Online Degrees

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Online Degrees

Online degrees can help give you the freedom you need to log-in anytime from anywhere.

Should I Get My Degree Online?

students following online lecture

When it comes to pursuing a degree for the first time or heading back to school after a break, failing to keep an open mind and considering the distance learning alternative is a great way to let a potential golden opportunity go to waste. Don’t believe there’s any truth behind this claim?

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One look at the number of students who took at least one class online – 5.3 million according to U.S. News and World Report – should help to dispel any misconceptions regarding the growth of the online college experience.

Adding in some deeper analysis of this figure yields even more insight regarding the true impact of distance learning in the higher education landscape. There are even online degree completion programs that may enable you to finish a degree that you started but were unable to finish for whatever reason.

In other words, taking college courses online isn’t just some passing fad; it’s a dominant trend that is sure to influence the decisions of incoming students to the collegiate scene for years to come.

Benefits of Online Degrees

two college students studying online

As far as the reasons to consider an online degree program go, Tom Snyder of The Huffington Post explains that the benefits are both numerous and enticing. At the top of the list is the amount of flexibility provided by this approach.

With more and more students having full-time jobs, as well as familial commitments, being able to take online classes and study at your own pace doesn’t just make the process more manageable, it’s often an outright necessity to even entertain the notion of stepping into a classroom – online or otherwise.


  • Flexible scheduling
  • Faster completion time
  • Study anytime you want (as long as you meet deadlines)
  • Login from anywhere
  • Access to more colleges
  • No commuting
  • Potentially lower costs
  • Accredited colleges and universities


  • No face-to-face interaction on campus
  • Not all majors are available (medical professions, majors with heavy lab requirements, etc.)
  • Increased personal responsibility for assignments
  • Networking challenges
  • Requires self-direction and self-motivation

Outside of giving prospective students a greater range of flexibility in their learning experience, the team from the Open Education Database also points out that the estimated 1.4 million individuals currently enrolled in completely online programs also spend less money obtaining their degrees.

Without the likes of commuting costs and expensive physical textbooks cluttering up your education budget, it should come as no surprise that working on your degree from the comfort of your own home can often be easier on your bank account.

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In terms of other potential avenues for savings, online colleges and universities also stand on the cutting edge of accepting credits from prior collegiate and professional experience, as well as more innovative channels – namely massive open online courses (MOOCs). From this perspective, paying for the same class twice shouldn’t be anything you have to worry about should you commit to a distance learning approach.

Speaking of professional experience, online degrees serve as the perfect platform for bolstering your standing within a company, developing your career-oriented skill-set, and maintaining your current job responsibilities and duties. In some cases, employers even offer funding and support for members of their organizations to seek out these opportunities, thereby adding even more incentive to step foot into the digital classroom.

Of course, the most important benefit of the online learning experience is that with each passing semester, the amount of programs and courses offered by institutions grows exponentially. This means that taking advantage of all of the aforementioned perks doesn’t come at the expense of your learning options and degree pathways. If there’s an area of study you’re interested in, then there’s probably a program out there that fits your needs.

Choosing the Best Online College

two students looking for colleges online

Selecting a college doesn’t have to be an overly stressful affair. In fact, Kelsey Sheehy of U.S. News and World Report points out that with a strong understanding of how to sift through potential colleges, coming to a sound conclusion is actually a fairly straightforward process.

First, research the accreditation of the school in question. This “stamp of approval” can tell you a lot about the standards of a degree program or target institution. After you review a university’s accreditation, consider the curriculum and credits offered by this school.

Not only does this ensure that you pair your educational aspirations with the right coursework, you’ll also be able to start figuring out how many and what kind of credits you can bring with you during the enrollment process. Reaching out to the support services of prospective colleges can also shed light on which school is right for your needs.

From counselors that provide insight into the selection of a degree program and the transfer of credits, to mentors and faculty that offer academic assistance as you prepare for graduation, having a firm understanding of what kind of support services await incoming students is crucial to picking out the right college.

Is an Online Degree Worth It?

young college student discussing her report online

The diploma you receive for your online degree will be identical to the one received by a student who attended on campus.

You will have had the same professors, course material, assignments and exams, and been held to the same high standards, so your online degree will hold the same value as theirs. And a college degree is extremely valuable!

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According to a recent PEW Research study, millennials ages 25-32 with a bachelor’s degree or higher earned $45,500 per year, while those with just a high school diploma earned $28,000. That’s a difference of $17,500 per year!

College graduates also showed lower rates of unemployment, higher rates of job satisfaction, and felt confident that they had the education and training needed to advance in their careers. Overall, college grads reported that the time and money invested was worthwhile. A whopping 72% reported that it had already paid off, and 17% said it will pay off in the future.

Online Degrees – Available Levels

Associate – 60 credits

engineering student testing her project

If you’re able to attend full-time, it will take about 2 years to earn an associate degree online. This degree is often used as a stepping stone for students continuing on to a bachelor’s or more advanced degree, but it can stand alone too!

Some of the most popular online associate degrees include:

  • Liberal Arts/Sciences
  • Health Professions
  • Business
  • Law Enforcement
  • Computer Sciences
  • Engineering

Having an associate degree will make you a much more competitive candidate than someone with just a high school diploma, particularly when applying for technical or vocational jobs.

Bachelor’s – 120 credits

You can earn a bachelor’s degree online in just 4 years if you attend full-time without any gaps. Some of the most popular online bachelor’s degrees include:

  • Business
  • Criminal Justice
  • Accounting
  • Nursing (RN to BSN)
  • Education
  • Psychology

A bachelor’s degree, or “4 year degree,” is the most common degree type, and there are thousands of majors to choose from! With this degree, you will be qualified to enter directly into a professional career.

Master’s – usually 36 credits

two accounting students solving homework together

If you have a bachelor’s degree, but want to advance further in your field, take on a managerial position, or transition into a new field, you might consider a master’s degree.

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A master’s program takes about 2 years of full-time study, but the credits required can vary between schools and programs. Some of the most popular online master’s degrees include:

  • Business Administration
  • Psychology
  • Accounting
  • Education
  • Nursing

Some online master’s programs require an in-person residency (hands-on, real life experience, such as in clinic counseling or nursing), while some do not. Some online master’s programs require a thesis (a long, research-heavy paper), while some do not. It’s important to look closely at the school and program you’re considering.


A doctoral degree is the highest, most prestigious college degree. On average it takes about 3 to 4 years to complete a doctorate degree online, but the credit requirements may vary between schools and programs.

Some of the most popular online doctoral degrees include:

  • Psychology
  • Education
  • Business Administration
  • Ministry / Theology
  • Nursing
  • Counseling
  • Leadership

To give you an idea of the number of required credit hours — to earn a Doctor of Business Administration degree online, both Liberty University and Grand Canyon University require you to complete 60 credit hours.

Undergraduates Certificates – 9-15 credits

Female Student Inspects the Car

With just a high school diploma under your belt, you are able to pursue an undergraduate certificate. Some of the most popular Undergraduate Certificates include:

  • Project Management
  • General Contractor
  • Licensed Practical and Vocational Nursing
  • Automotive Service

Earning an undergraduate certificate online will allow you to gain basic career skills in order to jump right into a job in your chosen field.

Graduate Certificates – 9-15 credits

If you have earned your bachelor’s degree and want additional, more specialized training, you can pursue a Graduate Certificate.

Some of the most popular Graduate Certificates include:

  • Education
  • Health Sciences
  • Business

An online graduate certificate can help update your skills, set you apart from other job candidates or help you earn a raise or promotion without disrupting your current work schedule.

Who Gets their Degree Online?

two university students cooperating on common project

Last year, nearly 3 million people in the US were enrolled in fully online degrees and they come from all walks of life, for all different reasons.

The most common reasons people reported for choosing an online degree program are as follows:

  1. Convenience
  2. Flexible pacing for completing a program
  3. Work schedule
  4. Program requirements
  5. Reputation of institution
  6. Cost
  7. Financial assistance available
  8. Ability to transfer credits
  9. Future employment opportunities
  10. Distance from campus
  11. Recommendations from employer

Because such a large percentage of online students are in their mid-30s and are employed, it’s no surprise that convenience and flexibility are the top reasons for choosing online learning. Many adult learners need to maintain their employment to support themselves and their families.

How Do Online Degrees Work?

Online degrees have been around for years, but many of us have no firsthand knowledge of what online learning looks like. Is it like traditional college? Let’s take a look.

Virtual Classroom

young teacher recording a lesson

Online students follow the same curriculum, view the same lectures, and have the same assignments and exams as on-campus students. They just do it at a time and place that’s convenient for them.

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Since online students aren’t sitting beside their classmates, able to engage in an organic conversation, they utilize a virtual discussion board instead. There, students can interact, provide feedback, and challenge the opinions of one another, and they are graded on the frequency and value of their posts.


Because online students don’t have to attend class on exact days and times, their success depends largely on their own motivation. Students must find time to study, and keep track of assignment due dates and exam dates.


While most online degrees are fully online, some may be hybrid programs (especially those courses that require a lab component).

Hybrid programs will require your physical presence at some point, but typically that is limited to just a few weekends in a semester. Hybrid programs are the exception, not the rule, but it’s a good idea to check the format before you enroll.

Can I Earn a Degree Entirely Online?

mature student studying online at home

Yes! There are more than 23,000 fully online, accredited degree programs available at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and certificate levels.

While there are online programs that are hybrid programs and involve some in-class learning, many are fully online. Last year, about 2.6 million people in the US were enrolled in fully online degrees, and the numbers have grown since then. There are thousands of online-only degree programs available at respected, accredited universities!

Will My College Diploma Say that I Earned My Degree Online?

No. The degree earned by an online student is identical to the one earned by someone who has attended class on campus. Unless you’re attending a college that’s synonymous with online learning, your employers and others will have no way of knowing whether you attended college from your couch or a classroom.

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If you’re attending University of Massachusetts online, for example, your degree will come from whichever physical campus offers that particular program, and there will be no mention of “online” anywhere on your diploma or transcripts. The professors, courses, assignments, and exams are all the same for online and on-campus students, and your transcripts and diploma will make no distinction.

What Does the Online Classroom Look Like?

young student with virtual block mates doing online class

Most colleges offering online degrees use a web-based learning management software program Blackboard, or something very similar, for their online classrooms.

Like traditional classrooms, Blackboard’s virtual classrooms all look a little different depending on the professor. Some professors take full advantage of all the tools and features available, while others just provide the most essential information.

When you log into Blackboard, the first thing you will see is your dashboard, which serves as your own personal hub for school-wide and course-specific information. On the dashboard is a list of the classes you’re enrolled in, and as you click on each one you’ll be taken to virtual classroom set up by the professor of that course.

As you enter a virtual classroom, you will notice a menu bar on the left side of your screen. All areas of the classroom are accessible through the menu bar. What else you see is up to your professor, but many opt to use the “Announcements” page as their homepage. This is where they will post the most need-to-know information, so check it regularly. Some professors post announcements that you can only access for a limited time!

Some of the common modules used by professors include:

  • Blog – for students to write and share blog postings
  • Groups – for small group discussions or group projects
  • Discussion Boards – to discuss course material with classmates
  • Assignments – Instructions, due dates and information about how assignments should be submitted (via Blackboard or elsewhere)
  • Exams – Instructions and information about when and for how long each exam will be available; Link to actual exams
  • My Grades – Assignment and exam grades; comments and feedback from your professor

Early in the semester, you should take time to explore the classrooms for each of your courses. You may even want to take notes to help remember where to find things. Review the syllabus and course calendar thoroughly, and consider saving or printing them for quick reference.

Discussion Boards

student listening to professor teaching online

The Discussion Board is one of the most widely used tools on Blackboard. In this space, you will demonstrate your understanding of the course material, and engage in conversations with classmates who will offer different perspectives.

If you’ve participated in discussion boards elsewhere on the internet, the concept is the same. Within the Discussion Board module, you will see the newest posts at the top, followed by responses. As you read through, you will have the ability to flag posts you’d like to come back to, subscribe to get email updates as the conversation continues, or search to locate certain posts or topics.

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The format of the Discussion Board will vary depending on the course and subject. In some instances, you will need to post reflections and thoughts about the assigned readings or other course materials, and interact with your classmates by responding to their posts as well.  Other times, the professor may provide a question or prompt for each student to answer.

Your professor will likely have requirements regarding your participation in the Discussion Board. You may need to post several times per week – perhaps a few new threads and a few comments – and you may be graded based on the frequency and thoughtfulness of your posts. This is a great way for your professor to ensure you’re keeping up on the reading and understanding the concepts.

How Flexible Are Online Degrees?

male student participating in online discussions

Generally, online degrees are considered flexible because they can fit into most peoples’ lives fairly easily. You can “attend” class while making breakfast, over your lunch hour, or once your children are in bed for the night. You can even continue your studies while on vacation. It can be done anytime, anywhere!

At Colorado State University, an online bachelor’s degree in Accounting looks identical to a bachelor’s degree in Accounting earned on campus.  The courses are all the same. But consider this: The traditional, on-campus student must take Principles of Accounting at 9:00 AM on Tuesdays and Thursdays, if that is when it’s offered.

That means they have to wake up early, commute during rush hour, and sit in class twice a week, every single week. However, the online student can log in to attend the Principles of Accounting class whenever it’s most convenient. Very flexible! That being said, even online students have strict, inflexible deadlines. Your assignments will have due dates, and exams will need to be completed by a certain date and time.

You will also have inflexible degree requirements, meaning you will be required to take certain major-specific courses and general education courses in order to complete your degree, just like on-campus students.

How Long Does It Take to Finish an Online Bachelor’s Degree?

young girl student studying at home

If you’re able to attend full-time and stay continuously enrolled (even during summer), it will take around 3 years to go from zero to 120 credits – the same amount of time as someone attending on campus!

Let’s take a look:

  • Fall semester – 15 credit hours
  • Spring semester – 15 credit hours
  • Summer semester – 6 credit hours

That equates to 36 credit hours earned per year. Some students will be able to enroll in more classes over the summer, but it depends on your university.

Who Teaches the Online Courses?

Online courses are taught by the same professors that teach on campus. Professors (and even their assistants) must have at least a master’s degree.

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At the graduate level, most of your professors will hold a doctorate degree.

Is Financial Aid Available for Online Degrees?

woman preparing for an examination

Yes! As long as the university is accredited, you will be eligible for the same financial aid as an on-campus student. There are four main types of financial aid:

  • Grants
  • Scholarships
  • Loans
  • Work-Study

In most cases, grants are based on financial need or merit while student loans are available for all students pursuing online degrees who meet the minimum course load qualifications.

Online Classes vs. Traditional Classes

group of college students working together on a project

Despite what others might tell you about the collegiate selection process, making the choice between online classes vs. traditional classes isn’t always a black and white affair. Both options come with plenty of pros and cons, so gauging the merit of each route can help illuminate the path that fits your needs.

Traditional classes offer the allure of the on-campus college experience and the atmosphere that comes with storied or historic institutions. However, this type of learning experience also entails commuting costs and considerations, as well as a rigid and often inflexible course schedule.

If you’d rather complete your coursework at a time that works for you, then the online college experience is more desirable than its traditional counterpart. By reviewing your professional and personal scheduling limitations, your ability to communicate with classmates and faculty without face-to-face contact, and your preferences regarding the in-class or at-home learning experience, you can make a smart decision on this front.

At the very least, having this information on hand and in front of you as you parse through your options guarantees that once you’re ready to reach out to your target online programs, you’ll have all the questions you need answered ready and waiting for the upcoming conversations with school representatives and counselors.

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.