The benefits of online grad schools

Going back to school is a major commitment. It takes time, dedication and, yes, money. However, in addition to enhancing both your resume and your skill set, the dollars you spend in the short-term can make their way back to your wallet in the form of extra income post-graduation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals with master's degrees earned $1,257 per week in 2009, higher than the $1,025 per week for those with only bachelor's degrees, and about twice as much as workers with just a high school diploma.

For many of today's hot career fields, master's degrees serve as a top educational achievement. In financial analysis, where the BLS predicts 20 percent growth from 2008-2018, the master's in business administration (MBA) is a major step toward advanced understanding of key business concepts and the ability to apply said concepts to real-world situations.

In contrast, other career fields on the rise require a more vocational route. Skin care specialists, for example, an occupation expected to grow 38 percent from 2008-2018, generally hold a post-secondary certificate or diploma.

Whether a master's degree or a post-graduate vocational credential is on your radar, finding the educational format that fits your life and learning style is critical. For some, traditional campus-based learning meets their desire for constant personal interaction. Yet for many others, family and job commitments necessitate something more flexible--such as an online or hybrid learning model--that allows for better work/life/school balance. Here's a peek into the growing world of online education and who's choosing it.

The benefits of distance learning: flexibility and finances

More and more college students today are working while going to school. The Sloan Consortium, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education, estimates that 68 percent of undergraduates work 16 or more hours per week, and 36 percent work 36 or more hours per week. Both online education and hybrid solutions (a combination of campus-based and online learning) can help students fit school into their increasingly challenging work schedules. For example, online grad schools often employ an asynchronous learning format, which allows students to study, log on, interact and even submit classroom materials on their own time, including after hours and on weekends.

Whether pursuing a degree on campus or online, you need to think about tuition. While tuition and fees vary from student to student and from school to school, studying online part- or full-time can alleviate some of the financial burden. Learning in an online environment minimizes the need to drive to and from school to attend class, and with increased access to digital resources, the need to travel to and from libraries and/or archives. Students can also avoid costs such as room and board, parking and in some cases books.

Online learning: who and why?

The reasons for earning a master's degree range from personal enrichment to educational progress to financial security. When looking at those who earn advanced degrees online, however, clear student profiles emerge:

Career advancers: Professionals who use online grad schools to rise in the ranks at their current job or in their current industry. Not only does this help make them more competitive amongst co-workers, but some companies pay part or all of the educational expenses.

Career switchers: Students in this category may have been laid off recently, or may be stuck in an industry considered economically unstable. Here, distance learning at the master's level can help you train for a career in a field with greater potential.

While those who pursue post-graduate vocational degrees online may have an eye on career advancement or even training for a new one, education at this level also tends to include career starters. These students may have recently earned a high school diploma or GED and are now seeking a stable career path with room to grow.

How online learning works

Online degree programs leverage both established and budding technologies to deliver curricula. According to U.S. News and World Report, tech solutions such as instant messaging, online video and wikis provide online students with the same learning opportunities as those who attend brick-and-mortar institutions. Examples of online lessons and resources include self-paced learning modules, multimedia case studies, simulations, video tutorials and communications and assessment tools.

From a logistical standpoint, distance learning typically comes in two distinct forms. Synchronous programs use scheduled chats and other real-time activities to maximize student-teacher and student-student interaction. Asynchronous programs capitalize on many of the same technologies, but allow students to submit work and other materials when it's convenient for them, as long as predetermined deadlines are met.

How does online school compare to traditional education?

The Department of Education conducted a survey and found that students in online conditions performed as well as those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction. This study also found that online training was better for certain tasks; for example, it often allows students to progress through lessons once they're fully comfortable with the material.

Critics of online learning cite limited personal interaction with teachers and other students. A good online training program provides social support beyond just the coursework. In addition to face-to-face chats and real-time forums, many programs encourage students to build a personal profile with a photo that instructors or other forum participants can see. The Sloan Consortium believes the social component of online learning is critical to student success.

What comes next?

Whether you're a career-changer, -starter or are simply looking to add to your skills, think about your current lifestyle, and if you have the time to commit to online studies. Online grad schools do give you more freedom to schedule your class work, but you need to allot regular time for your studies if you wish to succeed.

Look into financial aid options to help you pay for your studies, as well. The federal government has many options for student aid. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA.

Conduct some serious research into the kind of programs available. Look at the support these schools offer: Is it easy to contact your instructors if you need to? Can you get help if you run into technical problems? Put together a list of key questions to ask school reps and academic advisors via phone.

Distance learning isn't for everyone. Students who struggle in self-directed educational situations and/or feel uncomfortable with computers and related technology may find the format challenging. However, in a world where juggling work, family and extracurriculars is increasingly difficult, online education provides clear benefits.