Your Guide to Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs

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October 6, 2021

edited by Taylor Gadsden
with advice from educator, Lynne Lander Fleisher
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A bachelor's degree takes about four years and 120 credits to complete for a full-time student. Colleges offer bachelor's degrees in many subjects, with opportunities for specialization. Students can often transfer in credit from completed associate degrees, advanced placement courses, and work experience.

These degrees prepare graduates for entry-level positions in many industries, including healthcare, business, and engineering. According to a study conducted by Georgetown University, approximately 35% of job openings in the U.S. workforce require a bachelor's degree.

Many colleges offer online bachelor degree programs in fields like the arts, math, and science. Online degrees often boast the same rigor and teach the same competencies as in-person classes.

In the fall of 2019, 17.6% of students enrolled fully online for their classes, and 19.7% of students enrolled in at least one online class. Additionally, at private, for-profit colleges, 62.8% of students enrolled fully online.

What Is a Bachelor's Degree?

Bachelor's programs typically feature about 120 credits, and full-time learners can graduate in four years. Students usually take a mixture of general education courses and courses related to their major. Bachelor's degrees provide a foundational education that prepares graduates for the workforce. Students can also enroll in a graduate program after graduation.

Is an Online Bachelor's Degree as Good as an On-Campus Degree?

Online degrees have come a long way over the last several years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), more than a third of undergraduate students enrolled in some form of distance learning in 2019. Additionally, U.S. News & World Report notes that most employers now accept online degrees.

According to Director of Clarion Online at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, Lynne Lander Fleisher, employers applaud educational institutions who have built online programs to meet the needs of their industry demands. And for those wondering, on-campus programs are no more difficult than online bachelor's programs.

"An online degree format provides a student the opportunity for education where brick-and-mortar is simply not an option," Lander Fleisher states.

In some cases, an online program may pose more of a challenge for students depending on their personality type.

"Students may grapple with allowing their minds to think differently and adapting to the new learning style.

Students must possess comprehensive reading skills, great time management skills, and a self-motivated personality. A student should be their own best advocate and never settle for less. Be proactive, ask lots of questions, and don't apologize for asking them."

Earning an online degree from an accredited institution is key for success, as is selecting a school with strong brand recognition in the student's major field of study. Since many colleges and universities use the same curricula for online and in-person degrees, the perception of online degrees among employers should continue to improve.

Annual Trends in Online Education The Benefits and Challenges of Online Learning

Related Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Online vs. Campus-Based Bachelor's Degrees

Full-Time, On-Campus Classes

Benefits

Unrestricted access to libraries, computer labs, and other campus resources Courses with labs, practicum training, and other practical components The ability to easily meet in person with fellow students and faculty members A collaborative environment conducive to group studying, social interaction, and extracurricular activities

Drawbacks

Synchronous courses can be difficult for students with part-time jobs, family care duties, and other conflicting commitments Larger class sizes may mean less individualized attention from teachers Higher costs related to living accommodations, commuting and parking, and other expenses

Evening/Weekend Classes

Benefits

Course calendars built around work schedules Some college students are better learners at night Ample time to study and prepare before each class meeting

Drawbacks

Synchronous courses can be difficult for students with part-time jobs, family care duties, and other conflicting commitments Class sessions are longer in order to meet curricular requirements Night and weekend meetings can interfere with family time and social activities

Hybrid/Blended Classes

Benefits

Blending online and on-campus learning can provide students with the best of both worlds The format allows students to easily review classroom lectures with online playback tools Fewer campus visits cuts down on parking, commuting, and other overhead costs and may eliminate the need to live on campus

Drawbacks

The constant need for high-speed internet access may be an obstacle for some students Students who excel best in the classroom may struggle with online components, and vice versa Many degrees are not available in this format

Online Classes

Benefits

Many online classes use asynchronous delivery, allowing learners to study at their own pace, freeing up more time for employment, family, and social activities Technology enables students to complete all course assignments at home or on the go using portable Wi-Fi devices Online learning minimizes or eliminates overhead costs related to living accommodations, meal plans, commuting, and parking

Drawbacks

Students who thrive on social interaction and individualized attention from teachers may have a hard time While overhead costs are lower, students may incur additional costs for changing majors, taking more than four years to complete their degree, failing courses, or being unable to transfer credits

"Should I Go to College Online or On Campus?" Here's How to Decide

How Long Does It Take to Get an Online Bachelor's Degree?

According to NCES data from 2015-2016, the median completion time for a bachelor's degree was 52 months. Approximately 44% of first-time bachelor's students who graduated in 2015-2016 completed their degree within 48 months of initial enrollment.

Bachelor's programs offered at semester-based schools generally require about 120 credits, while those on a quarter system require around 180. However, in both cases, full-time students usually graduate in about four years.

The degree of "work" is dependent upon the prior knowledge of the student. Most classes require about 6-9 hours per week. I offer this online readiness quiz to put it into perspective," Lander Fleisher states.

Grade Level Semester-Based Program Credits Quarter-Based Program Credits
First-Year 0-30 0-45
Sophomore 31-60 46-90
Junior 61-90 91-135
Senior 91-120+ 136-180+

Many factors can affect how long it takes to earn a bachelor's degree online. Some subjects require more credits than others. Additionally, learners who enter a bachelor's program with some completed college credits may need less time to complete their remaining courses.

Many online programs also use a cohort format, in which a group of students enters the program at the same time and completes courses together. Educational cohorts can build camaraderie among web-based students who are unable to interact in classrooms; however, students in self-paced programs may be able to complete their coursework in less time.

What Is an Accelerated Bachelor's Degree?

Accelerated online bachelor's programs may feature shorter terms throughout the year, allowing you to graduate more quickly. During accelerated programs, instructors move through material more quickly than in regular degree tracks. As such, students who enroll in an accelerated program may need to set aside other obligations while they are working toward their degree.

The Best Online Schools With Accelerated Bachelor's Degrees

What Is a Degree Completion Program?

Sometimes, students cannot complete their degree on the standard timeline. Life gets in the way, presenting learners with unexpected obstacles and complications. Fortunately, degree completion programs are designed to allow students to pick up where they left off.

These programs can help nontraditional students — learners who did not take the typical four-year route — complete their undergraduate degree. Degree completion programs often accept up to 90 transfer credits. These programs are particularly useful for learners who have already earned an associate degree.

College Transfer Guide

How Much Does an Online Bachelor's Degree Cost?

An online bachelor's degree normally costs tens of thousands of dollars in tuition alone. As such, cost is one of the most important factors when choosing between different undergraduate programs.

In addition to tuition prices, students may need to pay for textbooks and course supplies, administrative and online learning fees, and interest. They must also take into account living expenses like rent/mortgage payments, utility and internet bills, and food.

Comparing Costs

According to Goodwin University, 75% of online courses are the same price as equivalent on-campus courses.

Additionally, out-of-state students attending a public university often pay less for online courses than they would for on-campus courses; many schools charge all online learners in-state tuition rates. Online courses at private colleges tend to be more expensive than those at four-year institutions.

Additional Expenses

Fees

Approximately 54% of respondents to the WCET survey reported that students enrolled completely online do not pay as many fees as their on-campus counterparts.

Commuting Costs

In addition to saving money on commuting and parking, online students also save more time by living at home, rather than traveling back and forth to campus.

Textbooks

Course materials for online students are often available in a digital format, which can significantly reduce the price.

Living Costs

Students who live at home as opposed to on or near campus may be able to stay in an area with a lower cost of living.

Calculating the True Cost of an Online Program Guide to Budgeting in College How to Save for College: Essential Tips and Savings Plans

How Much Financial Aid Can I Receive for My Online Bachelor's Degree?

Paying for college is one of the main sources of student stress. College tuition costs have risen significantly in recent years, and millions of U.S. students depend on financial aid to pay for their bachelor's degrees.

However, a large amount of financial aid goes unclaimed each year. A recent survey by NerdWallet noted that high school graduates missed out on as much as $2.6 billion in free federal grant money during the 2018-19 academic year. Be sure to complete the FAFSA to take advantage of available aid.

Average Aid per Full-Time Equivalent Student 2019-2020

Type of Aid

Grants

Type of Aid

Federal Loans

Source: College Board

Applying for Aid

Most college students apply for financial aid from the government, schools, and independent organizations. Online students can apply for many of the same opportunities as on-campus students, as well as some scholarships designed specifically for virtual learners.

Individuals should always make sure their online program holds the appropriate accreditation. Students must attend an accredited school to receive federal financial aid. Find out more about accreditation for online programs through this guide.

Students should also determine whether they qualify for scholarship and grant opportunities from state governments and nonprofit organizations.

Scholarships and Financial Aid for Online College Students Understanding the FAFSA Guide to College Loans

How Much Do Bachelor's Degree-Holders Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of September 2020, bachelor's degree-holders earned a median weekly salary of $1,305 — more than associate degree-holders ($938 per week).

The BLS also reported a 5.5% unemployment rate for bachelor's degree-holders, compared to rates of 7.1% for associate degree-holders and 9% for those with only a high school diploma.

Education Level Unemployment Rate Median Weekly Earnings
Doctoral Degree 2.5% $1,885
Professional Degree 3.1% $1,893
Master's Degree 4.1% $1,545
Bachelor's Degree 5.5% $1,305
Associate Degree 7.1% $938
High School Diploma 9.0% $781

Source: BLS

How Do I Choose an Online Bachelor's Degree?

Earning an online bachelor's degree involves a substantial investment of time and money; choosing the right program requires extensive research and careful scrutiny. Before settling on a program, here are a few important criteria to consider.

Price

Is the program within your budget? Does the school offer scholarships and/or grants for online students? How much do bachelor's graduates typically earn after leaving the school? Be sure to calculate all student expenses, not just tuition, to reach an accurate cost estimate.

Flexibility

Asynchronous courses allow you to complete coursework without any scheduled course meetings. However, some students fare better with the structured learning of synchronous programs, which require participants to attend regularly scheduled meetings.

Proximity

Some online programs include limited on-campus requirements; if you live far from campus, this can add to your overhead costs. Additionally, you may prefer to live closer to campus to take advantage of the library, gym, writing center, and other student resources.

Nonprofit vs. For-Profit

In recent years, a handful of for-profit online colleges and universities have received criticism for providing lackluster or fraudulent academic programs with marginal student outcomes. In many cases, this has resulted in a large number of students with sizable debt who are unable to obtain the jobs they want.

As such, it is critical to carefully vet each school for past criticisms, controversies, and negative press. Nonprofit schools often have better overall reputations, but you should also review these institutions before making a decision.

Private vs. Public

The decision between attending a private college and a public university is often heavily influenced by the overall cost. Online courses may be less expensive than on-campus courses for students attending private colleges and out-of-state students attending public universities.

Guide to Choosing a College 6 Factors to Consider When Choosing a College

What Are the Types of Bachelor's Degrees?

Some fields of study offer more than one degree type. For example, many colleges and universities offer BA and BS tracks in subjects like psychology, criminal justice, accounting, economics, and marketing. Schools may also offer degrees in subjects like art, music, and theatre as either a BA or a BFA.

Bachelor of Arts

A bachelor of arts focuses on well-rounded liberal arts studies. The curriculum includes courses in social sciences, humanities and fine arts, and foreign languages. Students must also complete course sequences related to their academic major, but these may be less extensive than those in a BS or BFA track.

BA degrees are typically available in fields like English; communication; writing and journalism; and social sciences like sociology, anthropology, and political science.

Bachelor of Science

A bachelor of science degree focuses on a scientific or technical field. Coursework delves into practical areas and often involves fieldwork. BS programs typically feature longer major course sequences. This type of degree is available in subjects like computer science and information technology, nursing, mathematics, biology, physics, and engineering.

Bachelor of Fine Arts

A bachelor of fine arts is designed for students seeking a degree in visual or performing arts, including poetry, art, photography, music, dance, theatre, and art history. BFA degrees often require studio work and live performances.

Due to these extensive artistic requirements, BFA degrees are often only offered on campus.

More Resources

The Debt-Free Degree Guide to Earning a Fast Online Degree Lessons Learned from Online College Students Guide to Online Course Structure

What Are the Most Popular Majors?

Many students choose majors that can help them along their chosen career path. Learners who are uncertain about their future career plans often choose majors in business or the arts, gaining a solid set of ubiquitous, marketable skills.

The most popular majors for a bachelor's program change somewhat from year to year. The following list provides the most popular bachelor's degrees in the 2017-2018 school year according to NCES:

Guide to Choosing a Major

How Do I Apply to an Online Bachelor's Program?

The admissions process varies from college to college and even from program to program. Readers should always conduct thorough research on each school's admission requirements before applying.

Many on-campus and online programs require the same application materials and coursework. Below, readers can learn more about common admission requirements.

Common Admission Requirements

High school seniors and transfer students (depending on their age) may need to submit standardized test scores. Some colleges prefer one test over the other, while others accept scores from either. Adult learners can often take a placement test in lieu of a standardized test.

Almost all colleges require that applicants possess a high school or GED diploma.

Colleges often request 1-3 letters of recommendation from applicants. Teachers and employers commonly write these letters.

High school seniors and transfer students usually need to submit high school and/or college transcripts. Some adult learners may also need to supply transcripts. Applicants can request official transcripts by contacting a high school counseling office or college administrator.

Colleges may set a GPA minimum for all applicants. Specific programs may also set their own GPA cutoffs.

An essay or personal statement allows applicants to explain why they want to attend a particular school. Colleges look for unique viewpoints that stand out from the crowd.

Guide to College Applications Guide to College Entrance Exams What Is a Good SAT Score? What Is a Good ACT Score?

To gain some personal insight into the opportunities a bachelor's degree can provide, we spoke with Lynne Lander Fleisher, director of Clarion Online at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

In the wake of COVID-19, virtual classes have created challenges for students and instructors. Check out these essential tips for making the switch to online learning. COVID-19 has threatened students' college plans and altered the higher ed landscape. Now, new and returning students want mostly hybrid or online options. Find out what questions to ask when searching for high-quality online schools, and get expert tips on how to determine the quality of an online program.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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