by Brian Burnsed

As online M.B.A. offerings grow, it's important to take the time to find the best fit

If you're considering an online M.B.A., it's important to take the time to determine which program best fits your needs. Given the recent explosion of M.B.A. distance learning, finding an accredited online M.B.A. program that can accommodate your schedule and financial constraints is no simple task. Use these four tips to get a head start:

1. Decide if an online M.B.A. is your best option.

Are you able to be productive at home? Can you complete assignments without a professor breathing down your neck? Based on your work or family schedule, is it simply not feasible for you to attend classes at a traditional M.B.A. program, even at nights or on weekends? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then an online M.B.A. might be the best option. M.B.A. distance learning is a growing trend and online degrees are increasingly accepted by employers, though experts note they still hold less clout than their traditional counterparts because they've only been in existence for a fraction of the time that traditional M.B.A.'s have. "Online programs are extremely convenient," says Stacy Blackman, author and business school admissions consultant. "[But], at this point in time, online programs tend to be less well regarded and are not as strong résumé builders."

2. Get an accredited online M.B.A.

It's imperative that the institution you choose be properly accredited. According to W. Kevin Barksdale, dean of the Grand Canyon University Ken Blanchard College of Business, there are two major accreditations to look for.

Schools should be accredited by one or both of the Association of Collegiate Business Schools and Programs (ACBSP) and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB). Accreditation on a regional basis is integral as well, experts say.

"The most important accreditation is regional accreditation," says Michael Nastanski, dean of the school of business at St. Leo University, which has an online M.B.A. program. "The regional bodies establish program and learning outcome criteria that are applied across all business schools in their region."

3. Check the loan default rate.

According to Gary Brahm, chancellor of Brandman University, part of the West Coast's Chapman University System, the loan default rate -- the rate at which students repay their loan debt -- is an indicator of the students' success in finding an adequate-paying position after graduation relative to the school's tuition costs and of their ability to find work at all.

A high default rate indicates that graduates couldn't land jobs or the school outpriced the typical jobs its graduates land. You can obtain this information on a school-by-school basis from the Department of Education. Finding an M.B.A. distance learning program that cares more about your education than its bottom line is critical.

"[For-profit schools] come under fire sometimes," says Barksdale. "It's not just about collecting the money, but can we prepare you? Students need to look at a program and [ask themselves] 'Do they sound like they care about what I'm going to do with this degree?'"

4. Find a school that is flexible.

If you think you may ever need to put your studies on hold for several weeks or months, it's important to find an online M.B.A. program that will accommodate your schedule. Some schools might only offer some classes a few times a year, while others may have two or more start dates a month for each class.

"It's important to know how many courses are required to complete the program and how frequently are they available," says Barksdale. "[Ask yourself:] 'If I need to take eight weeks off, when is the next time I can slide back in?' Just like in the 'ground' programs, in online programs, that will vary program to program. People's needs change."

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Tips to Picking Your Ideal Online MBA