Let me just come right out and say it – I believe online degree programs are a big deal. According to a 2012 survey of online learning, the number of students taking up at least one online course has surpassed 6.7 million, so there are millions of students thinking along the same lines as I am. So what makes online learning such a big deal? Or is it just all hype and no substance, something that can fizzle out soon?

I am not sure there is a clear consensus on these questions yet. For this reason alone, let me first enumerate some of the benefits of choosing an online degree and then don the role of a devil's advocate.

Let’s see if we can come up with some answers to our questions.

Benefit 1: Flexibility

There are plenty of people out there who already have a career, yet it's not their dream career. Then there are others out there who have a job, but it's not the kind of job that allows them to build a successful professional career. But, they cannot leave their jobs to get a college degree that enables them to have a career they've always dreamed about. This is where the flexibility of online degrees comes into play. A person enrolling for an online degree can study when he/she can take some time out of their busy routine. Students can study on weekends or put in a few hours every day post-dinner. You are the master of your own study time.

The amount of time you need to spend on reading depends on the number of credits of your course, but you have the flexibility to study whenever you want.

Benefit 2: Comfort of your Home

You get the degree you want from the comforts of your home. There are people who cannot seem to adjust to studying in a college environment, because they find it stifling, restrictive or just something they aren't cut out for. For such people, the home environment is best suited for their academic pursuits. An environment that makes them answerable to nobody but themselves. A comfortable study environment facilitates better learning. What's more, the fact that you don't have step out of your home to earn a degree, means you can multitask. You can do a lot more with your time; you have some extra time to study and still take care of some of your responsibilities related to your home and family life.

Benefit 3: Lots of Choices on Offer

There are plenty of choices on offer as far as online courses are concerned and the colleges that are offering these courses. The plethora of choices means you can choose to get the degree you want by enrolling with a reputed college known for the quality of its online courses and respectability of the degrees it offers. It's important to remember that not all online courses are created equal and there are some that are really very good and others that are at the bottom of the pile and need to be avoided with a barge pole.

Benefit 4: Respectability

I know there are people who stop themselves from enrolling for an online degree from an irrational fear of the lack of respectability of such degrees. But nothing could be farther from the truth. If you get your degree and the college right, some of these degrees are considered as worthy as their traditional counterparts. With more and more people deciding to get themselves an online degree, their validity will only increase at the years go by.

Benefit 5: They aren't expensive

I'm saying they don't cost a packet but they aren't very cheap either. The cost of such degrees and the acceptability of this cost is subjective. Here's an old but a very relevant article that compares the cost of online degrees and traditional degrees. While the figures may vary now, you do get an idea of the costs involved. But, the great part about these degrees is that different colleges charge different fees for the same degree. So you can always pick a college that offers an online degree that fits your budget.

Now, that we've gone through some of the benefits of going for an online degree, let me play the devil’s advocate here and see if online degrees stand up the devil’s scrutiny.

Counter Argument 1: Not all degrees are available online

Yes, that's true. For e.g., you can't get a medical degree online, and that's never going to happen. You also don't have respectable colleges offering engineering degrees, because of the nature of these degrees. So, if you're somebody who dreams of becoming a doctor or an engineer and looking for a flexible online option, you can't realize your dreams with an online degree. You'll need to be realistic about what you can do and what you cannot. But, there is absolutely no doubt, you can earn a degree that will help you make a successful career shift or help you add on to an existing qualification to better your prospects in the job market.

Counter Argument 2: The Danger of Expecting Too Much

If you want to live the Ivy League dream with respect to your career growth, the job opportunities available to you and the money you can earn, well, an online degree might not give you parity with the Ivy League graduates. I am saying might because at the end of the day, how you leverage the potential of your degree is up to you. And again you need to be very clear about why you need an online degree. To put it bluntly, your objectives need to make sense. If you're seeking parity with ivy leaguers, I'm sorry but that's not going to happen.But, if you want to earn a qualification that will help boost your chances of having a shot at a successful career, that's going to happen.

So, can you use an online degree to realize your career dreams? Of course, you can! But, you need to make an informed choice, understand its pros and cons, and have realistic expectations from it. It's a great choice for people who want to add a particular qualification to their resume, but don't have the time to get a traditional degree. You can get the qualification you need, without compromising your professional life; the right degree can set you up for a mid career switch and a far more successful professional life.