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Education is synonymous with opportunity. Yet, the generation on track to be the most educated in the history of the United States has been hit hardest by the Great Recession, often being the last to be hired and the first to lose their jobs. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2010 37% of Millennials, people age 18-29, were unemployed.

Even though the down economy has created a record jump in people currently attending some form of college, the main reason Millennials choose to drop out is because of costs being too high or not having enough time to continue their education (Pew Research Center).

The ability to mitigate cost and time commitments has created a groundswell of people choosing to go online to further their education. According to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, there was a 21% growth rate for online enrollment vs. a 2% growth rate in the overall higher education population from 2009 to 2010.

“My decision was completely driven by the convenience,” says Danny Lopez, an engineer in Spokane, Washington, “once I had kids I couldn't justify the idea of spending two years going to night classes while my wife stayed at home with the kids. Being able to do everything online from home made it a no brainer.”

The U.S. Census Bureau released data from a 2008 study showing that Americans with a college degree almost doubled their earning potential. As work opportunities shrink and economic times continue to disappoint, the ability to manage work and further their education becomes more economically appealing.

Taking an online course and succeeding in an online course are two different things. Making the investment count is something students must commit to before enrolling, says Amber Decker, academic advisor for Westwood College.

“Many students don’t know the self-discipline that taking an online course requires when they start out,” said Decker, “it could be 2AM when you’re working on an assignment and you can’t get in touch with your professor and you need to find the answer on your own. Some students aren’t ready for that challenge.”

Students that are up to the challenge and are disciplined enough to put in the work now as they hold a part-time or full time job will reap the benefits later on. The Pew Group found that Millennials will most likely work three decades longer than previous generations. When the economy rebounds and jobs return, proactive individuals who were up to the task of completing their online courses will be put in a position to step into jobs previously unavailable or unattainable.

Perception Matters

Online courses may be more convenient and cost effective for some, but if the end game is economic growth, it can be a risk to choose online courses over a traditional face to face classroom setting. An important thing to note is that public institutions have led the charge into the online academic space and view online options as a key facet to their long term strategy. “Over seventy six percent of the leaders of public institutions report that online is as good as or better than face-to-face instruction. This compares to only fifty-five percent of private nonprofits and sixty-seven percent of for-profits that respond the same way.” (Sloan Online Learning Study)

In 2003, when the first Sloan Survey was released, fifty-seven percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face. That number is now sixty-six percent, a small but important increase.

The professors are buying in and providing the right resources, but in the ever growing stack of resumes on the desks of recruiters and headhunters, will online courses actually set job seekers apart?

“It doesn’t make a difference to me one way or another if the person has done only online courses as long as it has been completed,” says Christopher Mango, recruiter for Aerotek Staffing, “if they attended an online school and didn’t finish I think it shows that the person is more lazy than a person who was willing to get up and commute to a traditional school. “

Researching what vocations are growing through online courses and picking the right set of classes can make or break the cost benefit of going the online route. If prospective students are thinking about starting an online course, they should get with an advisor to make a plan that they can execute and select a set of courses they can complete.

Chart Your Course

“Students should research what networks their courses will funnel them into,” said Lauren Hunt, former career advisor and current recruiter for the Bross Group, “online education courses in criminal justice, graphic design or computer science can be really beneficial for a job applicant because those roles tend to be a better fit for self starters.”

There is a bevy of information about the realities of online courses and many online programs have robust advising resources to guide students down a path that will allow them to succeed. Students can also use social media to connect with graduates of online courses to get an honest opinion of what options are going to be the best for them.

With no distance restrictions, there can be an overwhelming amount of options to choose from. Finding a school that is regionally accredited is important if you want to transfer credits between schools or are attempting to earn a degree.

Know your options

Taking an online course is an investment and treating it as such will keep students from wasting time and money on courses or institutions that won’t help them in the long run. Researching the cost and time commitments of an online course before enrolling will help make this a profitable investment. If a student isn’t working toward a degree it’s important to know that some institutions offer free classes if they’re not looking for credit. Use the internet to find resources that have an accreditation list and make a point to figure out if the institution offering the course is accredited in that subject; as it would be heartbreaking to get an accounting degree from a school that is only accredited in nursing.

Cost: Choosing to go online for education is an effective way for students to save time, money on gas, lodging, text books and set up their next career move without having to put work or family on hold. Seeing online courses out to completion will help job hunters stand out in this down market.

Talk to other students with experience taking online courses and seek out colleges that have solid advising and are committed to the success of their students. Avoid scams by being diligent about accreditations. Be wary of schools or courses that only carry a state accreditation, as they may not be approved to give credit toward a degree or even a singular course.

The earning potential of higher education is well documented and the professors and institutions are committed to the success of online courses. Full time employment among Millennials continues to decline (Pew Research Group) and 60% of Millennials have already switched careers once. Online courses allow an under-employed generation to get a jump on their next career move and give them more control over their vocational destiny.

Full List of Online Course Subjects