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Self-Paced Online College Degrees & Programs in 2018 Learn More About Flexible Options & Find the Best Programs

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Dale Leatherwood Co-founder of online education concierge service ClearDegree

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Self-paced online learning is not new to postsecondary education – its roots lie in correspondence courses where students worked independently with paper-based materials to complete course material and mail it back to their college or university. Over the years, delivery of self-paced learning materials evolved from traditional paper-based formats to instructional tapes and CDs. Today, most self-paced educational programs and degrees are delivered completely online. Learn more about self-paced online programs and the main differences between them and other online delivery formats, and get valuable tips for being successful in these programs.

What is Self-Paced Learning?

Self-paced learning programs allow the greatest degree of flexibility for distance learners. Students typically can enroll at any time during the year and don’t face hard deadlines to complete coursework. Instead, they must complete all coursework in a given timeframe – typically between six months and one year. However, certain courses may have shorter timelines, such as 12 or 16 weeks depending on the class.

Students have free reign to complete the required coursework however they see fit – that’s why it’s called self-paced learning. If distance learners complete all the course requirements in two months, they can wrap up the class and begin another, making self-paced courses a great way to get ahead.

Self-paced programs are usually delivered online through content management systems such as Canvas, Blackboard or D2L (Desire2Learn). Students usually aren’t required to interact online with other students in peer discussion groups, message boards or other forms of online communication common with other forms of online instruction. Distance learners enrolled in self-paced programs are held to the same standards as other students regarding plagiarism and other aspects of academic dishonesty.

Students who aren’t pursuing formal degrees typically don’t need to be admitted to a college or university. Self-paced learners often register for classes as non-matriculated students. However, they still are responsible for paying for tuition and purchasing required textbooks and study materials the same as any other type of student.

Many colleges advise distance learners to speak with academic advisors prior to enrolling in self-paced learning programs to ensure they fully comprehend the nuances and potential drawbacks of self-guided education.

Top Self-Paced Online College Programs

A successful educational journey often is determined by the college students choose. The following list of accredited, nonprofit two- and four-year institutions can help students interested in self-paced programs explore their options for self-guided study. Each college featured here offers at least one self-paced online class, and most offer many more than that.

Name Location
Columbia College Missouri, DC

Columbia College in Columbia, Mo. was founded in 1851. The college’s Online Campus offers 27 fully accredited degree programs and more than 350 online classes. Students can pursue degree programs at their own pace, including sitting out for a session if need be. More than 16,000 students take an online class through Columbia’s Online Campus each year. Tuition is $305 per credit hour.

Tuition cost: $305 per credit hour

Located in central Kansas, Fort Hays State University’s Virtual College offers more than 50 online degrees, as well as numerous certificate programs, all geared toward adult learners. Tuition at FHSU is $213 per credit hour.

Tuition cost: $213.33 per credit hour
Liberty University Lynchburg, VA

This small Christian college based in Lynchburg, Va. enrolls more than 30,000 military students and 900 international students. Liberty offers a flexible learning environment that allows students to complete assignments at their own pace. Tuition is $455 for a part-time per-hour rate or $390 for a full-time per-hour rate.

Tuition cost: $455 , Part-time per hour rate, $390- Full-time per hour rate

Purdue University’s Global Open College offers an Associate of Science and Bachelor of Science degrees in professional studies that are geared toward self-paced learners. Students create a customizable degree plan and complete work at their own pace. Students can apply transfer credits from other accredited postsecondary institutions and also earn credits for prior experience, allowing them to advance quickly through the degree path. The Global College also features a number of open self-paced college courses, including composition, humanities and health sciences. Tuition is $371 per quarter credit hour.

Tuition cost: $371.00 per quarter credit hour
Rasmussen College Maitland, FL

Rasmussen College has campus locations in six states, as well as a robust online college. Rasmussen’s Flex Choice learning options allow self-guided students to receive credit for knowledge they already possess so they can quickly move ahead with coursework and save both money and time. Tuition costs $175, with a $30 book fee.

Tuition cost: $175 + $30 book fee (ebook or paper)
University of Florida Gainesville, FL

University of Florida in Gainesville offers 37 different self-paced courses, from beginning Spanish to psychology to journalism. Students do not need to be admitted to UF to enroll in these classes. Self-guided learners have 16 weeks to complete a class. Tuition is $212 per credit hour.

Tuition cost: $212.71 per credit hour

The University of Illinois offers more than 90 online degree programs and more than 1,300 online courses through its online college, which attracts distance learners from across the globe. The university offers 19 self-paced online courses in mathematics, from algebra to advanced courses such as probability theory, vector and tensor analysis and complex variables. Tuition is $409 per credit hour.

Tuition cost: $409 per credit hour
University of North Dakota Grand Forks, ND

Located at Grand Forks, the University of North Dakota offers self-paced online language courses in German, Norwegian and Spanish. Students can take up to nine months to complete coursework, or 12 months if they seek a time extension. Founded in 1883, University of North Dakota is the largest postsecondary institution in the state. The college has an annual enrollment of more than 15,000 students. Tuition costs $289 per credit.

Tuition cost: $289.42 per Credit (No Fees)
Upper Iowa University Fayette, IA

Although this institution was founded in 1857 to serve residents of Fayette, Iowa, its reach is worldwide through its online college. In the 2017-2018 academic year, Upper Iowa University had an on-campus enrollment of 722 students; however, nearly 1,100 undergraduate students were enrolled online, and another 1,887 attended the university’s various educational centers. Upper Iowa University offers 26 self-paced online degree programs and certificates and 12 paper-based self-guided degree programs. Tuition varies between educational centers and program.

Tuition cost: $975

Waubonsee has four campus locations in Illinois, including two in Aurora. The online college features five associate degrees, and students can take classes in a variety of formats, including hybrid and accelerated courses. Students with prior learning can quickly move ahead by completing credit by examination. Students who enroll in Waubonsee’s QuickPath program can complete an associate degree in as little as one year. Tuition costs are between $126 and $128 per credit hour.

Tuition cost: $126.00 per credit hour, $128.00 per credit hour
Brandman University Irvine, CA
Tuition cost: $3200/6 months access
Tuition cost: $188 per credit
Tuition cost: N/A
Central Texas College Killeen, TX
Tuition cost: $90 per credit hour
Tuition cost: N/A
McHenry County College Crystal Lake, IL
Tuition cost: $107.00 + Fee of $40.00 per course
Tuition cost: $185.00 per credit hour
Tuition cost: $132.20 per credit
Tuition cost: N/A
Tuition cost: $81.50 per credit
Tuition cost: $144.55 per credit hour
Tuition cost: $573.00 (3-Credit Hour), $754.00 ( 4-Credit Hour)
Tuition cost: $545.52 for Washington State Residents, $614.45 for Non–Residents (U.S. Citizen) , $645.52 for International Students
Tuition cost: $241.00 per credit hour
Texas State University San Marcos, TX
Tuition cost: $3,195.00
Tuition cost: $237 per credit hour + Fee of $14.17
Tuition cost: $180.00 per credit hour
Tuition cost: $340.05 per credit hour
Tuition cost: $850.00
University of Arkansas Fayetteville, KS
Tuition cost: $130 per credit hour
Tuition cost: $407 per credit hour
Tuition cost: N/A
Tuition cost: $699 (3-hour Courses), $935 (4-hour Courses)
Tuition cost: $699 for 3 hour courses
Wilmington University New Castle, DE
Tuition cost: $372.00
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This list is not comprehensive – colleges and universities regularly add self-paced programs as part of their online curricula. Students should check with prospective schools to determine their options for self-paced educational programs.

5 Tips for Self-Paced Program Success

Self-paced programs aren’t for everyone – it takes a certain type of student to succeed in a deadline-free learning environment. Following these five tips can help students enrolled in or considering self-paced degree programs cross the finish line.

1. Choose the right program

Thousands of U.S. colleges and universities offer online degree programs. More and more colleges are offering self-guided programs as well. Look for colleges that offer self-paced options in addition to synchronous and asynchronous distance education programs for maximum flexibility. Plus, it shows the campus is dedicated to developing well-rounded online curricula and attracting distance education students.

Time management is the key to distance learning regardless of how content is delivered. Dedicating specific hours in the day for studying, establishing timelines for completing assignments and papers, checking in daily to stay current, and planning ahead are all effective time management strategies.

One reason why classroom instruction works is because there aren’t many distractions – students are there to learn. The same should be true for the home learning environment. Find a study niche that’s used solely for academia. Hint: it’s not the dining room coffee table or kitchen counter. Establishing a quiet, orderly workspace helps students avoid unnecessary distractions and concentrate fully on the task at hand.

Just because students enroll in distance education programs doesn’t mean they can’t access the full scope of resources available to on-campus students. Distance learners might not ever visit the campus health clinic, but they can access the university library, online tutoring and learning services, academic advising, counseling services, and other crucial resources that can help ease the stress and grind of being a student.

There are a wealth of resources geared toward helping non-traditional college students succeed with their academic pursuits. These include free resources such as Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, and paid resources such as Chegg Tutor’s online math tutoring service. Don’t fall behind – its’ much more difficult to dig out of a hole than to keep moving forward at a steady pace.

Self-Paced Programs & Other Online Programs: What’s the Difference?

There are three primary types of digital distance learning:

Synchronous Real-time online learning in a virtual environment that pretty much functions just like a regular classroom. Lectures, discussion and other coursework is delivered to students at a predetermined time through video conference, webcast, shared whiteboard or similar conferencing tools. Students can ask instructors questions and interact with other students who also are logged into the class. Exams have predetermined dates and times for completion.
Asynchronous The most common form of distance learning. Although coursework is self-paced, assignments have deadlines and due dates for completion. Students log in and complete coursework at a time of their choosing. Students correspond with teachers and peers through online message boards and discussion groups, as well as with email and chat.
Self-paced or self-guided Students complete coursework entirely at their own pace with no set deadlines; however, there typically is a time-limit for completing classes, such as 12 weeks or six months from the start of a quarter or semester.

Another growing trend in distance education is Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are online courses with open enrollment. These courses have been developed by some of the country’s most respected universities, postsecondary institutions and Fortune 500 businesses. Students can earn professional certificates or complete master’s level classes to gain valuable job skills and boost their career options. Examples include Microsoft’s certificate program in artificial intelligence or a professional certification in business writing from the University of California at Berkeley.

Quiz: Is a self-paced program right for you?

Students considering self-paced distance education programs should take the following 10-question quiz prior to enrollment to determine if a self-paced program is their best option.

Interview with a College Expert

Dale Leatherwood, co-founder of online education concierge service ClearDegree, has more than 20 years of experience in training and higher education, including extensive experience in distance learning for self-paced, synchronous and asynchronous programs.

Q: What are the main benefit of self-paced degree programs and courses?

A: With synchronous and asynchronous learning formats, students typically can’t work ahead and finish the class faster. That constraint can hamper adult students who enroll with a wealth of knowledge. With self-paced learning, students with a high degree of competency in a given subject can quickly test out of the class. You can finish the material as quickly as you want. It’s a growing trend in online education, and by far, that’s the biggest advantage. You can adjust your learning to the pace that’s needed and take either more time or less time. It’s all about what you know as opposed to how much work you have done. You are not tied down to the pace of not only a class but to the Carnegie Unit system of credit hours, where professors are required to teach a certain number of classroom hours [the most widely used credit system in the U.S.].

Q: What’s the main counsel you provide to students interested in self-guided programs?

A: Adapt your plan of attack for the level of the class. Education is centered around high school graduates who don’t know much coming into college. In a typical degree program, you start off with easier classes, such as core general education, and then take core courses in your degree path followed by upper-level classes specific to your degree. When you get to your junior and senior years, the key to success is pacing correctly, because those are the classes that mean the most toward your degree and your career – and they also are the most difficult. You can’t have the same pace with those classes as you can with the easier work. Set goals accordingly based on your path through the degree and you will be much better off.

Additional Resources

The following resources could prove valuable to non-traditional college students considering self-paced learning programs:

  • California Office of Student Assistance and Relief

    Provides resources to help all college students determine a degree plan, find financial aid or choose the right college or university.

  • College Navigator

    Free search tool by the Department of Education that provides comprehensive data on postsecondary institutions in the U.S.

  • College Preparation Checklist

    Department of Education checklist designed to help students properly prepare for college.

  • Federal Student Aid

    Learn about the various types of federal aid available to help pay for college.

  • Veterans Success Sites

    Veterans can find the more than 2,100 colleges and universities that assist veterans and active-duty military personnel transition to higher education or complete degree programs.