NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — More than 6 million students now are simply opening up their laptop — instead of trudging through Old Main — to learn career skills and complete degrees. But is an online chat really the same amount as a visit to your professor during office hours?

"First, it's important that we dispel the myth that online degrees are so vastly different from on-campus degrees," said Jay Titus, director of academic services for EdAssist, a provider of tuition assistance management services. "The truth is that 'online' is simply the modality – or the way the education is delivered. Beyond that you are often getting the same curriculum and in many cases even the same professors as those taking the course in the classroom."

Even the educational ranking bible U.S. News & World Report now ranks online programs. Just last month, the publication came out with its third annual rankings of programs — with Central Michigan University and SUNY College of Technology – Delhi tying for number one undergraduate program.

Editor Brian Kelly said the magazine has chosen to rank online programs, because "online education is becoming an essential part of the higher education landscape." He added, "Students and employers are increasingly finding value in the way subjects can be mastered in a digital environment. Schools are responding with a proliferation of course offerings."

Kelly said the publication reviewed nearly 1,000 online degree programs this year, up more than 16% from the 2013 list.

While some may discount the proliferation of programs and degrees because of what they consider a lazy student body, some see advantages online education has over its brick-and-mortar counterpart — extending to even how students engage with one another and faculty.

Berkeley College in New York offers more that 20 Bachelor's degrees. Dario Cortes, president of the school, said there are various virtual activities open to online students, such as contests, community service days, symposiums and workshops. He also added there are resources students can take advantage of such as online orientation, real-time online tutoring, assistance with financial aid and a virtual career services center.

"Technology continues to change; however, our focus remains constant on student success," said Sharon Goldstein, campus operating officer at the school.

Titus said most online programs come with the same regional accreditation as more than 3,000 other colleges and universities across the country — which means their curriculum has been vetted by the same accrediting bodies and have been found to be on-par with those schools.

He offered these five tips for any student evaluating different online programs:

  • Determine if the coursework synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous coursework means that although the course is online, the student and faculty member are meeting on a set schedule. It is a very structured format. Asynchronous means that the coursework is not done at a set time, but rather, at the convenience of individual students and faculty.
  • Find out what support services the program offers to its online learners. Students who take courses on campus have the advantage of accessing services such as the library, technical support, billing office, admissions and career services by walking across campus. For online learners, they may still need these services, but have to access them differently.
  • Evaluate costs outside of tuition. Many online programs come with technology and other fees as well as residency requirements — such as a weekend on campus — and other costs. It is important that you uncover all of these costs and ensure that the program is affordable for you.
  • Find out what accreditation different programs have. Titus recommends always going with a program that has regional accreditation from one of the six regional accrediting bodies.
  • Understand who is teaching the coursework and what their affiliation to the school is. For online learners, many times once they enroll, their faculty member is their only real connection to the college or university. For certain online programs, courses are taught only by adjunct faculty, with no other connections to the school.

—Written by Chris Metinko for MainStreet