More schools are shifting coursework from the classroom to the computer. But students need to do their homework to make sure they're getting what they pay for.

Mary Kosco is among the 4 million American students pursuing an online education. She's working toward her bachelor's degree in accounting through the University of Phoenix.

"I work in the collections department at Cardinal Health, but really want to work in the accounting department. That's what I hope to gain by getting my degree," Kosco says. "It's already opened doors for me. I'm doing really well, and I like it a lot."

More than ever, working adults like Kosco, as well as traditional-age students, are flocking to the computer to earn their degrees. A 2008 survey by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit focused on online education, found that online enrollment grew 13 percent in 2007 over 2006, far outpacing the 1.2 percent growth of overall higher education. More than 80 percent of online students are undergraduates, while 14 percent are graduate students.

Demand for higher education of all types increases when the economy sours and jobs are scarce. Working adults, in particular, are drawn to the classroom to improve their chances for advancement or enhance their résumé. For many, online education adds flexibility and convenience.

"Online education turns obstacles into a stepping stone for success," says Heather Loughley, director of University of Phoenix's Columbus campus. "The reality today is that you'll do better with an education and a degree. For some students, our online classes are the only access they have to higher education."

Questions linger, though, about the value of an online degree. Some bias exists, even though a number of online degree-grant-ing institutions are accredited by the same organizations as traditional brick-and-mortar colleges.

"The challenge I see is that hiring managers don't have personal experience with online learning. They just don't translate the concept of online education to the college experience, even though many businesses deliver their job training with online materials," says Karen Solomon, vice president for accreditation relations with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA).

Students should carefully research the institutions they're considering to ensure they receive a quality education in return for their effort and monetary investment. Seek out accredited institutions, and steer clear of schools that have reputations as mere diploma mills. Employers may want to take another look at current online degree programs, so qualified job candidates don't land at the competition. The economic trends, enrollment statistics and lifestyle demands of today's students all indicate that online learning is here to stay.

Appeal of Online Learning

In Central Ohio, the private, for-profit DeVry University and University of Phoenix and the public, not-for-profit Franklin University are among the institutions that offer online associate, bachelor's and master's degrees in a variety of disciplines. Ohio State University also has online learning options for its students.

"Time is a precious commodity. Online learning lets them maintain their lifestyle, whether it's a job or kids, and go back to school. Even traditional-age students are balancing school with work as grants and loans dry up," says Sherry Mercurio, Franklin University's public relations director.

Adult students often must reinvent themselves for today's workforce. "Some are looking for a subsequent degree. Some have lost their jobs. Others want to advance or start a new career that they like better than what they're doing now," Mercurio says.

Younger students, meanwhile, are attracted by the cyber world. "Students in their teens and 20s are particularly comfortable with the online environment and have been brought up in a technology environment that is rich in communication and feedback," Galen Graham, regional vice president for DeVry University in Columbus, writes in an e-mail.

Most institutions that offer online degrees also offer classroom courses. "Some students excel in onsite courses, others in the online environment. A lot of students mix and match their online and onsite classes. For some it's a matter of learning style. For others, it's a matter of scheduling and convenience," Graham says.

Students in all DeVry degree programs take courses online. In Ohio, the most popular online courses are in the business administration and technical management degrees. At University of Phoenix's Columbus branch, the business, information technology and health-care related curricula garner the most interest. Enrollment in Franklin's online classes is fairly balanced across the curriculum, Mercurio says.

At OSU, certain degree programs offer more online coursework than others. "Ohio State offers programs in nursing, engineering and the College of Business that are primarily online programs. Each area works out its own tuition and fee structure," says Joanne Dehoney, senior director for learning technology in OSU's Office of the Chief Information Officer.

The university has hundreds of online courses that are offered at instructors' discretion. Dehoney says OSU is working to develop an expanded e-learning strategy to encompass curriculum requirements, student and faculty support needs, technological requirements and connection to the university's strategic goals.

Class Work

Like their counterparts who trudge to class on campus, students studying online also have reading assignments, write papers and participate in discussions.

"Our discussion forums are equivalent to classroom time. Students listen, ask questions and contribute to active discussions. They're based on the reading materials and outside relevant topics," Loughley says.

Johnstown resident Anthony Starr began studying for an associate degree in web development at University of Phoenix last year. "I want to participate in school and I have lots of opportunities to do that online," he says. "I'm 19, but many people in my class are older than me. Our interaction is good and we spark up a lot of good discussions."

Reading material for nearly every University of Phoenix class is online. "Periodicals, business journals and scholarly papers are all right there. All they have to do is log in, whether they're at home or on their lunch hour," Loughley says.

Franklin University incorporates video and audiotapes of lectures. "Online students access them when it's convenient. Our courses also have group activities where students must interact with others on projects and presentations," Mercurio says.

For those who think taking courses via computer is the easy way to a degree-just check in periodically while in your PJs-think again. Online learning is more challenging than most people realize, Graham says: "There's no back row to hide and avoid class interaction. You can't miss class and hope to show up at the last minute and pass. A student's online activities are monitored closely for participation and assignment completion."

In other words: Self-discipline and motivation are a must.

Franklin student Windy Karow owns a freight brokerage business in Arkansas and is working toward her business administration degree. In addition to work and school, Karow also juggles three children and family health issues. Her husband, a truck driver, is on the road most days.

"You have to learn the material on your own and then do the assignments. If you're a procrastinator, it's not for you. But if you're willing to sit down and do the work, you can succeed at it," Karow says. "When I finish, I believe I'll have a whole new understanding of how to succeed with my business. Even now, I've learned so much that's helped me."

Whichever way someone earns a degree-in person or in cyberspace-the goal is to ensure identical learning outcomes. "Each type of course has its unique features, but at the end of the day students from online and onsite classes are expected to have achieved the same level of understanding and analysis of the subject matter," Graham writes.

Student Support

From the time an online student applies to a college or university through graduation, most institutions have an array of advisors ready to offer help. The support encompasses academics, research, financial aid, technology and career assistance.

"A student can earn their entire degree and never set foot on Franklin's campus. We work hard to create a sense of community, though, so they don't feel they missed out by not being in a classroom," Mercurio says.

University of Phoenix distance learners are encouraged to complete free online workshops. "They teach them the skills needed to be successful students," Loughley says.

As in the classroom, instructors are critical to students' success. DeVry, Franklin and University of Phoenix all employ both full-time academic staff and working professionals who serve as adjunct instructors.

"Franklin's online adjunct instructors take a six-week class that teaches them how to turn their practical business experience into an effective teaching experience," Mercurio says.

"Because of DeVry's size and national reach, it's possible for students in Columbus to be taught by faculty in other parts of the country. That gives them a broader perspective," Graham says.

Financial Investment

Beyond dedicating time to study, an online degree is also a financial commitment.

Undergraduates at Franklin pay $298 per credit hour; graduate students pay $490. "We design the curriculum for both face-to-face classes and online classes. We don't develop two separate courses, we just adjust the presentation," Mercurio says.

DeVry charges $550 per credit hour for undergraduate work, or $570 for those enrolled in electronic and computer technology programs. Full-time students taking more than 12 credit hours pay $330 or $340. Graduate programs cost $1,995 per course onsite or $2,200 online. "Our responsibility is to make online education a value-added and rich experience," Graham says.

University of Phoenix charges $530 per credit hour for online bachelor's degrees and $655 for master's programs. Nursing programs are $450 and $550, respectively. "It's the first time for many students that someone in their family has gone to college or earned a degree. They're motivated to have a better life for their family, so they're willing to make sacrifices," Loughley says.

Accreditation can help online students determine the value of their investment. DeVry, Franklin, OSU and University of Phoenix all are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the NCA. Recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, NCA is one of six regional accrediting organizations.

There are two main accrediting bodies for business schools: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP). As the world's largest and longest-standing accrediting body for business and accounting programs, many consider the AACSB designation to be the "gold standard." OSU's business and accounting programs are accredited by the AACSB. University of Phoenix's Columbus campus is ACBSP-accredited.

Accreditation matters when securing financial assistance. A 2009 Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey shows 95 percent of employer tuition reimbursement programs don't differentiate between accredited online and classroom studies. Online students at accredited schools generally qualify for state and federal financial aid, too.

Employers' Viewpoint

Hiring managers are seeing more applications from online students. "I'm hearing it's not a huge increase, but it's definitely more than five or 10 years ago," says Joan Berry Kalamas, the Ohio SHRM State Council Director who's also an instructor at Ashland University's Columbus campus.

Online students generally are confident in what they've learned. "They talk about the concepts easily, but struggle some when speaking about practical examples. It's like they've focused on learning the knowledge, but may not have mastered the applications," Kalamas says.

So will the time, effort and investment in an online degree pay off with that dream job? About 90 percent of employers view online degrees more favorably today than five years ago, according to the SHRM survey. However, given candidates with similar work experiences, 59 percent of respondents said their organizations prefer applicants with traditional university degrees over those with online degrees.

"Hesitancy exists. At a gut level, some HR professionals aren't sure they're as comfortable with online degrees as compared to degrees from traditional schools," says Kalamas.

The reluctance seems to be rooted in the perceived reputations of some institutions' curricula, where degrees are worth little more-and sometimes less-than the paper they're printed on. "When they first appeared on the scene, some online schools appeared to be nothing more than diploma mills. Today, some are certainly well-respected and others have added more rigor to their academic standards through the years," Kalamas says.

Solomon encourages companies to dig deeper than their first impression when evaluating prospects with online degrees. "When I talk with employers, I ask if they're making assumptions based on the institution itself or the educational outcomes of the program. Our expectation for accreditation, regardless of the modality, is that the institution must demonstrate that it's met the outcomes of the degree program," she says.

While it's helpful for all students to know the realities they'll face in the job market, online students shouldn't be discouraged. "HR professionals do look at the candidate's education on the résumé, but they also consider job responsibilities and activities. Going to school or going back to school, online or otherwise, shows initiative. That's an important trait in any workplace. It shows the individual wants to keep learning-wherever they are in their career," Kalamas says.

Universities offering online degrees contend their graduates are well-received by businesses. "There are a few holdouts that don't recognize the value of online learning, but they're fewer and fewer," Loughley says.

"Online learning is not a trend or fad. It is being built into educational offerings of the future," Graham says. "Those who think an online degree is less than worthy will be proven wrong."

Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from theFebruary 2010 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.