Levels of Online Degrees

Distance learning programs range from job certifications to doctoral degrees, with thousands of general and custom courses in between. Every person entering into online education has an objective in mind, yet education is a lifelong endeavor that takes learning beyond the quest for a diploma.

Degree levels represent stages of development, whereas continuous learning adds layers of knowledge to enhance living.

  • Deciding what level of online degree starts at the present level of education and goes up from there.
  • Students fresh out of high school enjoy the option of entering an associate’s degree program to earn core credits, then transferring those hours to an undergraduate program.
  • Except in medicine and a few other professional fields, distance learning degrees progress up to the doctoral level in such areas as business administration, engineering, nursing, and psychology.

Because digitalized distance learning transcends the classroom, online degrees are not limited to one program. A distance learning student could accumulate credit hours from half a dozen accredited online institutions before transferring to a college campus to graduate. To keep students enrolled in one program, online universities have introduced specialized degrees that serve particular trades or professions. Where else could someone get a Bachelor of Science in E-Commerce?

Certificate Programs

Certificate course studies begin at the “less-than-one-year” (45 credits or less) level to prepare and certify technicians, mechanics, teachers, nurses, and other trades in basic career skills. These short-term certificate programs present the fundamentals of terminology, technology, and training to students in the early phase of a career or trade. There are few prerequisites for a certificate of this type except perhaps a high school degree or the equivalent. Financial aid is rarely available for this type of program. The less-than-one-year certificate program also encompasses craft or service trades that do not require more than a few months’ instruction to learn, such as clerical skills, software operation, shoe repair, and so forth. Many employers, or clients, prefer to do business with “certified” or “licensed” personnel.

A distance learning certificate signifies proficiency or expertise in a particular field. A certificate that supplements existing skills follows the prerequisite of proven abilities. For example, frequent innovations in computer technology demand keen awareness of new developments. A professional computer technician enhances career potential by earning a certificate to work on the latest systems and hardware. Health-care workers periodically upgrade or update certificates to keep pace with new treatments and medical procedures.

Then there are certificates that recognize comprehensive training for skilled jobs in certain industries. A certificate in culinary arts or hospitality pertains almost exclusively to the hotel, restaurant, and casino industries. Human resource management certificates have high status with any company that maintains a human resources department. People who already work in a corporate environment easily discover certificate programs that raise the prospects for advancement or new career opportunities.

Certificates in broader categories like the liberal arts attest to the capability of workers engaged in careers outside of the mainstream. Freelance travel writers, dog trainers, hypnotists, and all entrepreneurs who work under contract find that certification vouches for both legitimacy and competency.

Associate’s Degrees

Community colleges, or junior colleges, are preferred by students opting for an associate’s degree program. There are two types of associate’s degree: Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Applied Science (AAS). These two-year programs, the equivalent of 60 credit hours, tend to be oriented towards technology, engineering, or office management. In recent years, interest in graphic design and similar technology-related trades has created an associate’s degree boom for which online coursework is ideal. The AAS degree system has branched off into more descriptive applications like Associate of Science in Graphic Design.

Information technology in the digital age generates more customized distance learning opportunities by expanding on long-established programs. Instructional courses developed for contemporary, highly specialized careers emerged from conventional areas of study like restaurant management or computer programming. Occupational degrees, also known as applied degree programs, are designed to meet the demand for an education that puts graduates directly into career employment. Occupational degree credits are a base from which to move on to a four-year degree.

  • An associate’s degree program also functions as a preparatory phase before moving on to a four-year degree. The Associate of Science (AS) degree is intended to stage credits for transfer to an undergraduate program.

The prerequisites for entering an associate’s degree program vary depending on the institution. Generally, the threshold for admittance into a distance learning associate’s degree program is lower than that for undergraduate study. SAT or ACT scores may not matter at all, but most online two-year colleges require at least a high school diploma to enroll. Some programs are open to everyone regardless of academic credentials if applicants pass a basic knowledge test for math and English administered by the school. Courses connected to the medical field usually include prerequisites for chemistry and biology.

As with most educational systems, distance learning associate’s degrees impose a minimum GPA in the range of 2.0 to 2.75 and above to graduate.

Bachelor’s Degrees

A bachelor's degree, also known as a baccalaureate, is a higher-education program that takes four to five years of full-time coursework to complete. The two primary bachelor’s levels are Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science, with numerous bachelor’s subcategories under various classifications. Students embarking on a four-year degree program are undergraduates. More bachelor's degrees are available through online distance learning than from any other source. No campus facility could possibly have enough classrooms to accommodate the number of four-year degree programs that are readily accessible online to anyone around the world. While many of these online degrees are unconventional and entirely academic in purpose, practical degrees with career objectives are by far the most popular among distance learning participants. A large percentage of online bachelor’s degree candidates are adults seeking a career change and college students who dropped out but later decided to enroll in a distance learning program and eventually graduate.

Reputable online colleges and universities appreciate the importance of quality and therefore strive to offer academic standards that meet or exceed student expectations. No higher-education establishment, online or in the classroom, wants to advertise a high dropout rate. Prerequisites for entering an online bachelor’s degree program are predictably stricter than those for two-year degrees. Minimum SAT or ACT scores, along with at least a high school GPA of 2.75, are typical thresholds to enroll in a four-year distance learning program. Convenience and flexibility are what make distance learning bachelor’s programs less strenuous than attending a campus college. Distance learners tend to be less focused on a four-year deadline than on working gradually towards graduation while staying on a job. Many online universities have introduced accelerated study routines for especially ambitious students.

In the past, "brand recognition" mattered when picking a college or university. The perception existed that the more prestigious an institution, the more valuable the degree. Prestige is expensive, so the top colleges produce too few graduates to spread out to every job opportunity and pay grade.

What businesses and corporations are more interested in now is what college graduates learn, not where they learn it. As distance learning increases in popularity, the number of online institutions with career-dedicated degree programs has also grown. Online business schools predominate because of the demand for degrees that lead to promotion or career change among people already in the work force. For economic reasons, many online universities have streamlined their academic departments to eliminate nonessential programs with low participation rates. However, these programs don't go away entirely, because some other school doubtless has a similar program.

To graduate with a bachelor's degree, a grade point average of at least 2.0 is standard. As with a brick-and-mortar school, a minimum number of cumulative credits (120-130 semester hours) is necessary to graduate from an online university, but the requirements with regard to core curriculum may vary considerably. What about foreign language, math, or science requirements? Although not crucial for a business occupation, these subjects are regarded as important for a fully developed education. In today's job market, fluency in a foreign language is a definite plus to potential employers.

Master’s Degrees

The next step up from a bachelor's degree, should a continuous distance learning participant choose to take it, is the master's degree. This level of higher education takes at least 36 credits of coursework in a selected discipline to complete. A master's degree is a postgraduate award; therefore, its prerequisite is a bachelor's degree of the same description—that is, either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. However, the master's degree does not necessarily have to correspond to the bachelor's degree major. For instance, a BA in English can serve as the qualifying degree for an MA in Journalism. Some additional undergraduate courses may be necessary to enter a particular master's program, but the bachelor’s degree usually suffices.

Grade standards are more demanding both to enter a master's program and to continue in one. An undergraduate GPA of 3.5 or higher for subjects in the same category as the master's program is often mandatory, while an overall GPA of 3.0 attained for the four-year degree influences admittance into any graduate program. The majority of master's degree programs administer such standardized tests as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT), or Graduate Record Examination Subject Tests prior to admission. To remain a master's candidate, many schools hold students to a 3.0 grade average.

The credentials for a legitimate distance learning graduate program differ somewhat from those for an undergraduate program. An online college or university might have departmental accreditation for a graduate program but not for all departments. For this reason, extra care should be taken when researching and selecting online institutions that offer master's degrees. A graduate advisor is very much a part of the scheme and should be consulted frequently about a student's progress and performance. Regular conferences with professors and instructors are also critical for keeping studies organized and focused. Master's degrees are generally more difficult and require more preparation than undergraduate studies, so expect a greater challenge. Some online graduate courses even include occasional classroom attendance.

Now, a word about postgraduates in medicine and law. Some obvious problems attend entering the medical and legal professions by way of distance learning education. Currently, the American Bar Association (ABA) does not give accreditation to online law schools, and 49 of the 50 states stipulate that law school graduates must hold a degree from an ABA-accredited law school to take the state's bar exam. Only California allows law graduates with online degrees to take the bar exam, provided the candidate lives in California or plans to relocate there to get a law license. Online medical degrees are even more problematic because of the vital hands-on aspect of both the training and professional practice of medicine. Virtual classrooms have come a long way, but not far enough to train surgeons to operate on live patients. However, there are online graduate programs for nurses and other health-care professionals. Master's degrees in the medical field are concentrated in non-treatment functions such as hospital or clinic management and administration. Gerontology, biotechnology, and other specialist categories of patient care have master's-level degrees.

Doctoral Degrees

The top rank of higher learning is the doctoral degree or Ph.D. Candidates for this esteemed award commit to intense study and endure rigorous intellectual demands to become scholars. The prestige of being called "Doctor" or "Professor" does not come easily. Doctorates can take years to complete. To enter a doctoral or Ph.D. program, a candidate holds a master's degree and has passed a GRE general exam with a 1,000 score or higher. (Depending on the subject, other standardized exams may be included.) A doctoral committee, including the dean of graduate studies and the chairman of the respective department, reviews an applicant's entire academic career before approving admission into a program. High grades and test scores, letters of recommendation, participation in pre- doctoral programs, and undergraduate research activities all contribute to acceptance into a doctoral program.

Distance learning doctoral schools vary as to how difficult the program is to enter and finish. A typical doctoral scenario proceeds as follows: The doctoral candidate is given more supervision than for previous degree levels and has to spend more time consulting with graduate advisers to plan a course of study. A degree plan is then presented by the candidate to the advisory committee, the major professor, and the graduate advisor for approval by the dean. Although 60 hours of pure coursework is mandated, the major professor or a member of the advisory committee alters or increases the workload as deemed appropriate. Student progress is monitored regularly to ensure that doctoral academic standards stay on track. Doctoral candidates advance through a series of 7000 level and above courses, appear for oral exams, propose a thesis, and then finally submit a dissertation to a supervisory panel before applying for graduation. Throughout all, a doctoral candidate must maintain a 3.0 grade average or better.

As mentioned in the previous section, distance learning doctorates are predominantly arts, education, technology, or business related. At this very high level of academia, choosing a qualified doctoral program is very important. In fields such as business, a doctoral degree would count most towards a career as a professor. Doctorates in certain professions, such as public health or psychology, are invaluable assets for promotion in those careers. Some professional Ph.D. degrees lead directly to a licensed practice, such as in psychology.



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