Companies are warming up to online MBA degrees. So where should you log on? And how can you boost your career? We've got answers.

FARANAK TOUTOUNCHI WAS halfway through her MBA program at Cal State, Hayward in December 2000 when she decided she had to quit. The 42-year-old single mom and administrator in the overseas petroleum division at ChevronTexaco in San Ramon, Calif., wanted a bigger role at the company. But going to class ate up time with her 11-year-old Boy Scout son. And besides, the program wasn't at all what she had expected. "You listened to lectures, you took a test, and you walked out," says Toutounchi. "There was no interaction."

Instead, Toutounchi signed up with online education provider Jones International, where a few ChevronTexaco employees had gotten degrees. She liked that Jones's program was more rigorous. Plus, she could schedule classes around time with her son. Now Toutounchi has two MBA degrees, one in tech management and the other in global organization management. "It was a wonderful experience; I was learning and exchanging ideas more than at a traditional university," she says. "Now I want to have a bigger impact on my organization." A bonus: ChevronTexaco footed half of her $17,000 tuition.

Online education, which usually involves a mix of courses offered over the Internet and in-person get-to-know-you sessions, used to be seen largely as a fad. Not anymore. According to Boston-based educational research firm Eduventures, enrollment in fully online programs has increased 40% each of the past four years. In the 2002/2003 academic year, 700,000 students signed up for courses, up from 488,000 a year earlier.

This critical mass means that companies are less likely to frown upon your online degree these days. "We're starting to see people who have this background, especially in the professional and administrative fields," says Aaron Pullman, a staffing manager for Sony Electronics in San Jose, Calif. "We're getting used to the idea, especially if you have work experience, too." Best of all, businesses are more open to employees using tuition reimbursement programs toward online degrees.

But before you sign up, you need to know how to navigate the world of distance education, which can be tricky. We asked recruiters and hiring managers about the pitfalls, and how you can make the most of an online degree.

The first thing to consider is whether the field you're interested in is well-suited for Internet classes. Business, IT, health care and education have the strongest presence on the Web. And while certificate programs can be valuable, full degrees are more likely to get you more money or a better job.

The Best Career Advice I Ever Got
"Don't work for a small family-owned business."
Barbara Corcoran
Founder and chairman, The Corcoran Group

Lesson learned: "I got this advice from Mr. Pfeitzer, who owned the five-and-dime in Fort Lee, N.J., where I worked when I was 17. He told me I would never get anywhere near the top if I worked for a family business. This was after I'd left to be a salesclerk at Schweitzer, the store across the street, which was a family-run business. He was probably a little bitter about losing me, but he was right: It's tough to compete with bloodlines. I worked there for two years, and I was the best salesperson there. But nieces and nephews of the owner got promoted instead. I made the mistake again when I got my first job in real estate, at the Giffuni Brothers company in New York. But I stayed there only a few months before starting my own business."

Just ask Erik Quade, a 25-year-old project manager at Cisco Systems. Two years ago, Quade signed up for an online MBA program in technology management at the University of Phoenix in hopes of moving into a managerial position. When a project manager post opened up last September, Quade applied even though he was only halfway into his degree. "We touched on a lot of the things I'd learned and how I could bring those skills to the plate," says Quade, who lives in San Jose. The interviewer was so impressed, Quade got the job.

Deciding on the degree is probably the easy part. The hard part is choosing a school. A rule of thumb: Look for schools with name recognition. The University of Phoenix (www.uopxonline.com), where Quade is getting his MBA, is a good bet. "It's the king of the field," says Conrad Prusak, president of San Francisco's Ethos Consulting, which helps executives with career transitions. An MBA at Phoenix costs around $23,000.

Robert Lambert, a managing partner with recruiter Christian & Timbers, says to find schools that have a long-standing presence in your area. Midwesterners, for instance, might look into Minneapolis's Capella University (www.capella.edu), which has been offering online degree programs since 1993. And you can't go wrong with Duke or Harvard. But you'll have to pay up; Duke's online Global Executive MBA, for instance, can cost more than $100,000.

Tools of the Trade
For the person who needs to do a lot of drawing — a graphic designer or an architect, perhaps — the new Io Personal Digital Pen ($200, www.logitechio. com), should come in handy. The gadget records up to 40 pages of writing and drawings at a time. It writes with ink while a sensor records every stroke you make on patterned paper that's provided. Files may be saved on your computer. The uploads are a bit slow, though. It took us a few minutes to save a single file.
— Anne Kadet

If you're interested in a lesser-known school, do some homework. "One complicating factor is the explosive number of fraudulent schools, which are pretty much degree mills," warns Chip White, cofounder of Degreeinfo.com, a Web site devoted to online education. Check on a school's credentials at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation's Web site (www.chea.org). Ask the school for alumni references and placement statistics. Visit Degreeinfo.com to see what students are saying.

Once you have your diploma, the best way to sell it is to treat it like any other degree. Don't blare on your resume that it's from an online school. A degree is a degree, whether or not you took classes online. In interviews, point out how your studies add to your work experience. "It's the combination that makes you a viable candidate," says John Dooney, who studies hiring decisions for the Society for Human Resource Management.

For Erik Quade, the manager at Cisco, an online MBA has provided more than a career boost. With his flexible class schedule, he can put off school until 11 p.m. to spend more time with his wife. Says Quade, "Now I can go to school, go to work — and have a real life outside of that, too."