Online degrees offer numerous benefits over traditional degree programs, particularly for students with work or family obligations. Thanks to the flexibility and convenience of online learning, busy professionals can pursue a degree at night or on the weekends, all while maintaining a full-time job. Online programs give parents the opportunity to complete courses from home while their children are sleeping or at school, a feat that's impossible with campus-based classes. These are just a few of the many advantages online degree programs offer non-traditional students. For more, check out the frequently asked questions below.
- Can I get a degree while working full-time or traveling?
- How long does it take to get a degree online?
- Can I get an accelerated bachelor's degree online?
One of the most common roadblocks for aspiring students is that they often need to continue working full-time. Perhaps they even need to travel for work, which can sometimes make it nearly impossible to attend class on a regular basis or get into any sort of routine.
Fortunately, students with these challenges can now earn a degree entirely online and at their own pace. And thanks to the growth and popularity of online courses, most colleges and universities have begun offering online versions of some of their most popular degree programs over the past decade. Students who have work or family obligations can benefit from this movement by pursuing flexible online degrees that can be earned around their busy schedule.
What makes online degree programs so flexible?
Every online degree program has its own set of rules and requirements for students. However, the vast majority of online programs can be completed at any time of the day or night. And since location is not an issue, online students can complete their studies nearly anywhere they may be, provided they have an Internet connection and access to a PC or laptop.
Take students at Penn State's World Campus, for example. Penn State students have access to fully online courses that are academically equivalent to on-campus courses. But instead of passing notes in a classroom and raising their hand to ask the instructor a question, Penn State students and teachers communicate with one another online through mediums like Skype, Blackboard, and discussion forums. And because of the online nature of these programs, students can complete their work on their own time. However, various forms of online infrastructure provide them with the capability to participate in group work with their peers and access school resources -- all from the comfort of home. Imagine the options this opens up for adult learners and non-traditional students. A few examples:
- The single parent. Parents with small children are often unable to pursue their degree until their children are older and need less care. Online education removes that roadblock by offering flexible online degrees that can be earned during the evening or on weekends. In fact, parents with small children can even continue their studies while the kids are tucked safely in bed.
- The breadwinner. If your family relies on your income just to get by, it can be a tough sell to convince them that you need to go back to school to earn your degree. That's why online education is so convenient for those with families who rely on them -- it allows anyone with an Internet connection to earn a degree while maintaining a full-time job.
- The busy professional. How does a busy professional who travels for work earn a degree on the road? The answer is simple. By pursuing online education, even professionals who travel can earn a degree while working, as long as they have access to the Internet.
Making online education work
According to a recent study, approximately 7.1 million students took at least one online class in 2012 -- a 6.1 percent increase over the year before. And with online education having so much to offer busy adults, it's not hard to see why. Parents with kids, professionals already invested in their career, and adult learners continue to flock to online education because it is often the only option that will work.
Even some celebrities have gotten on the online education bandwagon these past few years, including the likes of James Franco, Steven Spielberg, Shaquille O'Neal, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. That list also includes actress, singer, and songwriter Hillary Duff who claims to have taken online courses at Harvard.
And that brings up another excellent point about the dynamic and innovative nature of online degree programs. The location independent nature of online education makes it possible for students all over the globe to take advantage of online courses at Harvard University and other Ivy League schools. Decades ago, many students could only dream of taking courses at MIT, Cornell University, or Dartmouth College.
Online education may simply be convenient for some, but it's truly a life-saver for others. In fact, flexible online degrees are often the only option for single parents, working adults, and those who travel on a regular basis. Fortunately, online education has come a long way since its inception and those seeking flexible online degrees now have an array of educational options to choose from. Want to know more? Start by researching online schools and discovering the many options available in your area of interest.
Students researching online degrees often wonder if they are easier or faster to complete than traditional, classroom-based programs. The answer is both yes and no. It is a myth that online degree programs are easy, since the difficulty of any program often depends on how well it meets students' personal learning styles. Online programs often require more self-direction, stick-to-itiveness, and organization than attending guided classroom courses with set schedules. For students who have those qualities, or who are balancing work and education, the flexibility of online learning makes earning a degree much more accessible. With this in mind, how long does an online degree take to complete? The answer depends very much on the student (and his or her circumstances), but there are some general trends. Here are a few of them.
How long does it take to get an online degree?
Online programs are not necessarily short-cuts to degrees. Students will still be required to complete the same type of work as they would have in the classroom, which means that the rate at which they complete their degrees depends more upon how much they can handle -- not how they log into class. Unless online students are enrolled in special accelerated programs (more on this later), or are able to take on a steeper course load than they would have otherwise, they can expect to invest about as much time to their studies as traditional students. The following is a list of the most common types of online credentials and the time typically required to complete them. Keep in mind that these figures are merely averages: Some programs will take more or less time to finish, especially among part-time students.
- Postsecondary certificates. Online postsecondary certificates usually require less time to complete than formal degrees, which means they can often offer a faster segue from the classroom to the workplace. Programs vary by school and discipline, but as a general rule, students can aim to earn a certificate in one-year or less.
- Associate degrees. Associate degrees represent a step up from postsecondary certificates, so tend to take more time to complete. The terms "associate degrees" and "two-year degrees" are often interchangeable, and with good reason: Two years has traditionally been the expected time of completion for these credentials.
- Bachelor's degrees. Bachelor's degrees are among the most prevalent credentials students earn, both online and off, and are a common baseline requirement for work in a number of fields. Bachelor's degrees typically take about four-years of full-time study to complete, assuming students can swing a full load of classes. Note, however, that accelerated bachelor's degree programs are becoming increasingly common, which means dedicated students can often earn these degrees in less than four years. More on this below.
- Master's degrees. Unlike undergraduate programs, which typically require students to hold a high school diploma or an equivalent for admissions, master's degree programs usually require that applicants already have their bachelor's. That means students must typically spend at least four years in college before pursuing them. Once admitted, however, students can expect to invest about two years to their studies before earning their master's. As with bachelor's degrees, there are a number of accelerated master's degrees that require less time, especially in fields like nursing and business.
- Doctoral and professional degrees. Doctoral degrees, like Ph.D.s, and professional degrees, like M.D.s and J.D.s, are often the highest degrees professionals can earn, and vary tremendously in scope and duration. One discipline might require three years while another six, plus internships, fellowships, or residencies. Some doctoral programs require students to earn master's degrees before they are admitted, but some schools -- particularly medical and law schools -- admit students with bachelor's degrees and solid test scores.
Flexibility: The advantage of online degrees
As noted above, students attending online degree programs must typically complete the same subjects, and the same number of units, as those reporting to classrooms. There are a number of features associated with online learning that may allow many students to earn their degrees faster, however. Among them:
- Nonsynchronous scheduling. Many online degrees are nonsynchronous, which means students can view video lectures, collaborate in student forums, and access other class materials on their own schedule. That means students whose work or family obligations would have only permitted them to take one or two traditional, classroom-based courses each semester may be able to take three or four online, since they can work in the evening, during breaks, or whenever else their schedule permits. By taking more courses at once, they can complete their educations faster.
- Self-direction. Many online programs are self-directed, so students can complete work on their own schedule. If a student is already well acquainted with a particular topic or idea, they can just speed through it without worrying about a professor's lecture schedule or their peers' progress.
- Continuous scheduling. Students attending campus-based courses often have set periods in which they can enroll in courses, and they cannot enroll in the next round until registration opens for the next semester or quarter. Not so with some online programs, which allow students to enroll in courses year-round. In these programs, students can tackle their next group of courses as soon as they are ready, no mandatory summer vacation required.
Accelerated online degree programs
Anyone enrolled in a standard degree program expects to take some courses not directly related to their fields of study. Bachelor's programs usually require a bit more general education work than associate degrees, for instance, which means students studying English must often complete a certain number of units in areas such as math or science. Not so with some accelerated programs. Accelerated programs allow students to hone in on the courses that benefit them most in the workplace, nixing some of the less relevant general education units. The result: Faster degrees. Think: One-year master's degrees, or three-year bachelor's degrees.
Bridge programs are another type of accelerated program designed for students who already have a degree or extensive experience in a relevant field. These programs allow students to complete just the courses they would need to move up the degree-ladder. A nurse with a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN) who wants to earn a master's degree in nursing (MSN) could enroll in a BSN to MSN bridge program. Likewise, a professional with a bachelor's degree in business and relevant work experience can often enroll in an executive MBA program requiring one, not two years of study. Both online and traditional colleges offer accelerated and bridge programs, but when students enroll in these fast-track programs and take advantage of the benefits of online degrees listed above, they have the potential to achieve their education goals more quickly.
The balancing act: Personalized education
An important factor that determines how quickly students can earn their degrees is not the program, but the students themselves. Those who fare well with self-direction, have a lot of relevant work experience, or must juggle school with other life obligations may be able to complete their educations faster online. Students who have trouble getting organized without a professor's strict timetable may feel more comfortable in a classroom. Fortunately, online learning does not necessarily have to be an all-or-nothing affair. Many colleges allow students to take some courses in the classroom, but complete others online. This may be especially true in disciplines that require a lot of hands-on laboratory or clinical work. Other colleges host one- or two-week on-campus intensives, meaning students only need to travel to campus for a week or two a term, completing the rest of their work online.
The only sure-fire way to know how long it will take students to complete their degree is to simply contact schools and ask admissions representatives what the average completion time is for whatever programs pique their interest. Many schools will even put potential students in touch with active or former students so that they can learn what programs are like from those who have lived them.
Many colleges -- including online schools -- offer accelerated bachelor's degrees, which, depending on the program, can reduce the time required to complete a degree considerably. This can be particularly true for those who study online, thanks to the flexibility such programs offer (more on this later). While the idea of finishing school faster appeals to a lot of people, it is only natural to wonder how these programs work, if they are just as effective as traditional programs, and whether they are respected in the field. Here is a brief review of accelerated online degree programs.
What are accelerated online bachelor's degree programs?
Students enrolled in a standard bachelor's program generally complete the same type and number of courses no matter where or how they pursue the degree. These courses include a fair number of subjects that are not necessarily directly related to their fields of study. An English or history major, for instance, is often still expected to complete courses in math, science, and philosophy. This is not necessarily true of online accelerated degree programs. While programs certainly can and do vary (sometimes considerably), many accelerated programs streamline one's education by minimizing less relevant coursework, focusing instead on major-related coursework. Programs may still include seemingly unrelated courses, like English, in an effort to produce well-rounded graduates, but general education courses tend to be more limited.
Some accelerated programs are truly just traditional degrees offered at an accelerated pace. Instead of investing four hours a week on a specific class, students would invest eight, completing the degree in half the expected time. Online accelerated degrees of this nature may sometimes have one- or two-week, on-campus intensives, especially in disciplines with a good deal of hands-on lab or clinical work. In this case, students would report to class for the intensive, then complete the rest of their work at home, online.
How long does it take to earn an accelerated online degree?
As with any other degree program, the amount of time it takes students to complete an accelerated bachelor's degree online depends on a number of variables. Many schools aim to shave about a year off of the standard four-years expected of a bachelor's degree, meaning students can often finish their credentials in just three years. Other factors play a role, particularly for online students. Among them:
- Course load. All students enrolled in a specific program are expected the complete the same number of units to graduate, but not all students can swing the same number of courses at the same time. Part-time students -- usually defined as those taking fewer than 12 units at a time -- will need more time to complete their work than those enrolled full-time. The beauty of many online accelerated degree programs is that courses are often nonsynchronous, which means that students can view lectures and complete their work whenever they want, no mandated schedules required. That means that working professionals (or those with other obligations) can often enroll in more courses at one time.
- Personal learning style. While some students enjoy reporting to a classroom each day and having instructors meter their progress, others prefer to organize their own work, on their own time, and at their own pace. Accelerated online degree programs are especially helpful for these students, particularly fast learners and those studying familiar disciplines, who can work through the material faster than they would in the classroom.
- Experience. Many students who enroll in either traditional or accelerated degree programs have at least some experience in their field of study. (Think: Working professionals who want to advance their careers faster by earning a degree.) When material is familiar, students can often work through it at a quicker pace -- especially in a flexible online learning environment. This often allows students to bump up their course loads and finish faster.
While all of these factors can influence how long it takes students to complete accelerated degrees, everything hinges on the number of units required and the length of terms offered by specific programs. Prospective students should contact schools directly to learn more about course expectations and the average time it takes students to graduate.
Bridge, executive, and competency-based degrees
Students researching accelerated degrees may come across programs called "bridge" or "executive" programs, particularly in the fields of health care and business. In practice, these are accelerated programs, but tend to target students who already hold a lower credential or have a good deal of relevant work experience. For instance, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or registered nurse (RN) who wants to earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) can usually enroll in an ADN to BSN program, sometimes called LPN to BSN, RN to BSN, or LPN to RN. Because these programs build on skills already certified, they tend to require far fewer than four years of study.
Competency-based degrees are another type of accelerated program that is becoming more popular with each passing year. Competency-based programs allow students to demonstrate knowledge through testing rather than structured classes. That means that students who already know a great deal about a subject can simply certify their know-how by passing exams, and those with less experience can study at their own pace through whatever means they prefer. Some of these students are able to complete competency degrees without ever logging into a class or cracking a textbook, especially when they have extensive, relevant knowledge or work experience.
What schools offer accelerated online degrees?
Accelerated degree programs are perhaps most prevalent in career schools, since these programs aim to get student career-ready in a reasonable amount of time. The idea has caught on at other schools, however, and today even some of the most prestigious private and public colleges and universities offer accelerated programs. The following examples demonstrate the variability of these programs, in terms of institutional type, discipline, and length of study. Note that programs can and do change. We recommend contacting schools directly to verify program information before applying.
Estimated Length of Study
Online AcceleratED Bachelor's Degree in Business Management
As little as 18 months, depending on past coursework.
Fast-Track Online Bachelor of Science in Information Technology
As little as 18 months for students with relevant associate degrees; 3 years for those without degrees.
Online RN to BSN
Up to 3 years, but less for students with prior coursework. Students can transfer up to 135 of the 180 units required.
How to prepare for an online accelerated degree program
How students prepare for accelerated programs depends on the program itself. Students with relevant work experience or knowledge can often enroll in bridge or competency-based programs with little preparation. Students with limited past experience may benefit from doing a bit of research and spending some time getting organized before beginning their classes, especially if their chosen degree program moves at a faster pace than traditional programs, covering a great deal more material each week.
Are accelerated degrees respected?
Some students may wonder if fast-track degrees sacrifice quality, and are therefore considered less valuable than traditional degrees. The simple answer to this is no. Accelerated online degree programs aim to ensure students walk away with the same discipline-specific knowledge they would in a traditional program -- they just minimize extraneous courses or cover material more quickly. The fact that students completed accelerated degrees, or even online degrees, is not typically apparent on their diplomas or transcripts, so many employers do not know how students completed their work -- or how fast.
So what does matter to employers? Accreditation, or the process by which a respected third-party organization reviews schools and programs to ensure they meet certain quality standards. Online accelerated bachelor degree programs are often accredited by whatever organization accredits the university itself, though some seek additional discipline-specific accreditation, often called "programmatic" accreditation. Most schools publish accreditation information freely on their websites. Students can also contact schools directly. Note that organizations like the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation provide a great deal of information about accreditation, and maintain databases of accredited schools and programs.
Doubling down: The benefit of online accelerated degrees
Both traditional and online colleges offer accelerated degrees, but for many students, online programs can shave additional time off their length of study. The following are a few of the benefits of online education that complement accelerated learning particularly well:
- Nonsynchronous scheduling. Nonsynchronous scheduling means students can access lectures and materials anytime, day or night. This allows students with jobs and other obligations to take on more classes than they could while attending traditional schools with set schedules. Furthermore, this type of scheduling allows students to work at their own pace, which means they can double down on courses or work more quickly through familiar material.
- Flexible terms. Traditional schools typically have set semesters or quarters in which classes are offered. Not so of many online programs, which allow students to enroll in classes throughout the year, no summer required. As soon as students finish one round of classes, they can begin on the next. This can expedite their studies significantly.
- Self-direction. Online education is especially popular among independent or self-directed learners who master material by working through it in their own way. Instead of having to attend classes and re-teach themselves later at home, they can simply cover lessons the way they want the first time, reducing how much time they dedicate to each class.
Learn more about accelerated online degree programs
This guide serves as a simple introduction to accelerated online bachelor degree programs, but it is by no means comprehensive. Schools and programs can vary considerably. To learn more about a particular program, contact schools independently to request more information. Many admissions representatives will even connect potential students with current or past students so that they can learn more about what to expect once enrolled.
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Accreditation in the United States, U.S. Department of Education, http://www2.ed.gov/admins/finaid/accred/index.html
Business Management Bachelor's Degree -- AcceleratED, Business Management, Rasmussen College, http://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/business/accelerated-business-management/
Council for Higher Education Accreditation, http://www.chea.org/
Fast-Track Bachelor of Science in Information Technology, College of Professional Studies, Northeastern University, http://www.cps.neu.edu/degree-programs/undergraduate/accelerated-degrees/bachelors-information-technology.php
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