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In a tough job market, having a degree is practically mandatory, but you don’t have to go to college anymore to get one. These days, you can have college come to you and get your degree online.

Online universities and colleges offer a number of advantages over traditional “brick and mortar” schools, particularly in accessibility, flexibility and convenience. One of the major drawbacks, however, is their perception. Many employers are dubious about the education online schools offer because the concept of obtaining a degree online is relatively new. That’s why accreditation is so important.

Accreditation is a process in which an independent agency validates that a university performs according to established standards. Accreditation is usually a peer-review process conducted by faculty from other accredited institutions. During this process, a school’s mission, resources, admissions requirements, support services, educational offerings and faculty among other things are scrutinized.

When an online college or university is accredited, that adds weight and value to the degrees that it grants. Not all accrediting agencies are above board, however. When researching an “accredited” online school, make sure that if it is accrediting agency is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Just because an online school isn’t accredited, doesn’t mean it is without merit, but accreditation goes a long way towards substantiating online degrees in traditional disciplines like business.

Respect for online degrees is growing, but there is still a major discrepancy between the perception of online degrees and traditional degrees. In a 2008 study, only 23% of respondents thought an online Bachelor’s degree was as credible as and offline degree. This gap in perception can make it more difficult for graduates of online degrees to compete in the job market.  Many online schools offer career counseling and job placement services to help bridge this gap.

Online schools also offer financial aid services. When you pursue an online degree, you have the financial advantage of not having to pay for room and board like students at many traditional schools. The cost of tuition, fees and books can still add up, however. Many prospective students are unsure about the financial aid options for online and distance learning programs. Most of these programs, however, participate in the same grant and loan programs as traditional colleges.

If you are considering enrolling in an online degree program and will need help with the costs, contact the financial aid office for the college or university to see which programs are available. Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants (FSEOGs) are typically available to those who qualify. Additionally, most online school also participates in the Federal Stafford Student Loan program. Some online schools also offer a limited number of scholarships. These scholarships may be need or merit-based.  

Interested in how online schools compare to one another? The Online Education Database (OEDB) uses numerical metrics to rank the top online schools in the U.S. For 2009, the top three online colleges are Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., and Champlain College in Burlington, Vt. in that order.

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