GOING THE DISTANCE

Many schools are offering graduate degrees via the World Wide Web. Here's what to consider before you decide to log on.

While other night students gulped down fast food en route to their local universities, Cheryl Rowles-Stokes leisurely finished a home-cooked meal with her family and made her way to the PC in her study. As other students tugged at their suits and fought to stay alert during lectures, Rowles-Stokes, clad in comfy old sweats, conversed with her professor and classmates online while her favorite television program droned in the background.

For those professionals who go the traditional route to get an additional degree, this may read like a scene from a sci-fi book. But for Rowles-Stokes, who graduated in March with an M.A. in business communications, learning via the Internet was the best way to update her skills while juggling career and family obligations.

She’s definitely not alone. Approximately 7 million people get a virtual education every year, says Pam Dixon, author of Virtual College: A Quick Guide to How You Can Get the Degree You Want With Computer, TV, Video, Audio and Other Distance Learning Tools (Peterson’s, $9.95). “People want a high-quality education that can fit into their busy lives,” she says.

Distance learning is hardly a new phenomenon. For more than a century, it has allowed busy professionals, whose schedules prevented them from taking regular classes, to continue their education. But mainstream access to the World Wide Web has helped transform this largely mail-order pursuit-once relegated to the degree mills of scam artists-into a bona-fide educational option.

About two-thirds of the 3,200 accredited “brick and mortar” four-year colleges and graduate schools in the U.S. now supplement their campus offerings with classes via the Internet, as well as live satellite feeds, cable television and videoconferencing. Further, the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., has identified nearly 300 distance learning programs offered through various schools, including Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Purdue University.

An online degree can be a great way to stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace-if you have what it takes to thrive outside of the traditional classroom structure. Before you trade in that pencil and notepad for a mouse and a computer, you’ll need to do some old-fashioned homework. Here’s what you can expect.

THE NET BENEFITS
Rowles-Stokes, 38, director of human resources at Rifkin & Associates, a cable television management company in Denver, had plenty of reasons to pursue an online degree. For starters, she didn’t want the physical strain of her previous educational experience. “For four years, I attended classes from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, in addition to working a 60-plus hour week,” says the former accountant. She obtained her bachelor’s in human resources from Colorado Christian University and J.D. from the University of Denver’s College of Law.

A single mother at the time, Rowles-Stokes also wanted to spend more time with her family. In 1995, she applied to Jones International University (JIU), one of the nation’s first virtual universities, and never looked back. “The format allowed me to set my own hours,” says the married mother of two daughters. “It really worked around

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