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Online College Degrees by Level and Type

Online education and degree programs may serve certain students well. Online degrees may be a great fit for students who like where they live and don’t want to move to ...

Online education and degree programs may serve certain students well. Online degrees may be a great fit for students who like where they live and don’t want to move to attend classes. They may be perfect for students who live in rural areas or places with limited or no academic options. They might be a wonderful option for students who love to learn at their own pace. Online degrees may be convenient in these ways and others for new students, current students, and returning students alike.

The majority of students in online programs—nearly 88 percent—use their education to pursue online degrees. Of those degree-seeking students, 29 percent pursue their associate’s degrees, 42 percent pursue their bachelor’s degrees, 27 percent pursue their master’s degrees, and 3 percent pursue their PhDs.[i]

Undergraduate Programs

In undergraduate programs, students pursue an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. They select from online degrees in nearly every major, from Business to History to Finance. The path they choose depends, of course, on their personal and professional goals and how many years they have to dedicate to formal education.

  • An associate’s degree may generally require approximately 60 credit hours of coursework that students earn through two years of full-time study.[ii] Students may pursue associate’s degrees to prepare to pursue specific career paths or to earn general education credits. Some students transfer their associate’s degree credits to four-year bachelor’s degree programs. Credit hours vary from program to program, so please talk to the schools you are interested in regarding their credit requirements and credit transfer policies.
  • A bachelor’s degree may generally require 120 credit hours of coursework that full-time students usually complete within four years.ii Many students may pursue bachelor’s degrees to enhance their careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for students with a four-year degree is 2.98 percent compared to 3.8 percent for students with an associate’s degree, and 5 percent for students with some college and no degree.iii 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers who earned an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree earned an average of $761 and $1,193 per week respectively, and workers with a high school education earned $668 per week in 2014.iv 

Students enrolled in online undergraduate programs—whether to earn an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree—often major in business, health and medicine, computers and information technology, or social science and criminal justice. v  Nearly 80 percent of students earning their online degrees transfer in credits from other 

Graduate Programs

Graduate students do coursework toward earning their master’s degree or PhD. They may be working professionals who wish to enhance their careers by studying specific subjects in greater depth. They may learn how to conduct research and contribute new knowledge to their fields and disciplines.

  • A master’s degree may generally be earned through two years of full-time study.ii  Online degrees at the master’s level engage students in an in-depth and rigorous study of a subject typically connected to the student’s profession or undergraduate coursework.
  • Tacked onto a master’s degree, a PhD is usually the highest degree one can earn in an academic discipline. Online degrees at the PhD level are intended to help students master their subjects and, potentially, pursue careers as educators, researchers, or writers in their fields of interest. 

Pursuing Online Degrees, And Why You Should Consider Them

Before you dive into your search for different online degrees, you might still be wondering about the benefits of online education. Why should you pursue an online degree? What's the advantage? And what's all the fuss? It's hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to online degrees — especially since so much of the published information comes from schools and students, who are usually biased. The following bullets represent the upsides of online education, traits that are beneficial to various types of learners. If any of these attributes could improve your college experience, you should consider an online degree. When all is said and done, the only substantive difference between a campus education and an online education is the building.


Even online education critics seem to share the idea that the Internet makes it possible unite students and instructors without long commutes or fixed class schedules. Working professionals can study at night. Stay-at-home parents can study during kids' naptime. Military members can study from any new post to which they are assigned. None of these people are lazy or prone to cutting corners. On the contrary, they are busy, ambitious learners, who simply need a better college design.

And because they are all good candidates for employment, employers are increasingly happy to accept their online credentials.

Access for Rural Students

College students who live in major cities might choose to access campus programs. Thousands of other students simply cannot. Unless you live in a college town, the cost of commuting, in terms of time and fuel prices, can be prohibitive. In the state of Wyoming, which covers 97,818 square miles, only 4 bachelors degree granting colleges exist. In Nebraska, one high school district is the size of the entire state of Connecticut! Rather than accept college as an impossibility, residents of these far-flung communities can connect to the internet and earn their online degrees.

Twenty years ago, these students would have had to choose between moving their families, or getting by on a high school diploma. Today, online education is removing geographic barriers.

Access for Students with Disabilities

Most traditional college classrooms aren't designed to accommodate students with disabilities. Online classes, by contrast, can be engineered to support students with intellectual and physical disabilities as well people who are deaf/hard-of-hearing and blind/low vision. Likewise, gifted instructors who lose the ability to teach in a traditional classroom can continue their careers, thanks to online functionality.

Environmentally Responsible

For every 2,500 miles you drive, you release one ton of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere.[i] That's you, alone. If you lived 10 miles away from a college, and commuted 3 or 4 times every week, you'd create nearly 3 tons of greenhouse gases during the course of a 4-year degree. Along with 20 classmates, you'd be producing 60 tons!

Moreover, campus colleges produce excess pollution in the process of heating and cooling their classrooms, powering their libraries and computer labs, and creating increased paper waste. As environmental concerns heighten, online education is becoming the obvious, earth-friendly choice.

On Pace with the Future of Education

In 2006, the state of Michigan passed a law that all students must complete an online learning experience or an online class in order to graduate from high school. And the federal government plans to invest more money in online charter schools, for K-12 students across the country. So it's apparent that tomorrow's students will be seeing more e-learning technology. And clearly, education authorities are recognizing the value and future of online degrees.

Soon, more and more colleges will develop online programs to help stretch their budgets and expand their enrollments. Already, major names in traditional education — like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale — are offering online podcasts of course lectures. It may one day be possible for students to choose specific courses from multiple schools, all across the globe, and build their own personalized degrees.

Until then, more than 4.6 million college students are already taking at least one course online.[ii] That adds up to 1 in 4 college students. Experts predict that numbers will continue to grow. With growth, online degrees will be not just accepted, but expected, as a component of tomorrow's college education.

No matter the level of degree you pursue, online degree programs may be a great option. You may be able to organize your studies around work; continue to honor your commitments to family, friends, and community; select from online degrees at both colleges and universities; and live in the city, state, and, in many cases, country of your choice. You could potentially structure your program to serve your particular needs, dreams, and desires!

Online degree programs quite literally put the classroom at your fingertips. 

[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] [vi]