So you are thinking about going back to school. The time has come to finish that undergraduate degree that you started, but you weren’t able to complete when life got complicated. You think that the time has come to get that master's degree to move forward in your career.

Take care of yourself and your education

Your challenge is that you can't quit your job to go back to school. You need to find a college and a degree program that not only matches your career goals, but that will allow you to study while continuing to work and managing family and other personal responsibilities.

You need to decide if a degree is what you need, or if an alternative credential will enable you to reach your career goals.

Studying online for a degree is the only way that you can continue working and being a caregiver while also going to school. Online education offers you the flexibility to work on your classes on your schedule, but the challenge you have is deciding which school is right for you.

Quality is important

There is no shortage of advice for choosing the right online education program. You need to decide if a degree is what you need, or if an alternative credential will enable you to reach your career goals. A master's degree remains essential for advancement into leadership roles in many professions, but employers increasingly recognize alternative credentials such as the MicroMaster's from edX (edx.org/micromasters).

It is important for you to make sure that the institution that offers the online degree program is accredited. The degree that you are interested in is recognized (or certified) by the professional organization that oversees any licensing in the field. Every quality online program should participate in professional organizations designed to ensure quality, such as UPCEA, OLC or Quality Matters. An online program should provide a sample course or orientation to prepare you for participation in an online course. If not, you should definitely look elsewhere.

Hands-on, real-time experience

My advice is for you to ask two questions:

  1. Do the classes have a live (synchronous) component?

  2. Do students ever come to campus, or another residential location, as part of the degree program?

The first question is about how the online education work together. The best online classes have a combination of asynchronous learning, meaning that students and faculty are online at different times, and synchronous learning. Synchronous learning means that the professor and students meet (usually once a week) in a live online class discussion. High-quality online programs combine the flexibility of asynchronous education, discussion boards and other online learning methods, with the immediacy of synchronous education.

The second question has to do with the options for the online program to contain some “residential” (time on campus) learning opportunities. The research on learning indicates that the highest quality programs most often have a residential component. This time on campus does not need to be much, and these on-campus educational opportunities will provide students with the chance to learn in ways that complement the online portion of the program.

Considering these questions will help you as a prospective online student understand the educational philosophy of the school, and distinguish one institution from another.

Building connections for a better career

Ultimately, the best online program is one where you as a student will feel closely connected to your professors and other students. A great online program is not only a way to gain knowledge, experience and a credential — but also the best way to grow and nurture your professional network from the students, and the professors that you will learn from.