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Work life balance is doable with an online degree

It's back to school time and many of my friends are thinking about furthering their education. But physically getting to class -- running from an office to campus -- can be a challenge, particularly with business travel and kids. Getting a degree online seems like a good option. But I discovered there's a few things to think about before signing up because a lot of working adults end up dropping out.


Here's what you should know going in (the topic of my column in today's Miami Herald).....

Online courses help workers juggle education, life

Vedner Guerrier,director of oncology services at Memorial Hospital West,  studies for his MBA during breaks and before and after work.
Vedner Guerrier,director of oncology services at Memorial Hospital West, studies for his MBA during breaks and before and after work. JOE RIMKUS JR. / MIAMI HERALD STAFF


It’s 8 p.m. and after a long day at the office, Nadia Espinosa is in front of her computer, baby son on her lap, immersed in class — virtually. As a working single mother, 27-year-old Espinosa felt the only way she could get her paralegal certification was to find an online program that accommodated her busy schedule.

For working professionals, going back to school used to mean dashing from office to classroom. Now, the explosion of online education opportunities has made it easier for Espinosa and others to juggle their jobs and school. Colleges are pushing web courses and online degrees for people who want to take their careers to the next level without stepping foot on campus. Today, seven in 10 public and for-profit colleges are offering full online academic programs, as are nearly half of private nonprofit colleges.

As schools boost their online offerings, there are new options for working adults who want to add a career skill. The 2012 Survey of Online Learning reveals that the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6.7 million; 60 percent of those online degree seekers are employed full time.

But getting a degree online is not as easy as you might think. The rate of those who fail or give up is significant — as much as 30 percent higher than among on-campus students, in some cases.

“Students want the flexibility but some of them don’t realize how rigorous the courses can be,” says Joyce Elam, Dean of University College, home of Florida International University’s online learning.

Working adults like Vedner Guerrier are experiencing the challenge. Guerrier, a 37-year-old director of oncology services at Memorial Hospital West, started online classes three weeks ago with the goal of earning his healthcare MBA from FIU. Already, Guerrier has discovered time management and discipline are critical. On lunch breaks and after work, he reads for his two classes and works on assignments. During the week, he has scheduled virtual project meetings with his classmates.

Fall behind and you’re doomed, he says. “I don’t foresee a disorganized person passing these classes. You cannot procrastinate because things move quickly.”

Along with discipline and time management skills, Karen Southall Watts, a business coach and author who has taught online courses, says success requires internal motivation and full awareness of your goal. In most programs, no one takes attendance, and students take the initiative to watch a lecture in real time or participate in online discussions.

“It’s a lot different than when you are physically going to class and socializing.” She also cautions that some adult students want to finish education as quickly as possible and overload their schedule, creating a no-win situation.

Some of the school recognize the obstacles, and are beefing up online degree programs with 24/7 technical support, reference librarians and virtual tutors. At FIU, Elam says students now work with “success coaches” who check in on progress and pair them with online tutoring when necessary. “Our online degree program is growing and getting better.”

Working professionals say there’s another challenge, too, in completing an online degree: cost.

While top schools often offer massive online courses for free, in many cases, an online undergraduate or graduate course for degree-seeking students is actually more expensive than a comparable on-campus course. A U.S. News analysis of about 300 ranked programs at public universities shows the average per credit, in-state cost for an online bachelor’s program is $277, compared with $243 per credit at brick-and-mortar schools.