The Guide

1. What, exactly, does online learning entail?
If you want to earn more money, change careers or get that promotion, yes. If you’re looking for a flexible, affordable education from a reputable university — absolutely.
You already know degree holders earn more than their peers and enjoy better job security, so you’re sold on going back to school. But before you go through the application, admissions and financial aid process, take the time to develop a clear understanding of the types of programs you’re considering.
The term “online learning” can mean many things— a fully online program, a combination of online and on-campus, a competency-based program, or a self-paced independent program. Some programs are offered “at a distance,” which may not be online at all.
Fully online, combination online/on-campus, and competency-based programs are by far the most prevalent, all being term-based programs in which students are required to complete courses or demonstrate knowledge and abilities within an institution’s specific time frame. Here's a primer on the kinds of programs you may encounter.
What Types of Institutions Offer Online Programs?
Before you start narrowing your search, be sure you are aware of the different types of institutions that provide online degree and certificate programs. Do you want or need a purely virtual program, or might you consider one that is a combination of virtual and on-campus? What does it mean if you attend a non-profit or for-profit institution? Learn more about which kind of program will best meet your needs.
How Long Will It Take?
Admission and enrollment counselors get asked this question frequently, and it is difficult to give a precise answer because it depends on the following important variables.
The amount of time it takes to complete a program will vary according to:
  • the structure and organization of the program under consideration;
  • the possibility of transferring in prior credit earned or applying prior work-related experience, training, and/or knowledge to the program you are entering; 
  • whether you can test out of certain courses through such things as CLEP,DSST, and ACE (for undergraduate programs only); and
  • your skills, prior knowledge, and how many courses you can effectively fit into your schedule.
Program Requirements
A general rule of thumb is that it requires about 60 credits, or approximately 20 three-credit courses, to earn an associate’s degree; about 120 credits, or approximately 40 three-credit courses, to earn a bachelor’s degree; and about 36 credits, or approximately 12 three-credit courses, to earn a master’s degree.
In addition to completing required courses, you may have to complete a number of credit-bearing assignments, such as capstones and independent study projects for business and information technology majors, clinicals for medical-related majors, and student teaching experiences for education majors.  
If you enroll in an online program with such requirements, faculty, staff, and administrators will help arrange these types of face-to-face, mandatory assignments in areas geographically near where you live and work.
Learn more about other time factors which may affect program completion.