Mike Szalkowski, 51, always wanted a MBA but could never work out the timing around demanding jobs and a heavy travel schedule, first as a senior manager with Ernst & Young and most recently handling investments for a wealthy family.

Szalkowski, who lives in Atlanta, watched the development of online graduate degrees hopefully but wondered if employers would have the dismissive view that “you got it at some fly-by-night university.”

Then he saw that the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School – a top-20 MBA program – was offering an online option. Szalkowski immediately knew it was “a degree that people would recognize.” In 2015, he collected the degree in person in a ceremony at Chapel Hill.

Online graduate education, once a caveat emptor Wild West of questionable quality, has come a long way. “The online degree market is pretty well established, especially in terms of acceptance in the employer community,” says Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University and author of “The Future of University Credentials,” published last year.

The ability to deliver instruction online has opened up a world of possibility beyond traditional degrees. Both for-profit companies and universities – including elite ones – are racing to market with a range of options, from traditional academic degrees to occupational credentialing and professional development.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students enrolled in fully online courses represented 25 percent of all graduate-level enrollment in 2014, the last year for which figures are available. When you include hybrid or blended programs – a mix of online and traditional classes – that figure goes up to 33 percent.

One key reason for the acceptance of online graduate study is that elite institutions have entered the market, including Harvard University, which offers master’s degrees that can be earned more than half online in some two dozen fields ranging from sustainability to software engineering.

At Johns Hopkins University, dozens of degree programs can be earned completely online; others require some in-person coursework. Museum studies, for example, mandates a two-week intensive seminar in Washington, D.C., or another specified location.

At Georgetown University, students will find that a number of master’s programs – like those in applied intelligence, real estate and project management – offer the choice of learning either exclusively online or on campus or doing a mix of both.

In general, programs at elite schools are rigorous, and admission is competitive. Harvard, for example, requires applicants to complete three courses – usually including a difficult “gatekeeper” course – and get at least a B in each before submitting a traditional application.

But the online cost is attractive: Less than $31,000 compared to the roughly $90,000 price tag for the traditional degree. Meanwhile, at Kenan-Flagler, where “Online is not a B-tier program,” says Douglas Shackelford, the school’s dean, the fees reflect it. The school is the rare example whose online degree costs just as much – roughly $115,000 to $120,000 – as the residential one.

Is an online degree, credential or certificate right for you? Marty Gustafson, the assistant dean for academic planning and assessment at the University of Wisconsin—Madison‘s graduate school, says students often underestimate the amount of time school will take.
“We recommend students plan three hours per credit minimum, so roughly 10 hours per week per three-credit class, and put that time on their schedule,” she says. “That way they’ll understand when they can fit it in and what will have to give.”

Other things to consider: What kind of chat rooms or forums are available for you to “meet” fellow students and share concerns and problems? Are there team projects that will facilitate your meeting other students, even if only electronically? And, how accessible will the instructor or professor be if you need help?

Keep in mind that online flexibility is not infinite. Many degree programs, in particular, have strict attendance requirements and a zero-tolerance policy for no-shows. So you’ll want to make sure the program you choose has classes during times you’re available.

Gallagher urges prospective students to “do your due diligence” with employers or hiring managers. Can you feel confident that the degree or credential you choose will help you advance? How will it be viewed if you want to change jobs?

[Discover questions employers ask about job applicants with online degrees.]

Online degrees are well-accepted in the education field, where many of the initial online graduate programs were developed, for example. They are much less accepted in pockets of health care and in the scientific community, where clinical experience is required.

Still, a 2014 Duke University/RTI International study found that 73 percent of employers said that job seekers who took job-related MOOCs would be perceived positively. A company‘s “tuition support for multiple students in a particular program” is one gauge of employer interest, Gallagher points out.

Consider, too, the pace of change in your field. In fast-moving sectors like technology, data science and software engineering where you need a specific technical skill, short, targeted programs may be the way to go. See if the program offers job guarantees and if you can speak to former students to see how their credentials were received.

And weigh the cost. Your studies may be cheaper if conducted online, but there’s also the time and the effort.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Graduate Schools 2018” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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