Online Degree Guidebook Resources, Options and Advice for Completing a Program Virtually

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Online degree programs have changed the face of education, making it possible for students to earn degrees remotely and on a schedule that fits their needs. To assume that online degrees are strictly the purview of for-profit schools is a mistake. Many traditional, not-for-profit colleges and universities also have established undergraduate and graduate-level online programs. Renowned institutions such as the University of Oklahoma, University of Southern California, Penn State, Xavier, Stanford, and Columbia all offer online degrees and certificates. If you’re considering an online degree, this guide will walk you through everything you need to know – from application to graduation.

Types of Degrees Available Online

Students entering college for the first time, returning to school to complete a degree, or enrolling in a graduate degree program will find an exceptional variety of choices at online schools. Certifications (undergraduate and graduate) can bolster students’ credentials in a profession or trade. Associate and bachelor’s degree programs provide well-rounded, comprehensive education to land entry-level employment. Online graduate degree programs prepare students to enter fields requiring an advanced degree or qualify grads to advance to leadership and management roles within their existing professions.

Below is an overview of the different levels of online education, covering the curriculum, graduation requirements, and kinds of students best served by each type of degree.


Online certificate programs run the gamut from beginning dental assisting to C-level supply chain management. At the undergraduate level, certifications are typically comprised of 30 to 72 credits – which can take one to two years to complete – and provide specific job training in a narrow vocational field or topic. At the graduate level, an 18-credit post-baccalaureate certificate program boosts credentials beyond the undergraduate degree. A postgraduate certification program consists of 24 credit hours and is used to demonstrate one’s professional skills for employers. For instance, professionals may pursue graduate certifications in systems, software, or management skills.

Example Certifications (1-2 years):
  • Undergraduate Certificate in Accounting

    In a year-long program, students complete five online courses in beginning and intermediate accounting, spreadsheet fundamentals, and the principles of finance. This certificate is ideally suited for students with a bookkeeping background who are looking to broaden their knowledge and job skills but not interested in pursuing a degree.

  • Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Education, K-12 Policy

    Educators deepen their knowledge of education law, policymaking, finance and school safety through a 12-credit program that takes up to two years to complete. These master’s-level courses are designed to prepare teachers for broader roles in formulating classroom, school or district policies.

  • Post-Master’s Certificate in Nursing Informatics

    This 39-unit online master’s certificate is designed for nurses and nursing administrators seeking to improve patient outcomes and control healthcare costs and delivery systems. The curriculum is designed around project management, database design and quality improvement methods backed by technology. The certificate takes three semesters to complete.

Associate Degrees

Online associate degree programs take up to two years to complete and result in an Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Science or Associate of Arts degree. This option is typically more affordable than earning a degree at a four-year public or private school and allows students beginning their postsecondary education to first explore their field of study. Graduates of these online two-year programs have the option to enter their careers, transfer to four-year schools to complete a bachelor’s degree, or both. The associate degree is comprised of approximately 60 semester credits, with half of the studies in general education in the sciences, arts and humanities.

Example Associate Degrees (2 years):
  • Associate of Science in Information Systems

    Beginning technology professionals can learn the basics in this two-year online degree that prepares them to take entry level jobs in the field. Studies focus on microcomputer applications, programming, database design, business law, helpdesk support and network administration. Grads can also transfer to accredited bachelor’s degree programs in information systems, computer technology or programming.

  • Applied Associate Degree of Science in Public and Emergency Services

    Ideal for students pursing entry into community outreach, mental health/human service staffing, firefighter or paramedic roles, this two-year online program offers foundation courses in case management, group dynamics, social psychology, community relations and computer applications.

  • Associate of Arts in Early Childhood Education

    Students enrolled in this 67-credit program complete their general education requirements while taking courses within the major that cover early childhood curriculum, child development, information literacy, ethics and moral reasoning, childhood movement and motor activities, child assessment, diverse learners, and behavior management. The two-year program is suited to students planning to work in daycares or preschools, or for those planning to pursue bachelor’s degrees in education.

Bachelor’s Degrees

The bachelor’s degree is the most common degree pursued today in the United States. Bachelor’s degrees typically take four years to complete and are comprised of roughly 120 credit hours. Approximately 30 credit hours are required to complete the major field of study, and some schools require 10 to 20 hours of coursework in a minor field. Four-year degrees commonly awarded by online institutions include the Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BS), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA). Graduates of online bachelor’s degree programs can use their degree for career advancement, to prepare for new careers, or to move into graduate work.

Example Bachelor’s Degrees (4-5 years):
  • Bachelor of Science in Marketing

    Business students focusing on marketing can complete the 120 credit hours for the online degree in four years. Up to 70 hours of study are required in the major field, which has classes in e-commerce, strategic marketing, consumer behavior, sales analytics, campaign management, communications and distribution. Students can apply their learning to roles in marketing, advertising, public relations or related fields. Some may choose to pursue a Master of Business Administration (MBA) to move into management. International students often earn the degree to learn about doing business in America.

  • Bachelor of Science in Electronics Engineering

    An online electronics engineering degree program requires up to 140 credit hours, taking a total of nine full-time semesters to complete. Students take lectures and labs in signal processing, processor architecture, mechatronics, Java and other programming languages/environments, and communications systems. Graduates are trained to assume roles as systems analysts, test engineers or integration engineering specialists. Many recruiters for engineering disciplines prefer candidates who have completed graduate degrees and certifications. This BS degree program can build a solid foundation for undertaking graduate work.

  • Bachelor of Arts in Interior Design

    Online BA degree programs in interior design may be ideal for students seeking the business, technology and creative skills necessary to work in a range of disciplines, including commercial, industrial and residential interiors, sustainable design, or historic preservation. The 120-credit degree can be completed in four years (or fewer with transfer credits). The curriculum includes studies in 3D design tools and software, history of design, ergonomic design, trends and schools of thought, materials, colors, lighting, and inside landscaping. The online BA programs are suited for beginning designers preparing for professional licensing.

Master’s Degrees

Online master’s degree programs are popular for busy professionals seeking to meet educational or licensing requirements in their field or to advance to leadership or managerial roles. Some popular online master’s programs lead to the following degrees:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA, MIB)
  • Master of Education (MAT, MEd)
  • Master of Social Work (MSW)
  • Master of Engineering (MEng)
  • Master of Library Science (MLS)
  • Master of Fine Arts (MFA)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
Example Master’s Degrees (1.5-2 years)
  • Master of Business Administration

    The rapid development of online MBA programs in the last 10 years has created an exceptional opportunity for professionals to specialize in their management field. Many management or senior positions with business, healthcare, technology, and education organizations require applicants to hold an MBA or be in the process of completing one. Online schools may offer 12 or more MBA degree specializations that require from 60 to 76 graduate-level credits, including practical business internships.

  • Master of Social Work

    For social workers and counselors, the MSW is required to take state examinations to practice as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or a licensed master social worker (LMSW). The online 60-credit MSW is ideal for students already working in the field or for students who cannot pursue a degree on campus because of work, family or transportation concerns. Coursework is conducted entirely online, but students are required to complete up to 1,000 hours of field education within their communities.

  • Master of Science in Nursing

    Many of the nation’s top research and medical universities are now offering online MSN programs that allow registered nurses to prepare for advancement and management roles in a year of full-time study. The 40-unit program is divided into core classes, advanced nursing major studies (nurse manager, nurse practitioner, nurse midwife) and professional electives in teaching, clinical practice or leadership.


Online doctorate degrees represent the highest level of educational achievement in an academic discipline. The Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Education (EdD) are among the most commonly awarded degrees from accredited graduate institutions and take from 3 to 7 years to complete, depending on the school, discipline, and individual student. The PhD is offered in most academic fields and is comprised of between 36 and 72 credit hours, depending on the school. A PhD is suited for students who want to advance to research and university teaching positions, serve as top administrators in the profession, or become consultants. Some fields require doctorates in order to practice. Online EdD programs are suited for educators seeking advancement to positions in educational administration, policy and curriculum development, teacher education, or school consulting. Much like time-to-completion, graduation requirements vary — programs may require a practical internship, academic thesis, or capstone research project.

Example Doctoral Degrees (3.5-5 years)
  • Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction

    Advanced students must complete 90 credits beyond the bachelor’s degree in education, pass the school’s qualifying examinations, and fulfill 30 credits of courses in curriculum, teaching and teacher education. Research and approved dissertations are required for graduation. The online format allows educators to conduct research and recommend practical outcomes at their current place of practice.

  • Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology

    The clinical psychology specialization of the online PhD in psychology prepares graduates to sit for state licensing examinations to work as clinical practitioners, psychology educators, researchers and leaders of advocacy organizations. The degree requires completion of 160 graduate quarter credits divided among core courses, electives in psychology, a clinical practicum, dissertation and formal internships/residencies. Students complete their master’s degree in psychology en route to the doctoral degree.

  • Doctor of Philosophy in Strategy and Entrepreneurship

    This online doctoral degree is for business professionals and educators who want to advance to take on roles in university teaching, research and business development. The first half of the four-year doctorate brings advanced students up to speed on performing high-quality scholarly research that will contribute to the field. After passing the comprehensive exam, students devote the balance of their time to conducting research and writing a dissertation. Programs typically include graduate placement services.

Top 10 Benefits of Earning a Degree Online

Colleges and universities offering online degrees and certifications do a lot of heavy lifting to maintain the quality of their programs. Students with even the most rudimentary Web browsing and email skills will find most of the educational online interfaces easy enough to use, and today’s tech savvy students may find accessing online courses a snap. Most course requirements are completed entirely online, such as class lectures, discussion groups, and collaborative projects. Although students are often required to attend in-person workshops, internships and science labs, online schools make it easy for distance learners by partnering with the local community to create nearby opportunities. There are other benefits to earning a degree online, some of which may not be evident at first glance:

124/7 access

The asynchronous class structure of online learning allows students to log onto the class management system at any time, from any location. Courses may have organized, required meetings where students must log in and participate, but much of the time students contribute to online discussions and conduct email dialogues with professors at their own convenience. Students are further supported with 24/7 online technology help through the course management system.

2Unlimited access to knowledge resources

Streaming lectures, multimedia presentations, email strings and chat transcripts remain online for the length of the course, allowing students to access class materials whenever they need them. While preparing for examinations, students can rewind and replay lectures and discussions. Faculty members also post supporting course materials online for ongoing student access.

3Lower degree cost

Students working at their own pace can adjust their schedules where possible to complete their degrees ahead of time, saving on tuition levied on additional semesters. Some schools allow instructors to post all the books and reading materials online, dramatically cutting the cost of traditional textbooks. Accelerated online degree programs are for focused, dedicated online students, which is why such programs tend to be offered at the graduate level. Online students further lower their costs by not having to pay for relocation, student housing, commuting, parking or athletics.

4Diversity of degree programs and majors

Students can get everything from a professional certification to a doctorate online. Online programs help nurses transition to management, accountants to learn C-level management skills, paramedics to complete advanced certifications and teachers to become principals.

5Emphasis on collaboration and community

Most graduates of online degree programs would say they are not isolated from peers and educators. In fact, collaborative projects, internships, practicums and formal labs bring students together in a community that can last long after graduation. Working with peers through email and voice and video messaging also gives students practice in building networks and grooms their professional communication skills.

6Convenience and flexibility

Working students and parents can establish their own "school nights" or hours when they have the most energy to do their coursework without distractions. While each professor expects continual progress, students can often work at their own pace as long as they meet class deadlines. Upper division or graduate students often create their own senior projects and supporting courses in concert with their professors, allowing for career diversity and specialization. However, while convenient, online learning requires discipline.

7Credit portability

Students at online undergraduate degree programs may be able to transfer a substantial number of general education credits when they shift into an approved or participating degree completion or advanced degree program. Many community colleges that offer online associate degree programs have joined forces with state colleges to allow their graduates to continue studying without any hiccups.

8Streamlined curriculum

Another advantage of online programs is that many graduate degree and postgraduate certificate programs are designed to move students through curriculum in a reduced time, without compromising academic quality and standards.

9Federal financial aid

Accredited institutions offering online degree programs are qualified to participate in federal financial aid programs, including Pell Grants, student loans, scholarships and work-study programs. Prospective students are encouraged to contact target schools about aid availability and to file a FAFSA®.

10Professional diversity of instructors

Online degree or certificate programs may be interdisciplinary in nature, allowing students to gain professional insight from experienced instructors and lecturers in related fields. The flexibility and reach of online instruction means that experts from around the globe can contribute to the class lectures, readings, and knowledge base.

Online versus On Campus: What’s the Difference?

The use of technology to support higher education is not new and is a vital tool, even at brick and mortar schools. For example, researchers at the University of the Potomac found that 67 percent of college instructors (whether teaching on campus or remotely) routinely employ blogs, videos, and podcasts as part of their teaching repertoire.

In general terms, online students enjoy the benefits of digital communications technology, but they also can benefit from cost savings, scheduling flexibility, convenience of location, and a self-paced education. Campus-based students, on the other hand, benefit from frequent face-to-face interactions with teachers and peers, participate in extracurricular activities, and receive immediate answers to class questions. But the distinctions run deeper than that:

Application & Admission
Online degree program

Prospective students may apply to hundreds of degree programs electronically using tools like the Common Application or Common Black College Application, which allows instant submission for required test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation and writing samples.

Student applications are received throughout the year and students are admitted whenever a new class opens. Processing is swift.

Many online schools accept transfer credits in general education courses from other accredited institutions and add credit for professional experience, adding up to as much as 50 percent of the degree.

Online degree programs may help students save at registration time by offering a fee schedule that charges a set rate per class or per semester, often with lower minimum class requirements than those set for campus programs.

Campus-based degree program

Prospective students may also apply digitally using the Common Application, if the school accepts it. They may also apply through individual colleges’ websites or by mail.

Students must apply well ahead of time before the new school semester. The approval/rejection process can take months.

Brick and mortar schools accept a certain percentage of total credits from previous courses at recognized colleges. However, it is more cumbersome for students to transfer from school to school.

Traditional colleges typically charge a standard tuition based upon an expected "typical credit load."

Total Costs
Online degree program

According to a 2014 University of the Potomac study, the average cost of an online degree was $30,000.

Online students do not pay for relocation, boarding or travel, except for commuting to required campus seminars or internships within their community. For example, by taking advantage of an optional online senior year at campus-based Tiffin University, students save $9,000 in housing costs alone.

Online professors and instructors commonly provide digital versions of class texts, supplemental materials, and multimedia resources online, all of which are included in the cost of tuition. Some online programs offer laptops.

Campus-based degree program

The same study determined that the average cost of a traditional, on-campus degree was $85,000.

Campus students must cover the costs of dormitories and parking, but they can receive the benefits of student healthcare, campus recreational facilities and special college events.

Students at traditional degree programs can pay upwards of $500 per class for new textbooks or they can find used books, which can still be costly.

Time Commitment
Online degree program

Students arrange their own schedules to attend online classes, review materials and communicate with instructors and peers.

Accelerated degree programs allow students to complete degrees in less time. Some online degree programs minimize credits required outside the major. Classes may be offered throughout the year in shorter time frames.

Campus-based degree program

There is no self-pacing. All students must travel to campus and attend classes at scheduled meeting times. Failure to attend can mean grade penalties.

Students graduate at formal semester or quarter terms. Because of scheduling, some students may linger on campus waiting for a class, or may divide their days running errands and returning to campus.

College Life
Online degree program

Online students forge relationships with classmates and teachers using video and voice chat, instant messaging, Skype and online discussions. Students and professors in many programs meet at intervals during the semester or in the summer to hold orientations, seminars and joint labs.

Campus-based degree program

Students enjoy campus options for recreation, athletics, arts and music, clubs, Greek organizations and assemblies. Students meet with professors during their office hours.

Learning Styles
Online degree program

Online students set their own schedules, meaning they must be self-motivated to keep up with classes and deadlines.

Campus-based degree program

Established class meetings can be ideal for students who need more structure.

The Tech Behind Online Degrees

The technological backbone supporting online learning has grown dramatically over the last two decades. Today’s online students may use one or more digital platforms, including learning management software (LMS) and the college’s registration/tuition/grades software system. At some institutions, the systems are integrated. Students who have been raised in the computer/tablet/smartphone age can quickly adapt to the standardized or proprietary class software used by most schools. Older students returning to college can attend virtual tech orientation sessions or refreshers prior to the first day of a new semester.

Technical Competency

The basic skills needed for success in the online school environment include using:

  • An up-to-date computer operating system
  • Printers
  • Web browsers such as Chrome or Firefox
  • Internet-based email
  • Basic word processing and spreadsheet software
  • Video, voice, presentation and multimedia players

LMS Tools

Institutions may develop their own stand-alone class delivery software or customize one of the many popular LMS systems. Depending on the school, students may find themselves learning and using software such as Adobe Connect, Blackboard, Canvas, Google+ Hangouts, iTunes, Skype and YouTube. Systems have their own variables and options, but common tools for online students include:

  • Voice and video conferencing
  • Video file/DVD/CD playback
  • Text and video chat
  • Email strings and threaded discussion boards
  • Digital student forums

Inside Look at Blackboard Bb

Blackboard is one of the most popular LMS suites used in distance education, allowing educators to customize features in the learning platform to suit their schools and programs. It has been successfully deployed on desktops, laptops and tablets and, according to Blackboard, is used by 92 percent of today’s online bachelor’s degree programs. Tool features of the Blackboard New Learning Experience allow students to check on student loan status, attend virtual study groups, purchase books and supplies, view job boards, and chat with professors online during their office hours.

The company’s latest iteration is Bb Student, a program that works across all mobile devices (iOS 7+, Android 4.0+, Windows 8.1+) to help online students study via their smartphones. Here are some notable features:

  • 24/7 student access to grades, class and school announcements, and assignments
  • Posting capability to required class collaborations, blogs and discussions
  • Auto-updating course outline that keeps students focused on their progress, assignments and deadlines
  • Unread marker, which identifies unread discussion posts, class materials and reading assignments
  • Online test-taking and document delivery functionality
  • Analytics and data capabilities
  • Progress mapping of courses completed and those remaining in the degree
  • Push announcements for upcoming test dates, grades on assignments and tests, and overdue deadlines

Resources for Online Learners

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Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

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