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Grad Degrees From a Distance

As recession-scarred workers strive to bolster their credentials, online graduate-degree programs have seen their enrollments jump. In the fall of 2009, some 510,000 students were enrolled in online master's degree programs, according to Eduventures, a research-and-consulting firm in Boston. That's a 17% increase from the previous year. And there's no sign that the growth has slowed, says Richard Garrett, managing director of Eduventures.

SLIDE SHOW: See 15 Top Online Grad Programs, at a Glance

Online graduate-degree programs are designed for mid-career workers who have full-time jobs and families. Their flexible schedules make them an attractive alternative to traditional classroom programs. Diplomas don't specify whether a credential is earned online, so hiring managers may not know -- or ask. In any case, earning an online degree from a respected university that a potential boss has heard of should eliminate any stigma.

Plus, a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association, shows that online degrees are viewed "more favorably" now than they were five years ago. John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, agrees. "We did once have a clear line between online and brick-and-mortar degrees, but that's changing," he says. "Hiring managers are catching up."

Online programs generally require at least as much classroom time and studying as traditional programs, although it may take you longer to get your degree if you take a lighter load while you're working. In lieu of textbooks, programs tend to use support materials such as scholarly articles and case studies, which instructors post online.

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Once you enroll, you have to post feedback via the Internet and participate on a regular basis. Some students have found online education to be more interactive than the traditional face-to-face experience. Anna Andriasova, a professor in the online MBA program at the University of Maryland University College, says she's been surprised at how well she gets to know her students. "Online students get in touch with faculty way more than students in a face-to-face classroom," she says.

What it costs. You'll pay anywhere from $300 to $700 a credit. While some schools charge roughly the same for an online degree as for a traditional degree, others tack on "distance learning" and "technology" fees, which can amount to more than $1,000 a year. Also, some schools require a brief campus residency at the start of the program and perhaps at the beginning of each semester. For-profit schools, such as the heavily marketed University of Phoenix, tend to charge more than others.

In general, you need 30 to 45 credits to complete a program, so the difference in price can add up. Employers often provide tuition assistance. Or, if the school qualifies, you could get a government loan (for more information, see www.finaid.org).

Vetting a program. If you're looking for a program -- be it an advanced degree in business, education or public health -- there are a few key things to know. Most important, if you come across a program but aren't familiar with the school, make sure it's properly accredited. While that may sound obvious, the recession has led scammers to market authentic-sounding schools with authentic-sounding credentials that are anything but. To make sure a school is on the up and up, check the site of the consumer research group GetEducated.com, which tracks fake programs. If the school isn't listed, take the extra step to verify that it is indeed properly accredited.

For legitimate institutions, the gold standard in accreditation is what's known as regional accreditation, awarded by agencies such as the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, The Higher Learning Commission. The NCA-HLC accredits schools in several states, including Arizona, Indiana and Michigan. Then there's national accreditation, which trade and technical institutions tend to have. To be legit, the accrediting agency has to be recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the Department of Education. Check those sites to make sure the agency listed is valid.

Top online degree programs

These are the top-rated online master's degree programs in their fields, according to GetEducated.com. The site bases its picks on accreditation, national reputation, strength of online degree offerings and use of educational technology. The cost includes tuition as well as distance-learning and technology fees.

Business. Duke University Fuqua School of Business. MBA - Global Executive ($119,300).

Computer Science. Stanford University Center for Professional Development. Master of Science, Computer Science ($58,950).

Education. Columbia University Teacher's College. Master of Arts, Computing & Education/Teaching & Learning with Technology ($34,785).

Engineering. Stanford University Center for Professional Development. Master of Science, Engineering ($58,950).

Health. Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Master's in Public Health ($69,460).

See GetEducated.com's picks for 15 Top Online Graduate Schools.

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