College students can take classes in person, online, and in a hybrid format. In 2018, nearly 7 million college students took an online class. During the pandemic, many students who had never taken an online class before had to adapt to the format. In fact, over 40% of on-campus students had never taken an online class before 2020.
The flexibility of an online learning format appeals to many students, particularly working professionals and people with families. Degree-seekers considering earning a college degree online may benefit from a self-paced learning program. In self-paced programs, degree-seekers work through course material on their own schedule.
The top self-paced online programs combine quality and flexibility. However, before signing up for a self-paced program, prospective students should consider whether the format matches their learning style and strengths.
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What is Self-Paced Learning?
In contrast to traditional college programs, self-paced programs allow degree-seekers to complete coursework on their own schedule. Unlike an in-person or synchronous online course, self-paced programs do not require set meeting times.
Online college programs with self-paced options provide several benefits to students. The format offers more flexibility than in-person and other online learning formats. Students can often complete self-paced courses faster than they could in a traditional quarter or semester. As a result, self-paced programs offer an efficient route to a degree.
Self-paced programs may also save students money. At some colleges with self-paced online bachelor’s programs, such as Western Governors University, students pay a flat tuition rate per term and can complete as many courses during the term as they like. This format can translate to a lower tuition bill.
Busy students often appreciate the flexibility of a self-paced program. Since these programs do not include weekly deadlines for coursework, busy professionals can arrange their schoolwork around other responsibilities.
Before enrolling in a self-paced program, prospective students should assess their ability to succeed in a self-directed environment. Self-paced programs require strong time management skills. Students must set their own deadlines to progress through the program and earn their degree.
Top Self-Paced Online College Programs
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.
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. Note that all tuition rates listed below were accessed in May of 2021 and may have changed.
Founded in 1851, Columbia College’s online campus offers 27 fully online programs and more than 350 online classes. Students can pursue 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 each year.
Location: Columbia, MO
Tuition Cost: $375 per credit hour
Fort Hays State University
Located in central Kansas, Fort Hays State University offers more than 50 online degrees, as well as numerous online certificate programs, all geared toward adult learners.
Location: Hays, KS
Tuition Cost: $226.88 per credit hour
This Christian college based in Lynchburg, Virginia, enrolls more than 30,000 military students and 900 international students annually. Liberty offers a flexible learning environment that allows students to complete assignments at their own pace.
Location: Lynchburg, VA
Tuition Cost: $455 per credit for part-time students; $390 per credit for full-time students
Purdue University Global
Purdue University’s Global Open College offers associate and bachelor’s degrees in professional studies 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 earn credits for prior experience. The Global College also offers several open self-paced college courses.
Location: Chicago, IL
Tuition Cost: $280 per quarter credit hour
Rasmussen College hosts 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.
Location: Maitland, FL
Tuition Cost: $175 + $15 book fee (ebook or paper)
University of Florida
University of Florida in Gainesville offers 37 self-paced courses in areas like beginning Spanish, psychology, and journalism. Students do not need to be admitted to UF to enroll in these classes. Self-guided learners receive 16 weeks to complete a class.
Location: Gainesville, FL
Tuition Cost: $212.71 per credit hour
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The University of Illinois offers more than 90 online programs and more than 1,300 online courses. The university also offers 19 self-paced online courses in mathematics.
Location: Urbana, IL
Tuition Cost: $416 per credit hour
University of North Dakota
Founded in 1883, University of North Dakota is the largest postsecondary institution in the state, hosting more than 15,000 students annually. The school 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.
Location: Grand Forks, ND
Tuition Cost: $356 per credit
Upper Iowa University
Upper Iowa University offers 26 self-paced online programs and certificates and 12 paper-based self-guided degree programs.
Location: Fayette, IA
Waubonsee Community College
Waubonsee hosts four campus locations in Illinois and an online campus. The online college features five associate degrees. Students can complete credit by examination. Students who enroll in Waubonsee’s QuickPath program can complete an associate degree in as little as one year.
Location: Plano, IL
Tuition Cost: $132 per credit hour
5 Tips for Self-Paced Program Success
A self-paced online bachelor’s degree requires strong organizational and time management skills. Even students with prior online learning experience must adapt to succeed in a self-paced learning environment. This section offers tips and suggestions for students considering self-paced programs.
- Choose the Right Program
- Selecting the right program helps self-paced students succeed. Prospective applicants should always choose an accredited school for their self-paced degree and research the school’s track record with self-paced learning. Colleges with multiple self-paced programs likely offer more resources for self-paced learners.
Prospective students should also research available resources for online learners, such as academic advising, counseling services, and library services. Investing time in finding the right program pays off during the degree.
- Manage Time Wisely
Time management can trip up even seasoned self-paced learners. Without the structure of weekly assignment deadlines and meetings, self-paced learners often struggle to stay on task. Fortunately, strong time management skills can help degree-seekers remain focused on their goals.
Dartmouth recommends several time management tips, including building a schedule, checking in with your goals on a regular basis, and implementing study techniques to study more efficiently.
- Establish a Good Workspace
- Distractions can plague any student, particularly online learners completing coursework from home. Creating a good workspace and establishing a routine helps self-paced students eliminate distractions and focus on their studies. Distance learners need space for a computer and class materials. Self-paced students may prefer a quiet, private location in their home when possible.
- Take Advantage of Campus Resources
- At many colleges, online learners benefit from access to resources like the library, tutoring services, writing centers, and the career center. Some colleges offer virtual access to these resources, while others provide specialized services for distance learners, such as online academic advisors. Students can use these resources to stay on top of coursework and prepare for life after graduation.
- Seek Help
- Online learners can seek help from academic advisors, health and wellness advisors, mentors, and student services advisors. Students should meet regularly with an academic advisor to monitor their progress toward the degree. They should also prioritize their mental health by seeking campus counseling services when needed. Seeking appropriate help can mean the difference between dropping out and graduating.
What’s the Difference Between Self-Paced Programs and Other Online Programs?
Students earning a college degree online can choose from several formats. While some online programs use an asynchronous or synchronous enrollment format, others offer a self-paced option. Self-paced learning requires discipline and strong executive functioning skills. It also offers the greatest flexibility among online learning formats.
Each learning format appeals to different students. Some students prefer the freedom of a self-paced online bachelor’s degree, while others benefit from the structure of a synchronous or asynchronous model.
|Synchronous programs operate similarly to on-campus programs. Students meet at set times and participate in live lectures and discussions. Some synchronous programs enroll online and on-campus students in the same class. The format appeals to learners who prefer the structure of set class times.
||Asynchronous programs offer instruction without set log-in times or live class meetings. Many asynchronous courses operate on a standard academic term. Unlike self-paced programs, asynchronous programs typically feature multiple deadlines throughout the course. This option balances a flexible schedule with the structure of deadlines.
||Self-paced programs let students complete coursework at their own pace, without deadlines for finishing specific assignments. The format appeals to self-directed students who prefer a highly flexible option. Many schools set a maximum time limit to complete each course and the program.
Co-founder of online education concierge service ClearDegree
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 benefits of self-paced degree programs and courses?
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.
Q: What's the main counsel you provide to students interested in self-guided programs?
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.
California Office of Student Assistance and Relief
This site provides resources for applying to college in California, career education, and federal student aid. Students from any state can use the resources to identify their educational style and find a good fit for their needs.
The National Center for Education Statistics offers the College Navigator to help prospective applicants access information about schools and create a list of options. Users can search using different metrics and save their favorite schools.
College Preparation Checklist
From the federal student aid program, this checklist outlines steps to prepare for college, including financial preparation and academic preparation. The site also offers resources for adult students.
Federal Student Aid
The federal student aid site provides information on the FAFSA, applying for federal aid, and paying back student loans. The site also offers resources on academic and financial preparedness.
Veterans Success Sites
Offered by the U.S. Department of Education, this site provides steps colleges can take to support veterans and service members. The site also lists colleges and universities that have affirmed their commitment to these steps.
Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.
See articles by Genevieve