It's 8 p.m. and after a long day at the office, Nadia Espinosa is in front of her computer, baby son on her lap, immersed in class -- virtually.
As a working single mother, 27-year-old Ms. Espinosa felt the only way she could get her paralegal certification was to find an online program that accommodated her schedule.
For working professionals, going back to school used to mean dashing from office to classroom. Now, the explosion of online education opportunities has made it easier to juggle jobs and school. Colleges are pushing Web courses and online degrees for people who want to take their careers to the next level without stepping foot on campus.
Today, 7 in 10 public and for-profit colleges are offering full online academic programs, as are nearly half of private nonprofit colleges.
As schools boost their online offerings, there are new options for working adults who want to add a career skill. The 2012 Survey of Online Learning reveals the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6.7 million; 60 percent of those online degree seekers are employed full time.
But getting a degree online is not as easy as you might think. The rate of those who fail or give up is significant -- as much as 30 percent higher than among on-campus students, in some cases.
"Students want the flexibility, but some of them don't realize how rigorous the courses can be," said Joyce Elam, dean of University College, home of Florida International University's online learning.
Some of the schools are beefing up online degree programs with 24/7 technical support, reference librarians and virtual tutors.
Working professionals say there's another challenge, too, in completing an online degree: cost.
Top schools often offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for free. But in many cases, an online undergraduate or graduate course for degree-seeking students is actually more expensive than a comparable on-campus course. A U.S. News analysis of about 300 ranked programs at public universities shows the average per credit, in-state cost for an online bachelor's program is $277, compared with $243 per credit at bricks-and-mortar schools.
Ms. Elam said she is bullish on the growth of online education -- particularly for mid-career professionals. "You do need little bit of maturity. It really is more successful for working professionals that have some experience in balancing different demands on their time."
Cindy Krischer Goodman, CEO of BalanceGal LLC, can be reached at email@example.com.