-school time still conjures images of Mom waving goodbye from the front porch as Junior departs with lunchbox in tow. But today's moms (and dads) are increasingly likely to join the back-to-school brigade themselves.

At last count, nearly half of the nation's 15 million undergraduate students were 25 or older, up from about 25 percent in the 1970s, and the number of adults seeking advanced degrees or enrolled in continuing education courses is also soaring.

Convenience of the Internet

Thanks to the Internet, going back to finish a degree or start a new one is easier than ever. More than a million people now log on rather than commute in, and the odds are good that even the most harried of today's working adults can find programs that fit their busy lives.

The first step toward back-to-school success is to identify the degree or skills you need. If a career change is part of the plan, talk to someone in the field who is familiar with who gets hired. Don't assume that you necessarily need a degree to make a move; your connections and work experience may be all you need.

Resources for Online Study

If you are contemplating a degree through cyberspace, I recommend that you check out the Distance Learning Channel at Peterson's Guides, where you'll find the Web's best searchable database of online degree programs.

If books are more your style, consider Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning or the Kaplan Guide to Distance Learning. With an hour of reading, you should be able to glean a list of potential programs and Web addresses. Whether you are looking at an online degree program or a traditional one, keep these questions in mind:

1. Is standardized testing required for admission? Scheduling and preparation for the tests can take months, and schools often require the results far in advance of your enrollment date.

2. What scheduling options are available? Programs can be full time, part time, evenings, weekends or flexibly scheduled. Some distance courses require periodic in-person attendance on campus or at a designated site.

3. How are the courses delivered? In the information age, traditional classrooms are often supplemented and sometimes replaced by cable TV, email, audio or videocassette, real-time chat or old-fashioned snail mail. The best distance learning programs generally mix and match technologies.

The Downside of Distance Learning

Distance learning does have its drawbacks. Many degree programs are offered by institutions hustling at the margins of higher education, and few elite schools are interested in alternatives to their residential programs.

A high-profile exception is Duke University's prestigious online Global Executive MBA program. The hitch: students (or their employers) are soaked for a total of $85,000 in tuition instead of the usual $52,000 required to get an on-campus MBA.

Distance degree programs are rarely less expensive than their conventional counterparts and often cost more, but low-cost alternatives are out there for those who look carefully. But keep in mind the fundamental rule of savvy shopping: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When in doubt, potential distance learners should stick with institutions that offer reputable courses offline.

The relative appeal of distance learning compared with a traditional program usually depends on each student's goals. Those looking for a collegiate experience with all the bells and whistles should take the traditional route. But if you're pressed for time and eyeing the bottom line, a degree from Cyber U could be in your future.

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