A Guide to Online Degrees

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Distance learning is an age-old practice. With the advent of technology, it’s become an increasingly popular way to earn your undergraduate or graduate degree.

A woman studying an online degree

Out of 16.6 million undergraduate students in the United States, 2.5 million took their classes online during the fall 2019 semester, according to the National Center for Education Statistics [1]. Online graduate programs continue to expand as well. Of the graduate students enrolled in master’s programs during the 2015-2016 school year, 31 percent learned exclusively online [2].

There are now a range of degrees you can earn online, many from top-rated national and global universities. In this article, we’ll go over online degrees, the benefits of earning a degree virtually, and how you can find the best online degree program for your larger goals. 

Types of degrees you can earn online 

You can earn every level of degree online: associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and professional. But some of the higher-level degrees, such as a doctorate and professional, don’t have the same number of options available, so we'll focus on the three most common online degrees. 

Associate 

Earn your associate degree online in a number of subjects that are more typically geared toward helping you move into a specific career path. You can expect to complete a minimum of 60 credits, with a portion of those (usually a minimum of 12 credits) going toward your focus or major.   

  • Degrees: Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

  • Popular majors: Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, humanities, health professions, business, homeland security, law enforcement, computer and information sciences [3]

  • Average time: Two years when you attend full-time 

  • Requirements: High school diploma or GED

When you earn either your AA or AS, you can transfer into a four-year bachelor’s program. The AAS, on the other hand, tends to provide more practical training so you can use your degree to begin a career as a paralegal, welder, or dental assistant. 

Learn more: How Long Does It Take to Get an Associate Degree?

Bachelor’s

Earn your bachelor’s degree online, choosing from a number of majors that either prepare you for many career options or for a particular career or industry. You can expect to complete a minimum of 120 credits, which include both general education, major, and elective courses. 

  • Popular majors: Business, health professions, social sciences and history, psychology, biomedical sciences, engineering [4]

  • Average time: Four or five years when you attend full-time

  • Requirements: High school diploma or GED

Learn more: What Should I Major In? 5 Things to Evaluate

Master’s 

Earn your master’s degree online to either deepen the subject knowledge of your bachelor’s degree or move in a new direction. Whether you’re interested in pursuing a  theoretical or practical subject, there are an array of programs available. The number of credits you’ll need to earn will depend on your program—requirements can range between 30 and 72.

  • Popular programs: Business, education, health professions, engineering, public administration/social services [4]

  • Average time: 18 months to two years when you attend full-time 

  • Requirements: Bachelor’s degree 

Learn more: MA vs MS Degrees: A Guide

Online degree costs 

The cost of attending college in person tends to encompass additional factors beyond tuition and fees. In 2021, the annual total cost of attendance in the US was $15,748 for a two-year public college, $25,487 for a four-year public college or university, and $53,217 for a private non-profit institution [5]. For a master’s degree, the average total cost was $66,340 [6]. 

Online programs tend to be less expensive because they don’t have the same overhead as many in-person programs. The total cost of an online bachelor’s degree ranged between $38,496 for in-state public university students and $60,593 for private university students, according to US News [7]. 

Looking for an affordable, efficient option to advance your education? You can earn a Master of Science in Management from the University of Illinois in as little as one year for $11,052 USD.

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5 benefits of earning your degree online 

Many colleges and universities offer the same quality of education online as they do in person, including having the same faculty members teach courses. But when you learn online, you may find that there are added benefits involved: 

1. Greater flexibility 

Because of the way online degree programs are designed and offered, they tend to provide more flexible scheduling. Many courses take place asynchronously so you can learn around your other responsibilities, rather than fitting those obligations around your degree.  

2. Work full-time or part-time

Many online college students continue working either part-time or full-time while earning their degree, thanks in part to the flexible scheduling we mentioned above. In fact, the average online college student is 32 years old, making an online degree program a strong option for professionals interested in going back to school [8]. 

3. Pay less overall 

Depending on what you study and where, some online degrees may cost less than in-person degrees. Online colleges don’t have the same overhead as brick-and-mortar schools, meaning they can charge less. More than that, you likely won’t have additional expenses, like transportation and on-campus housing, to factor into your budget.  

4. Develop unique skills 

With online learning, you get the chance to practice and refine self-discipline and time management. Both of those skills are important given the flexible, often self-paced nature of online learning, and both are valuable workplace skills that are particularly important as more of the global workforce becomes remote. 

5. Network with your peers

Many students opt to learn in-person because they want the full college experience or the opportunity to socialize and network. But many online degree programs offer opportunities to interact with other students. Those exchanges may start off via discussion forums or emails at first, but there’s an array of virtual resources to foster long-distance connections if you’re willing to make the time. 

Finding the best online degree program for you

Enrolling in an online degree program has many advantages, as we discussed above, but it’s important that you find the right online program for you. Because of the self-discipline and time management that learning online requires, when you learn is up to you. That makes it especially important to make sure you’re set up for success. 

Below, we’ve outlined a few components that you should keep in mind as you research different online degree programs and go about determining the ones you’d like to apply to.  

Accreditation

Finding an online degree from an accredited college or university is one way to ensure that you’re receiving a quality education that has been vetted by an approved outside agency. But the type of accreditation can become especially important if you want to transfer previously earned credits to a new institution—or apply for federal financial aid. Note how each program is accredited, regionally or nationally, and speak with an advisor if you have additional questions. 

Fully online vs. hybrid

The way your online program is structured will depend on the college or university you attend. Some programs are fully online, meaning you will not be expected to attend any classes on campus. However, others employ a hybrid model, meaning you will be expected to take some classes in-person. Learn how each program is structured and think about the best approach for your learning style and schedule. 

Flexibility

Speaking of how you’ll learn, online programs tend to structure courses asynchronously (in which you learn on your own time) or synchronously (in which you attend a scheduled class virtually). Depending on your schedule and your needs, figure out which option best suits you, and narrow your program choices down based on how they offer courses. 

Focus of study

Not every major or program is available online at every degree level. Once you know what you want to study, and the kind of degree you want to earn, begin researching which colleges and universities offer that track. Pay close attention to the coursework required to graduate, and make sure it aligns with what you hope to gain by earning your degree. 

Cost

Each online degree program charges a different amount for tuition and fees, including in some cases whether you’re in-state or out-of-state. As you identify different programs that interest you, make a note about tuition costs so you can make a decision that best suits your resources. You can submit a FAFSA form [add link when is FAFSA due] each year, which may help you qualify for grants, scholarships, and federal student loans. 

Faculty credentials

As much as possible, you should find out about the faculty who will teach your courses, whether those are led asynchronously or synchronously. Online programs should provide those details, and knowing more about your faculty’s experience and credentials can help reassure you that you’re learning from subject experts.  

Explore further 

Learn more about online bachelor’s degrees and online master’s degrees from leading universities on Coursera. You’ll find a number of in-demand fields at each degree level. All programs are designed to be flexible, allowing you to learn at your own pace. Attend a virtual session to learn more about each degree. 

Not sure if a degree is the best choice for you? Check out a number of Professional Certificates from Google, IBM, and Meta to develop job-ready skills in less than a year. 

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Article sources

1. NCES. “Fast Facts : Distance Learning, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

2. Urban Institute. “The Rise of Master's Degrees, https://www.urban.org/research/publication/rise-masters-degrees.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

3. NCES. “Fast Facts : Most Popular Majors, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=37." Accessed March 21, 2022.

4. NCES. “Coe - Graduate Degree Fields, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/ctb." Accessed March 21, 2022. 

5. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of College [2022]: Yearly Tuition + Expenses, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college.” Accessed March 21, 2022.

6. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of a Master's Degree: 2022 Analysis, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-a-masters-degree." Accessed March 21, 2022.

7. US News. “What You'll Pay for an Online Bachelor's Degree, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/what-youll-pay-for-an-online-bachelors-degree." Accessed March 21, 2022.

8. US News. “US News Data: The Average Online Bachelor's Student, https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/2017-04-04/us-news-data-the-average-online-bachelors-student.” Accessed March 21, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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