After spending several years in college, most students eagerly await graduation ceremonies. There's a lot to look forward to. Not only do they receive a hard-earned degree, but they get to celebrate the achievement with classmates and professors.

Well, imagine graduating and meeting these students and teachers face-to-face for the first time. That's what often happens when working adults go back to school in cyberspace.

Elton Newkirk, 42, is one of hundreds of working professionals who is anticipating earning his MBA through the University of Phoenix Online. He started the program in March 1997 and graduates in November 1999. He is currently trying to decide whether to attend the actual graduation ceremony, which is held in San Francisco. But Newkirk, a machine operator at General Electric, lives in Burgaw, North Carolina with his wife and four children. "I'm on one coast and the graduation is on the other. I might just attend the ceremony online. It will be easier to dress up in my own living room," he says, laughing.

Simplifying the educational process for working adults is key to the success of Phoenix-based Apollo Group Inc., which runs the University of Phoenix as well as other institutions of higher learning with more than 100 campuses in 34 states, Puerto Rico, and London. More than 74,000 students attend Apollo's schools and the University of Phoenix's campuses alone enroll about 53,000 degree-seeking working adults, making it the largest private institution of higher learning in the country--ahead of second-largest New York University and third-largest Brigham Young University, according to a Bear Stearns research report.

The University of Phoenix focuses on the working adult market three ways: it requires that students be employed and at least 23 years old; it offers all courses during evenings and some weekends; and it pioneered the concept of online learning, launching an "online campus" 10 years ago.

University of Phoenix Online, or UOP Online, is the fastest growing school within the Apollo Group. The online university launched with an MBA program and now boasts a dozen degree programs, adding another one to two per year, says Terri Hedegaard-Bishop, vice president of distance learning at UOP. Some 5,400 students are currently enrolled at the school.

By offering full degree programs strictly online, UOP opens up its educational doors to thousands of adults who are not able to attend regularly scheduled classes. In many instances, students don't even have flexible traditional MBA programs in their home areas, making online classes the only possible option if they want to get formal education in business.