Online Open-Enrollment Colleges: How Do They Work?

Whitney Sandoval, M.Ed.
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Updated May 30, 2024
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Person in college

Are you interested in pursuing a college degree, but don’t have the time or resources to go through a rigorous admissions process?

Some colleges recognize that you might not have the grades or test scores to meet admissions requirements, and that doesn’t mean you aren’t a great candidate for higher education.

By creating open enrollment policies, colleges can remove barriers for students interested in furthering their education. In 2021, 26,455 first-time degree-seekers were enrolled at an open-enrollment four-year public university.

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How Does Online Open Enrollment Work?

Online open-enrollment colleges, sometimes referred to as open-admissions colleges, accept 100% of applicants. You must hold a high school diploma or an equivalent like a GED certificate to apply.

Online open-enrollment colleges do not require standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, or personal essays.

Check with each college you’re interested in attending, but you should expect the following when applying to an online open-enrollment college:

Placement Tests

If you’re seeking your associate degree, you need to take English and math placement tests. Your results reveal whether you need remedial coursework before starting a degree. Some schools use ACT and SAT scores to place you, instead.

Application Forms

Colleges with open enrollment use shorter application forms than traditional schools. These forms do not include sections about extracurricular activities or recommendation letters.

Fees

Many colleges with open admissions do not charge application fees. They avoid these fees to increase the number of applicants. Some schools that do require a fee choose to waive it for prospective students with financial needs.

Proof of High School Graduation

Proof of high school graduation includes unofficial or official transcripts. If you passed the GED or HiSET, submit your scores to your school’s admissions office.

Additional Documentation and Proof of English Proficiency for International Students

International applicants who learned English as a second language take the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Results demonstrate English proficiency. Schools may also accept the International English Language Test.

Why Should You Attend an Online Open-Enrollment College?


  • Save Money: Because most open enrollment colleges don’t require you to pay application or admissions fees, you can save money from the start. And many programs cost less than traditional schooling.
  • Flexibility: Online programs are often designed so you can work on your school when and where it’s most convenient for you.
  • Rolling Admissions: Many online open-enrollment colleges offer rolling admissions, giving you the opportunity to get started any time during the year.
  • Start Fresh: High school performance isn’t always the best indicator of college success. Open enrollment lets you leave your high school grades and test scores behind instead of allowing them to determine your admissions.
  • Same Degree: A degree earned from an online open-enrollment college is not presented any differently than a degree earned from a traditional college with an admissions process.

Applying to an Open-Enrollment College: 3 Factors to Consider

Although open enrollment offers many advantages, you should still research schools’ credibility and transfer policies. This can help you choose a school that meets your academic needs.

Research Prospective Schools

You have options when choosing an online open-enrollment college. Before committing to a program, make sure to research and compare prospective schools. You want a program that will meet your specific needs and interests.

Check into each school’s accreditation, course offerings, costs, and reputation before making a decision.

Check Transferability

If you plan to transfer to a bachelor’s-completion program, it’s important to attend a school that can help you get there. Credit transfers easily when both schools hold regional accreditation. Public colleges with open enrollment coordinate with in-state four-year schools to ensure credit transfers successfully.

Consider Your Degree

Depending on your future career goals you may need to pursue an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. Make sure you understand what your prospective career requirements are when choosing a degree program.

Some degree majors offer bridge programs as well. You may want to earn an associate degree at first and later enroll in an associate-to-bachelor’s degree program.

5 Popular Admissions Policies

Several terms are thrown around when talking about admissions policies. The following are common phrases you’ll find when exploring college admissions.

1. Rolling Admissions

With rolling admissions, depending on the school, you can apply and be accepted at any time. Most colleges have application deadlines, but rolling admissions may have a several-month window in which you can apply.

Eliminating hard deadlines can alleviate stress when you’re applying for colleges. It can also increase your chances of getting in if you are able to apply at the beginning of the rolling admission

On the flip side, if you wait too long within a rolling admissions cycle, the available spots may fill up.

2. Early Action

If you already know your top college choices, you can apply for early action. Early action is a nonbinding option where you apply and receive an acceptance sooner than the traditional application timeline. Typically, you apply in October or November and have an answer by December or January.

Because it is nonbinding, you can always change your mind as your acceptance letters roll in. You are also able to complete multiple early action applications across your top schools.

Keep in mind that early action can be more competitive than waiting until the standard application period.

3. Early Decision

Unlike early action, you can only apply to one school under early decision, and it’s seen as a binding agreement. This means if you get an acceptance letter, you are required to attend that college.

You should only complete an early decision application if you are positive you want to attend that college. Although you cannot apply to any other early decision admission pools, you’re still able to apply to regular admissions.

Sometimes if your application is denied for early decision, it may get placed in the general admissions group for review.

4. Open Door Policy

An open-door admissions policy does not necessarily mean everyone can and will get accepted into a program. However, the college may not ask for proof of previous education. You are typically only required to pay the appropriate fees.

Oftentimes, you still need to meet certain program requirements. You may need to take placement tests and may be required to take remedial courses in order to enroll in your program courses.

5. Regular Admissions

Not looking to do anything fancy? Regular admissions are the most common application avenue. Most regular admissions deadlines are set between January and February and you can expect a decision by April.

You can apply to as many colleges as you’d like with regular admissions and none of the applications are binding. This may be a good option if you want to compare financial aid packages between schools or aren’t set on what school you’d like to attend.

Frequently Asked Questions About Open Enrollment

Do four-year universities offer open enrollment?

Most colleges with open enrollment offer only associate degrees and two-year certificates. However, some schools do offer four-year degrees. Even if you choose a two-year program, you can use your degree or certificate to transfer to a bachelor’s program. You work with academic advisors to develop transfer plans to make sure most if not all credits transfer.

What is the cost of open-enrollment colleges?

The cost of an open-enrollment college varies based on the school. Typically, the cost of an online program is less than the cost of a traditional program. Your costs are also determined by any financial aid or scholarships.

Can you get financial aid at open-enrollment colleges?

Depending on the school, you can receive financial aid at an open-enrollment college. You should be eligible for financial aid if your college is accredited. Check each college’s financial aid eligibility and review your financial aid package each year.

What’s the difference between a selective college and an open college?

While open colleges accept nearly all applicants, selective colleges have criteria that applicants must meet in order to gain acceptance. Open colleges may only look at whether or not you’ve graduated high school or earned a GED certificate, whereas a selective college may look at academic performance and standardized test scores, among other criteria.


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