The vaunted masters in business administration degree -- seen by so many as the golden ticket to upper management -- has slipped in its stature in recent years. Part of the reason is that so many people ran out to get them once the 1980s and late 1990s business booms ended. (Economic crashes, when jobs are scarcest, are traditional feeding frenzies for all grad schools.)Good trend or bad, now an MBA is virtually expected in hiring situations. But you needn't lose two years of income and move to a new city for the three little initials you need: Take it online instead. Even fancy-schmancy schools are getting into on the act (it's their only serious growth segment), and they seem to be working hard to create a different, yet equivalent, experience for so-called "distance learners." Consider the pure-play virtual b-schools -- carefully There are several schools that advertise quite heavily and seem competely legit, with official-looking seals and nice Web sites. They come with plenty of caveats, though. It's not clear what reputation they hold among discerning employers, and you won't get the same level of professional contacts here. University of Phoenix, a fully blown school created by eccentric billionaire John Sperling in his quest to extend college training to lower middle class workers (and make money at it). Some newcomers in the space include Walden University and DeVry.Big universities are a great alternative, and they are getting online It's not just the fly-by-nighters anymore. You can get a real sheepskin by completing course work online over a year or two, part-time. No class time -- so limited networking possibilities -- but these are real degrees from prestigious schools. Florida State University, University of Florida, Colorado State, Syracuse University, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Thunderbird, The Garvin School of Management, among others.Get some ivy for your hard-earned tuition money If you really can't take a minute off your job, then a purely online degree is probably the best choice. Yet some big-name schools now offer "mostly Internet" coursework capped by a few weeks of classes. Design for global managers, they offer high-end learning with scheduling convenience. Duke University's Global MBA program is well-regarded, as are the many programs that require only Friday and Saturday classes, sometimes spaced months apart. Find one that fits at the Executive MBA Council directory.Find a school through a third-party Web site Figuring out what's out there is half the battle. Universities expand their online offerings every day, it seems, but the Web is just as good at keeping up with the data. The Sloan Consortium, a group of distance educators, has a good database, as does traditional schools guide publisher Peterson's. See online MBA and other degree programs at eLearners.com. Is the program legit? Check it out The beauty of the online MBA is that you don't need to live in the same city, or even country, where the degree is offered. However, it's hard to tell if a faraway b-school is worth your time and money, and even some well-known universities have new or weak graduate business offerings. The only b-school accreditation that matters is AACSB, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. Look up your potential MBA provider on their list of accredited programs.Do you need an MBA, or is this just mid-career malaise? An unfortunately large number of graduate students are simply career changers who can't figure out which way to go next. Before committing to thousand of dollars in education costs, ask yourself: Is this really for me? The Graduate Management Admission Council, a consortium of top global b-schools, offers MBA.com, a site dedicated to answering just this question. A bit pro-MBA (unsurprisingly) but worth a read. It in turn recommands a more serious self-assessment from CareerLeader, which for less than $100 promises to steer you toward, or away, from more schooling. Forbes magazine has a nifty calculator that will tell you exactly how long you'll have to work to come out ahead. Be realistic about your personal life. If you can't break away from kids and spouse completely, you aren't likely to keep up. Also, a full day's work is not best followed by a night of staring at a laptop screen. Many employers will help you finance your MBA under certain conditions. Make sure they will consider your online MBA under the same terms, first. The HR office should know. One reality check is to spend a few weeks perusing job postings by companies for which you would like to work. Find your dream title, and read the requirements. Is MBA a consistent demand, or not? Would employers in your field care if you took it online?