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Virtual Degrees Virtually Tough
By Julia Scheeres

2:00 a.m. Aug. 28, 2002 PDT

Roberto Lee's typical weekday starts at 3 a.m., when he fires up his computer in Wytheville, Virginia, and logs on to a law school in Los Angeles, 2,400 miles away.

Lee, 62, studies for a few hours, showers, and is elbow-deep in body juice by 7:30 at a hospital where he is a general surgeon. In the afternoons, he clerks at the town courthouse, learning the intricacies of jury selection and trial procedure.

Lee, who says he subsists on three or four hours of sleep a night, is one of a burgeoning number of adults earning degrees over the Internet in their spare time.

"I live in a small town where there is no law school, and I run a very busy medical practice," said Lee, who plans to use his law degree to help patients wrangle with insurance companies. "This is the only opportunity I have to study law, which has been my dream for a long time."

But while an online degree may sound convenient, cheap and totally new-millennium, can a virtual education land someone a real job?

Yes, experts say. But don't expect your OnlineU.com diploma to compete with a Harvard degree anytime soon, they add.

As broadband access spreads, so does the fervor of schools hoping to tap into the virtual student body. The number of accredited colleges that offer 100-percent online degrees without hidden residency requirements has jumped from 12 last year to more than 30 in 2002, said Robert Tucker, the president of InterEd, an Idaho research firm that tracks online education programs.

But while an Internet education may be alluring for wage slaves, stay-at-home parents, rural folk and agoraphobes, online schools still battle the nagging perception that learning by modem is somehow inferior to learning in a classroom.

"Right now, if you are applying for a desirable position such as an entry-level MBA, you'll still be second-tier if you've got a virtual education," Tucker said. "That's because the people making hiring decisions all went to traditional schools and have misgivings about online degrees, although there is no objective evidence to support that."

The American Bar Association, for example, refuses to accredit the first Internet law school, Concord Law School, which will graduate its first class of Juris Doctorates in November.

Although Concord's corporate headquarters are in Los Angeles, its classrooms are only online, and its professors and students are located throughout the country. The school's four-year Juris Doctor degree costs $28,000. Lectures are delivered in RealAudio, contracts and torts are debated in chat rooms, and opening statements are videotaped and mailed to professors for grading.

But the lack of accreditation from the prestigious association means that the fledgling attorneys will only qualify to practice in the handful of states that don't require lawyers to earn degrees from an ABA-approved law school.

Concord doesn't offer a compelling reason for the ABA to accredit it, because students can't practice face-to-face interactions such as courtroom argumentation, said Barry Currier, the ABA's deputy consultant on legal education.

"The bottom line is that lawyers need to have proper training," Currier said. "Someday, that training may be online, but it's not there yet."

Not so, said Concord's founding dean, Jack Goetz.

"The ABA is impeding the ability of people to get an education," Goetz said. "Attorneys do more than argue court cases. Some also work private industry or government jobs. Our graduates are perfectly capable of doing those jobs."

To preclude objections by fuddy-duddy employers, many established universities don't distinguish between degrees earned online and offline.

"We made a key decision that we're not going to distinguish on transcripts between one mode of delivery or the other, because the quality has to be the same," said Nicholas Allen, provost of University of Maryland University College, which offers both traditional and online degree programs and enrolled more than 87,000 students in the last academic year.

And a virtual B.A. is better than no B.A., especially in a wimpy economy, said David Goldman, an executive at Alan J. Blair, a San Francisco recruiting agency.

"A degree looks nice on a resume, period," Goldman said. "It's one more leg up in the job market."