Which Type of Online Degree or Credential is Right for Me?



Determine the Best Online Degree for You

As you consider the value of education, it is important to understand the type of online college degrees available to you.  As a result, we will work through the different types of online college degrees and credentials that may best fit your specific goals including Associate’s degree, Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, Doctorate Degree, Certificate Programs, Digital Badge, and Micro-Credentials.  We have culled data from the U.S. Department of Education’s division of National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) latest report on the state of education in the United States.  With that being said, let’s get started!

What is an Associate’s Degree?

An associate degree is an undergraduate degree that can often be completed in two years by successfully taking at least sixty credit hours.  Associate degree programs are often associated with community colleges but are also offered at some four-year schools and trade schools.  There are two broad-based associate degree types:  Associate of Arts (AA) and Associate of Science (AS).  The Associate of Arts degree is focused on a liberal arts education while the Associate of Science is a liberal arts program with a greater emphasis on sciences and math.  Other common liberal arts degrees you may want to research further include an Associate of Engineering Science (AES), Associate of Fine Arts (AFA), and Associate of Arts in Teaching (AAT).

Within the scope of an associate degree, there are two important categories to help further define an associate’s degree.  These categories are transfer associate programs and occupational associate programs.

A transfer degree is academic in nature and tends to focus on liberal arts and general education fields of study.  As the name indicates, a transfer degree helps students best prepare to transfer to a four-year college or university program.  While most transfer degrees are not job-specific, a large percentage of students select an area of emphasis or intended field of study.

An occupational degree is built on the premise that a student will gain the knowledge and field-specific skills to step into a particular job.  That being said, occupational degrees are practical, hands-on programs that prepare students for jobs immediately on the heels of successfully graduating from the program.  Common occupational degrees include: Associate of Applied Technology (AAT), Associate of Applied Arts, Associate of Applied Science (AAS), and Associate of Occupational Studies.

In the latest NCES data report, just over 1 million associate degrees were conferred by Title IV postsecondary institutions.   Of the associate degrees awarded, nearly 67% were clustered in three primary fields of study: 1) liberal arts, sciences, humanities, and general studies, 2) health professional and related fields, and 3) business, marketing, management, and related support services.  Rounding out the top six most popular associate degrees conferred accounting for approximately 10% of all associate degrees is homeland security & law enforcement, computer & information sciences, followed by engineering technology & engineering related fields.

Between 2003-2004 and 2013-14, the number of associate degrees awarded jumped an eye-popping 51% or 338,000 degrees.  In addition to the most popular associate degrees awarded during the latest NCES study listed above, the fastest growing fields of study that more than doubled in the last decade were: psychology, social sciences & history, physical sciences & science technology, public administration & social services, and communication & journalism.

What are the Advantages of Earning an Associate’s Degree?

Financial Gains.  Holding an associate degree will yield an 18% increase in monthly wages compared to a candidate with a high school diploma on average given the Bureau of Labor Statistics report.  Likewise, holding an associate degree translates to a 42% lower unemployment rate on average in the U.S. compared to someone with a high school diploma.

Ubiquity of Programs.  With thousands of associate degree programs available in the U.S., there is no shortage of options for you to consider.  Taking an online college program does not limit your geographic bounds making the sheer number of options vast to explore.

Tuition Savings.  Attending a community college or trade school can provide students with vital skills to step into a great career with the added benefit of affordability.  Many trade schools and community colleges offer affordable tuition that can be a tremendous value for the time spent learning new material.

Length of Program. Associate degree programs are often two year programs and the tuition savings can be significant versus a four-year program.

Online Degree Flexibility.  Students that take classes online are often able to create their own schedule and work towards a degree as their schedule allows.  The flexibility of an online college course is unmatched as students strive towards an exciting future of their choosing.  Students may be able to plan around existing work or family obligations depending on the type of college program(s) they have selected.

Enhance Your Resume.  Taking specific online courses or earning an associate degree online shows current and future employees you are self-driven, responsible, and disciplined.  Let it be known, these key characteristics bode well for your future and your career.

More Marketable Job Ready Skills.   For those looking to make a career move or start a new career, earning an online associate degree can help you with learning skills you can immediately apply upon graduating.  Having an associate degree and learning valuable career-based skills coalesce into a powerful recipe for success.

Educational Continuity.  A large percentage of students earning an associate degree plan on continuing their education at a four-year college or university.  As such, make sure you work closely with your college counselor to establish a transition plan to ensure the credits you have taken as part of your associate degree will transfer to a four-year program.

What is a Bachelor’s Degree?

A baccalaureate, or bachelor’s degree, is an undergraduate degree offered by four-year universities and colleges.  The credit requirements or semester hours range between 120-128 and typically take four to five years of full-time schooling to complete.  A bachelor degree is the type of degree most employers look for in candidates and is also requisite to apply to graduate level college programs.

A bachelor degree program allows students to select an emphasis of study or major along with a minor area of concentration.  By selecting a major and a minor, a student is placed on an educational track within a specific department that helps them specialize in particular disciplines leading towards a college degree.

The primary bachelor degree types are a Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA), Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), and a Bachelor of Science (BS).  A Bachelor of Art (BA) is a four-year college degree program with an emphasis in the arts.  A typical set of coursework will include classes such as fine arts, social sciences, humanities, music, English, critical thinking, communication, and history.   On the other side of the spectrum, a Bachelor of Science (BS) is a degree that has a great emphasis on the sciences or technical areas like math, engineering, computer science, physics, biology, and nursing.   A Bachelor in Fine Arts (BFA) is a degree that is bent towards performing arts or visual arts like creative writing, dance, and art.  Lastly, a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) is a program geared towards business or business administration and may be a precursor for those working towards an MBA.

A bachelor’s degree is the most popular type of degree earned in the United States.  In fact, nearly 2 million bachelor’s degrees were conferred by Title IV postsecondary institutions according to the latest NCES survey.  The largest areas of concentration for bachelor’s degrees are: business (with 19% of the total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred), health professions (11% of the total), social science & history (9% of the total), psychology (at 6% of the total), biology & biomedical sciences (6% of the total), and education (with 5% of the total).

The total number of bachelor’s degrees conferred from 2003-2004 to 2013-2014 increased by 34% or roughly by 470,000 degrees.  The fields of study that more than doubled in degrees during that same period of time include homeland security & law enforcement; parks, recreation, & leisure, and fitness studies.

What are the Advantages of Earning a Bachelor’s Degree?

Financial Gains.  A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey on the importance of education illuminates the fact that earning a bachelor’s degree results in a 68% higher wage than a candidate holding a high school diploma, on average.  In addition, the unemployment rates between these two groups shows a 92% lower employment rate for those holding a bachelor’s degree.

A Multitude of Programs Available.  Thousands of U.S. colleges and universities offer a bachelor degree.  The challenge becomes for you to determine which programs are the best fit your educational goals and career objectives.

Malleable Scheduling.  Earning a bachelor degree online can give you a high degree of flexibility to select a schedule and array of classes that work best for you.  Those that live in remote areas, travel frequently, have family, or erratic work schedules tend to look towards an online bachelor’s degree with great frequency.

Enhance Your Resume.  Having a bachelor degree on your resume coupled with a robust set of extracurricular activities and/or work experience can be a game changer for many employers.  Meaning, if an employer is deciding among several candidates and only a few have a bachelor’s degree within a specific area of study, it can in fact tip the scales in your favor.

Critical Thinking & Analytic Skills.  In addition to upper-level classes within your selected major, you will likely take several philosophy, statistics, math, logic, and critical thinking courses during your time in college.  These courses are intended to help you think critically about a situation and invest a rigorous set of analytical skills into a project or assignment.

Job Satisfaction.  The better educated and more proficient one becomes in their specific field of study, the better equipped they become to navigate the undulations of their industry.  Being more adept and more confident are important factors when assessing overall job satisfaction.

Job Stability.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the greater level of education attained translates to a marked reduction in average unemployment rates.  In other words, the better educated the more stability one encounters during their career, generally speaking.

Effective Communication.  The more schooling you attain, the better read and the more articulate most people become.  Effective communication is a lifelong skill that will benefit you for years to come if harnessed properly.  Be mindful of being an effective communicator and hone your active listening skills to better understand others.

What is a Graduate Degree?

A graduate degree includes both master’s and doctorate programs.  A master’s degree is a type of postsecondary degree that is often preceded by a bachelor’s degree.  Unlike the typical four-year program of a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree will often be structured as a two-year program.  The academic rigor and expectations increase markedly from a bachelor’s program to a master’s program.  In addition to the quality and quantity of work required of students enrolled in a master’s program, the emphasis delves deep into research, specific fields of study, and granular analysis more so than introductions to broad-based theories.

The two primary types of master’s degrees conferred are the Master of Arts (MA) and the Master of Science (MS or MSc).  A Master of Arts (MA) degree is a post-secondary degree often requiring a minimum of thirty semester hours often clustered within the fields of humanities or social sciences.  A Master of Science (MS) degree will likely have matching credit hour requirements with an emphasis on the sciences.  Students working toward an MS degree will often be asked to complete a substantive amount of research followed by a formal thesis.

In addition to the MS and MA degrees, we have compiled a short list of a few specialized master’s degrees that you may encounter: Master in Engineering (MEng), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Research (MRes), Master of Commerce (MCom), Master of Philosophy (MPhil), Master of Business (MBus), Master of Education (MEd), Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA), and an Executive Master of Science (EMS).

According to the NCES, the number of master’s degrees conferred from 2003-2004 to 2013-2014 has increased fully 34% from 564,300 to 754,500.  Of the master’s degrees conferred, nearly half of the 754,500 degrees conferred were in fields of business and education.  The next largest grouping of master’s degrees conferred were in the following three fields of study: health professionals & related fields, public administration & social services, and engineering.  The fastest growing fields for students earning a master’s degree was homeland security & law enforcement and parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies both more than doubling during the 10-year period.

The doctorate degree is the other type graduate-level program we will be discussing.  The doctorate degree is either an academic or professional degree that is considered to be the highest degree conferred upon students in the United States.  A doctorate degree will often take a student 4-6 years to complete unless a student holds a master’s degree in the same field which can truncate the program to three years.

The number of doctorate degrees conferred during the 2003-2004 to 2013-2014 reporting period increased 41% from 126,100 to 177,600.  Nearly 65% of the doctor’s degrees conferred during the NCES study were concentrated in health professionals & related fields and legal professions & related fields.  The next three largest groups of study were clustered within education, engineering, and biomedical sciences accounting for nearly 20% of the remaining degrees.

While the overall percentage of careers require a doctorate degree, it is growing in popularity in academics as well as professional fields of study.  A few common fields that demand doctorate candidates include: data science, teaching, engineering, psychology, universities, research facilities, and government agencies.

The two primary types of doctorate degrees conferred are the professional doctorate degree and the research doctorate degree.  The professional doctorate degree were created to support fields of study where evolving research matches a specific profession (think: medicine, education, law, engineering, psychology).  Examples of a professional doctorate degree include: Doctor of Public Administration (DPA), Doctor of Law and Policy (Lp.D), Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Social Work (DSW), Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD), and Doctor of Professional Studies (DPS).

On the other hand, a research doctorate degree requires students to invest substantive time working towards publishing their research material.  In addition to the research emphasis, students will often need to complete a thesis or dissertation, perform an oral exam, and present an array of research projects that are analyzed by a committee.  The most common types of research doctorate degrees conferred are the Doctor of Theology (Th.D), Doctor of Education (EdD), and Doctor of Engineering (D.Eng).

What are the Advantages of Earning a Graduate Degree?

Financial Gains.  The financial gains by earning a graduate degree are substantive.  In fact, the data collected by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests professionals holding a graduate degree earn more than twice individuals with an Associate degree on average.

Online Degree Flexibility.  Utilizing an accredited online program to work on a graduate degree in addition to maintaining a professional career or being able to focus on moving through a college program quicker can happen depending on your time, resources, and program requirements at the college or university.

Enhance Your Resume.  Bolstering your resume with a graduate degree translates into a viable asset in the marketplace.  The career options and income possibilities are quite encouraging for those looking to start in a new field or move up within an existing career field.

Communication, Critical Thinking, & Analytic Skills.  The time required of graduate students to spend studying, reading, researching, and writing will inevitably lead to exceptional high degree of critical thinking, communication, and acute analytic skills.  The demands and overall expectations of a graduate student will train them to process information deeply and quickly through repetition and exposure.

Job Satisfaction.  Once in a career, professionals holding a graduate degree tend to be well-paid, proficient, and have many career options available.  These factors, among others, tend to drive a substantially higher level of satisfaction towards work and life.

Job Stability.  In addition to a significant boost in pay, the typical professional holding a graduate degree is three times less likely to be unemployed than someone holding a high school diploma.  Further, the BLS data shows that the unemployment rate is more than twice as high for someone holding an associate degree versus a graduate degree.

 What are Online College Certificate Programs?

The final type of online college program we will be discussing is the certificate program.  In short, a certificate are credentials issued to students from an educational institution for completing significant programs not culminating in a college degree. The two primary types of college certificates include a professional certificate and an occupational certificate.  An occupational certificate is an academic program designed to develop job skills within a specialized area of study in a short period of time.  Completing an occupational certificate may signify to a prospective employer that a student is prepared to be job-ready within a specific vocation or trade.  According to the NCES, the number of certificates conferred in the 2013-2014 reporting period was nearly 970,000.  There are hundreds of occupational certificates and certificates of achievement including programs in business, culinary arts, archaeology, biology, early childhood education, graphic design, photography, welding, fashion design, accounting, and construction to name a few.

The other type of certificate we will cover is the postsecondary professional certificate.  Professional certificates have been growing at a rapid rate accounting for nearly 22% of all postsecondary awards according to Georgetown University.  In fact, a professional certificate program is growing faster than any other type of postsecondary credential since 1980.  Why are professional certificates so popular?  It seems like the formula for success has been a combination of affordability, length of program, and return on investment.  In other words, students enroll in a professional certificate program understanding it will be intense but usually less than a year of time to complete.  The one-year program translates to less tuition which makes the return on the monies invested quicker to recoup.  Another benefit of a professional certificate program is they act as a gateway to college degrees.  In the study performed by Georgetown University, they cite that approximately 20% of certificate holders go on to obtain a two-year degree and 13% are awarded with a Bachelor’s degree.

What are the Advantages of Earning an Online College Certificate?

Financial Gains.  Data collected shows that professionals holding a certificate in computer science earn 72% more than holders of an Associate degree in the same field.  While the industries may vary, there seems to be a tangible financial benefit given the data at hand.  The type of certificate and field of study will be big drivers in determining the net financial gains.

A Multitude of Programs Available.  There are hundreds of occupational certificates and professional certificates available online and in a classroom setting to choose from.  They key is to find a field of study you are passionate about coupled with an employment demand for those marketable skills.

Work-Ready Skills.  By definition, a certificate is geared towards enabling a student to move from the classroom straight into the workforce.  If you know the trade or job you would like to pursue in advance, a certificate may be a worthwhile option for you.

Affordability.  Most certificate programs are a year in length making it convenient to study online or in a classroom during an abbreviated period thus making the overall cost less than a four-year program.

What is a Digital Badge?

A digital badge is effectively a validated indicator of a skill, quality, or accomplishment that can be earned across a variety of learning modalities.  Open Digital Badging makes the process easy for individuals, organizations, and institutions to issue, receive, and exhibit digital badges across the internet.  The means to accomplish this are performed through a systematic infrastructure using both open and shared technical guidelines.

In today’s ever-changing world of classroom-based learning and online learning platforms, a digital badge provides yet another way for a person’s set of skills, competencies, interests, knowledge base, and accomplishments to be understood.  Put another way, a digital badge is another type of learning pathway available to inspire and connect people.  These connection points can be informal, social contacts points or formal, professional nodes of opportunity.

According to a recent study by Pearson Education, 18% of all higher learning institutions in the United States offer digital badging.  Of the differing types of higher education institutions surveyed, colleges offering baccalaureate programs lead the way with a 26% adoption rate of digital badging while private colleges and universities were the least likely coming in at a 9% rate of adoption.  Digital badges are most commonly associated with non-credit programs or training modules acting as a supplemental to a college degree instead of a replacement.

Outside of academia, digital badges are used most frequently in business and technology sectors with an 8.5% and 7% rate of use, respectively.  The next most common sectors to use digital badges are healthcare and professional services, followed by finance, retail, then transportation.

What is a Micro-Credential?

A micro-credential is a very specific digital certificate of accomplishment evidencing mastery within an area of study or skill with links to precise learning criteria, a validated endorsement, and/or verifiable learning objectives.  Entities like Digital Promise have built a platform of micro-credentials to help people attain verifiable recognition for competencies and skills acquired throughout their career.  This system offers a system to have learners submit evidence of completion and mastery within a certain discipline and have it reviewed by subject matter experts.  If properly validated, the review will result in a person to receive a micro-credential or digital certificate for their accomplishment.

Like a digital badge, a micro-credential or digital certificate can be displayed via social media to convey a level of expertise in a specific area of study.  The notion of micro-credentials enables professionals to continuously upgrade and update their skills and employers may be more adept to identify and connect with those achieving these digital certificates.

The leading industries within the micro-credential movement are business, technology, healthcare, finance, government, and not-for-profit organizations.  While only 7% of businesses in the United States offer a form of alternate credentialing, nearly 65% of professionals surveyed by Pearson Education see it as an important future strategy and revenue generating opportunity.

 

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