Not All Online Degree Completion Programs Are the Same. Here's Why.

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Not All Online Degree Completion Programs Are the Same. Here's Why.

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ost people assume bachelor's degree programs are populated by college students in their late teens and early twenties, but the demographics of undergraduate higher education programs tell a different enrollment story. Almost 40 percent of American undergrads are over 25, and a quarter are raising children. There are more non-traditional undergraduate students than ever before, but they probably represent just a fraction of the people who'd like to earn bachelor's degrees. 

Sixty percent of adults ages 23 to 55 without a bachelor’s degree have considered going back to school. The fear of being the only adult learner in a classroom full of freshmen is one reason they don't. Practical concerns are another. It's much more common for older students to have personal and professional obligations that make enrolling in a bachelor's degree program tough.

Some schools welcome adult learners in their traditional programs. Others specifically court these students with programs designed just for them. Some even put these degree completion programs partially or entirely online for maximum flexibility, so busy people can reap the rewards of earning a bachelor's degree — like increased earnings and career stability — without leaving the workforce or sacrificing time with family. 

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If you've been mulling over going back to school, you probably already realize how important it will be to find the right program. What you might not know is that online bachelor's degree completion programs that seem pretty similar can be quite different when it comes to things like how transfer credits are evaluated, the concentrations available, tuition rates, and how much support students receive.

Finding the right program takes work and isn't always easy. To help you, we've put together a guide looking at everything you should keep in mind when evaluating degree completion programs. 

What to expect from an online degree completion program

The first thing you need to know is that taking classes online doesn't always mean working alone. Most students enrolled in the University of Virginia's Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies, or BIS, degree completion program still "go to class" with other students at regularly scheduled times by logging onto a learning management system. Think of it as a virtual classroom where distance learners enrolled in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies access lectures and get feedback from professors via instant message, email, or video conference. It's also where student-to-student collaboration happens in forums and chat rooms. Students participate in live discussions and work with peers on projects or presentations — just like other UVA undergrads. 

Some people think that online classes are easier than on-campus classes (they're not). Students working through degree completion programs online often take the same courses as students on campus. They complete the same readings, projects, and other assignments, whether class lectures are live or pre-recorded. How many hours students spend on coursework depends on how many classes they're taking and the demands of each instructor. 

At UVA SCPS, most BIS students earn their bachelor's degrees in about three years by taking two courses per semester — representing a commitment of close to 18 hours a week (including class time, plus a couple of hours of work most days). Others take just one class in some terms because 15 hours of study per week feels more manageable. Some students, however, feel comfortable taking on a heavier course load and can complete the BIS program more quickly.  

What types of online degree completion programs are available?

The best thing you can do when researching online degree completion programs is to throw out your assumptions. UVA's BIS has high retention rates and high graduation rates, but that doesn't mean all online degree completion programs can say the same. They vary widely when it comes to curriculum, graduation requirements, and student outcomes. About 75% of UVA BIS students graduated within seven years  —  more than double the national average for similar programs. Choosing the right program for you means looking at these factors and thinking about why you want to complete your degree. 

Maybe you want to transition into a new, higher-paying career. Maybe you've reached a career plateau, and earning a bachelor's degree will help you grow in your current profession. Or maybe you need to have a bachelor's degree before you can fulfill your dream of going to graduate school. The online degree completion program at UVA, which as a university is ranked 26th in the nation overall and 4th among public institutions by U.S. News & World Report, helps students accomplish a wide variety of personal and professional goals. Only you can decide whether it's right for you, however. 

 

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Some programs let non-traditional students get credit for work experience, do solo project work in place of attending lectures, and otherwise graduate as fast as possible. UVA, on the other hand, is committed to providing high-quality instruction for all students, whether they're young adults studying on campus or non-traditional students finishing their degrees online. Graduates receive not only a diploma but also practical skills and discipline-specific knowledge they can use to excel in their careers. 

What degree options and concentrations are available?

Some colleges and universities have a single undergrad option for adult students: a broadly-focused liberal arts degree. At these schools, students take classes in disciplines as diverse as biology, literature, computer science, and history, and receive a well-rounded education, if not a particularly practical one. Other schools have each non-traditional student create a unique major and course of study — sometimes called a Bachelor of Independent Studies — based on one or more areas of interest. These programs attract non-traditional students who want to combine unrelated passions into a single degree pathway. 

At UVA, concentrations are built around marketable skills and employer demand because our goal is to help students succeed. Degree completion candidates can pursue concentrations such as Art & Society, Business, Cybersecurity Analysis, Early Childhood, Healthcare Management, History & Politics, Information Technology, Psychology, and Writing. There's also a Health Sciences Management track designed specifically for students with associate’s degrees or professional experience in the health sciences. Each of these majors is designed to prepare graduates to advance careers in growing fields like medicine, education, and technology.

How much flexibility do the different degree completion programs offer?

Some full-time degree completion programs treat adult learners and new undergrads the same. In these, online courses and on-campus courses are scheduled around the needs of the school, not the needs of traditional and online students. UVA's BIS program is different. Our degree completion tracks have course schedules designed to harmonize with a wide range of student circumstances. 

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97% of UVA's BIS students return after their first year.
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Blended, hybrid, and web-based courses combine some synchronous face-to-face instruction with asynchronous online discussions plus assignments and exams that can be completed virtually when time permits. Asynchronous refers to how online course content is delivered. Unlike synchronous classes, which operate within a set time frame — requiring students and instructors to meet on an online platform at a specific hour — asynchronous programs offer maximum flexibility. Asynchronous courses don't require students to log in to learning platforms at a set time. Students can access reading materials, pre-recorded lectures, tests, and coursework at any time, 24/7. Asynchronous online classes are especially convenient for students who need to balance their education with jobs, family care, and other outside responsibilities.

UVA also lets students in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies complete their degrees entirely online for maximum flexibility. Some online classes are delivered live on a set schedule while others have no designated meeting times. In asynchronous courses, students complete coursework whenever it's most convenient. 

How much flexibility do you need?

You have to think about flexibility when evaluating online degree completion programs — even if it isn't your primary concern. Going back to college as an adult will require a focus on time management. Non-traditional learners have obligations that newly-minted undergrads don't, like full-time and part-time jobs and young kids to care for. They may also be caring for aging parents or have health issues that make attending classes on campus difficult or impossible.

Earning a degree while working 40 hours per week or raising children is only possible when schools build their programs for adult students with these responsibilities in mind. That's why so many online degree completion programs (including UVA's) schedule classes in the evenings and on weekends — or offer courses in which most or all of the content is delivered asynchronously. 

Students who need flexibility can devote the time they would otherwise spend commuting and parking or coordinating childcare to their studies. Just keep in mind that not all online education programs are self-paced or designed to accommodate working professionals. Always read program guides carefully to be sure you understand the commitment you'll be making if you enroll.

Will your transfer credits be accepted?

Colleges and universities have different transfer credit rules. Some will apply up to 90 college credits from another accredited institution toward the usual 120 credits required for graduation. UVA accepts between 45 and 60 transfer credits, provided those credits satisfy our Liberal Studies Core admission requirements. 

We ask that students have taken at least:

  • 6 credits of humanities
  • 6 credits of social sciences
  • 8 credits of math and/or natural science
  • 10 additional credits in liberal arts coursework
  • English composition (your college's full sequence)

This way, students can spend less time fulfilling liberal arts requirements and more time in classes related to their majors. UVA also awards credits for Advanced Placement (AP) courses, bachelor's-level courses taken internationally, and College Level Examination Program exams.

Figuring out whether your academic, military, or other credits are eligible for transfer can be a challenge, but UVA has a unique pre-admission review process for adult learners. UVA admission counselors scrutinize applicants' transcripts and other materials to determine how many credits they can transfer. They also provide detailed feedback that includes tips for making applications stronger, increasing your chances of admission to the BIS program. This pre-review happens before you officially submit your materials and can be a real confidence booster — and there's no obligation to apply to UVA's BIS program after a pre-review. If and when you do apply, however, you'll know your application is 100 percent ready for formal review.

What makes a program's faculty good?

To evaluate the quality of a degree completion program, online or on-campus, you have to look at the quality of the faculty. Expertise is important to consider, as is how long professors have taught in the program. How accessible they are is yet another. Ideally, you should be able to reach your professors easily via channels like email, video conference, and live chat. UVA purposely keeps class sizes small in our online degree completion program to ensure that students always have access to professors and faculty support.

The School of Continuing and Professional Studies employs about 120 faculty members — some of whom have been teaching with the school for over a decade. Many also teach in other schools and colleges at UVA. Each brings extensive professional, practical, and academic experience to their classes, like author and writing professor Charlotte Matthews, who recently published her memoir, "Comes With Furniture and People.

Equally important is professors' enthusiasm for working with non-traditional students. UVA BIS professors are here because they love what they do and believe in the potential of adult learners. "It is extremely energizing to teach adult students — especially the highly motivated students in our program," Dr. Stephen Levine, who teaches classes in U.S. cultural history at UVA, said in a faculty profile. "They bring a mix of personal and professional experiences to discussions that you just don’t encounter in the traditional classroom."

How successful are the students who enroll in this program?

What really sets UVA's online degree completion program apart isn't the faculty, the career-focused concentrations, or the pre-review application process. It's everything our students achieve once they receive their diplomas — which almost all of them do. Across UVA programs, 93% of full-time undergraduate students and 82% of part-time students complete their degrees. BIS program retention rates are high — 97% of students return after their first year — and the program's graduation rate is near twice the national average.

After graduation, UVA BIS grads go on to earn $50,000 to $65,000 per year in business administration and tech roles. They apply to MBA, MEd, MPH, and other master's programs, and some go on to earn PhDs. Graduates work in hot fields like cybersecurity and healthcare administration and become lawyers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and public health experts. In other words, they accomplish their goals.

What level of support is offered to students?

Support is a big reason degree completion students are so successful here. UVA offers pre-and post-graduation support above and beyond that of most traditional undergraduate degree programs and other degree completion programs. It doesn't matter whether students take classes on campus or online — they have access to the same student resources and disability services

All BIS candidates are paired with program, faculty, and peer advisors who help them choose classes, keep on top of coursework and overcome roadblocks as they arise. Students are encouraged to contact these advisors whenever they need help. They also receive capstone mentoring and writing support. The School of Continuing and Professional Studies is generous when it comes to awarding financial aid and scholarships. Post-graduation, degree completion students can access alumni career services, job search assistance, the active UVA job board, and a large alumni network. 

There's also what we call Lifelong University. This unique resource was created to keep UVA alumni learning through seminars, festivals, and immersion programs offered on campus; podcasts, webinars, and courses delivered online; and off-campus events and international travel experiences.

There are plenty of flexible and affordable online degree completion programs out there with classes that won't conflict with your work schedule or get in the way of family or personal commitments. Only a handful go above and beyond with robust admissions counseling, academic guidance, and post-graduate support like UVA's BIS. Some people will tell you that having a strong support system isn't critical to academic success in adulthood, but we disagree. You only have to look at our retention and graduation rates to see how big of a difference it can make when your goal is to take the leap and finally earn your bachelor's degree.

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