Accelerated Online Degrees for Working Adults

Fast-Track a Degree & Find Programs Near Me

Affordable, accelerated online degree programs for working adults are a convenient option for students juggling careers, families, and other commitments. Many colleges and universities offer these degree programs at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. Some programs cover traditional academic disciplines, such as psychology, business, or liberal arts, while others focus on career development related to education, leadership, or public administration.

This guide provides working adults with a thorough introduction to how accelerated online degrees work, a list of appropriate programs, and tips to choose the right degree track depending on your situation.

How Do Accelerated Online Degrees Work?

For full-time workers seeking a degree, a traditional program requiring four or more years on campus may not provide a realistic option. Accelerated online degree programs for working adults offer students with jobs and families the opportunity to earn a degree in a shorter, more convenient way.

These programs allow students to earn a degree in as little as 1-2 years by taking dual credit for courses, skipping electives, attending school year round, and/or taking courses in a compressed format. Compressed classes offer content in fewer sessions that last longer, such as a four-hour course that meets once a week. Though accelerated degrees require the same number of total credits, students may take summer classes and overlap semesters to earn credits more quickly and without breaks.

Learn More About Accelerated Online Programs by Degree Level

The following links offer more information about accelerated degrees at different levels, including information related to completion times, curricula, common majors, and other related details.

Is an Accelerated Degree Right for Me?

In this section of the guide, students will walk through the pros and cons of accelerated degrees for different types of working adults, including first-time college students, returning students completing a degree, and career-minded learners.

Each student has different advantages, opportunities, limitations, and expectations. For instance, first-time college students may fear not being able to keep up with coursework, while returning students may be more concerned about whether their credits will transfer. Career-minded learners often spend a lot of time and energy making sure they choose the right school and major for their ambitions.

First-time College Students

Many students are unable to attend college right out of high school. Since traditional four-year colleges impose age restrictions for on-campus opportunities, accelerated online degree programs represent a great option for adult students looking to earn a degree later in life. A traditional associate program takes up to two years to complete, whereas a bachelor's takes around four. However, students enrolled in accelerated degrees for working adults typically finish in half the time.

Some of the pros and cons to consider before enrolling in an accelerated program are listed below.

Pros:
Half the Time In an accelerated program, students earn their degrees in approximately half the time it might take to earn a traditional degree. This is done by taking dual credits, cutting electives, attending school all year, and enrolling in compressed courses.
Convenience Students returning to school after a delay can take accelerated online schooling from the convenience of their homes. Learners who work a full-time job may need to invest in family time in the evenings and often cannot attend a physical class.
Intro to College For first-time students, an online format may offer a great opportunity to ease into the unexplored territory of college coursework.
Cons:
Rigor Because students are learning the same amount of material in half the time, accelerated online programs can be especially rigorous and demanding. First-time students may find it difficult to keep up.
Time Before enrolling in an accelerated program, potential students should weigh the time expectations against their personal schedules. If students have taxing jobs and family responsibilities, they may find it challenging to complete course work at an accelerated rate.
Degree Completion Students

Accelerated online degree programs may be attractive for working adults who started a traditional college experience but had to take a break due to family or work obligations. Because going back to college after an extended break can be difficult, many students returning to higher education seek online learning.

Returning students who enroll in accelerated programs sometimes choose general majors, such as business or psychology. Majors that lead to specific careers may have more rigid schedules or curricular requirements, which may be relatively difficult to fit into a busy schedule. Additionally, some students opt to enroll in a combined degree program where they earn bachelor's and master's degrees in a period of approximately five years.

Some pros and cons to consider for students returning to college after a break are listed below.

Pros:
Flexible Flexible accelerated degrees for working adults can accommodate students with family or work obligations.
Easy transition Returning students are already familiar with college coursework, making the transition to a fast-paced program less difficult based on their previous experience.
Streamlining Accelerated online programs may not include all of the elective coursework required by a traditional program, which can streamline graduation.
Cons:
Rigor Accelerated programs often require students to complete more coursework in a shorter amount of time, which means these degrees can feel especially demanding for people with busy schedules.
Time Because of the accelerated pace, students enjoy less unstructured time to explore various topics and electives. Students should have a fairly good idea of what degree they'd like to pursue when they enroll, since these programs offer less time for exploring or taking extra courses.
Difficult Re-entry Getting back into college coursework can prove difficult for people who have been on a break from college for an extended amount of time.
Career-minded Students

Many students attending online accelerated schooling pursue certificates, master's degrees, doctorates, or postdoctorate credentials. Because companies and businesses want the most knowledgeable employees they can find, many offer benefits to those who earn higher qualifications. For people looking to change careers or whose jobs offer promotions, additional pay, or other incentives for educational experience, returning to school to pursue an accelerated online degree can prove beneficial.

Career-minded students can earn a master's degree in as little as 12-18 months, while the timeline for a postgraduate certificate varies depending on the subject at hand. Those seeking a complete career change should understand that they may need to start from scratch if they do not possess much experience in their new subject.

Pros and cons for students taking accelerated online courses to gain additional qualifications or change careers are outlined below.

Pros:
Job Qualifications Accelerated online learning often provides the quickest path to getting qualified for a new job or career path.
Add More Qualifications Additional qualifications do not usually take as long as bachelor's degrees.
Flexibility Students who must provide income for their families can attend accelerated online college courses and continue to work at the same time.
Cons:
Balance Students sometimes struggle to find a reasonable balance between full-time work, full-time classes, and other personal commitments.
Interest Some people may enroll in accelerated online courses strictly for monetary gains in their current jobs; however, it can prove difficult to stay motivated without a deeper interest in the degree material.
Rigor Advanced degrees typically feature more rigorous and challenging courses. Earning higher qualifications for a current job may seem more demanding than previous degrees did.

Best Accelerated Online Programs for Working Adults

Many full-time workers go back to school to earn a degree through accelerated online degree programs for working adults -- these programs make education more convenient for someone who must balance schoolwork with a full-time job and/or familial responsibilities. There are several aspects of an accelerated online program that students should consider before choosing a school and degree plan. These variables include program structure, a student's personal learning style, how the program is accelerated, any in-person requirements, personal timelines, and the field of study.

What Should Working Adults Consider When Choosing an Accelerated Degree?

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    Program Structure

    Prospective students can choose from many different kinds of accelerated online program structures. First, students should determine if they want to attend school on a full-time or part-time basis. Full-time students typically have more time to devote to school and finish faster than students attending part time, but full-time programs usually prove more demanding. Future students also need to consider program structures such as synchronous (real-time chat/video conferencing) or asynchronous (email/message boards) options. Some programs also offer cohort-style formats, in which the same group of students take classes and stay together throughout the program.

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    Personal Learning Style

    When choosing an accelerated learning program, prospective learners should consider their learning style and what they need to succeed. Online learning requires self-discipline and motivation, and some students may find it difficult to keep pace without direct contact with an instructor. Some schools provide limited opportunities to talk with peers or ask questions. Students should set themselves up for success by finding a program that matches their learning needs and preferences.

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    How the Program is Accelerated

    Some programs offer special enrollment statuses. Dual enrollment allows students to complete coursework for two different degrees at the same time. For example, a student in an undergraduate program may have approval to take courses that can be applied to a graduate degree simultaneously. Additionally, some learners pursue a bridge program that takes them directly from one level to another, such as an RN-to-MSN program.

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    In-person Requirements

    Before enrolling in an accelerated online program, prospective students need to map out each of the degree's requirements to ensure they understand what the school requires. Some programs -- especially in the health field -- expect learners to complete clinical hours or practicums/internships near campus. If you are attending a school that is far away, these requirements may involve traveling. For a working adult who lives far from school, this expectation could prove difficult. By understanding each requirement before enrolling, prospective students can help prevent any surprises or inconveniences along the way.

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    Timing

    When planning to enroll in an accelerated online degree program, prospective students need to think about their personal timelines to make sure the timing feels right. For people going through or about to go through major life changes -- such as getting married, having a child, moving, changing jobs, or getting divorced -- school can start to feel overwhelming very quickly. Even for students who feel prepared, major life changes can make school more difficult. Future students should make sure that the timing seems right for an online program before enrolling in any courses.

Accelerated Degree Subject Spotlight

Some programs require more rigorous coursework than others. For an extremely challenging or technical program, accelerated coursework can feel even harder. However, some degrees are better suited for an accelerated format. Listed below are a few common accelerated degrees that working adults can pursue. For these options, taking a heavier-than-average course load can help learners earn a degree more quickly than they would through a traditional program.

RN-to-BSN
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    Completion Time

    Students entering an RN-to-BSN program typically hold an associate degree and only need to finish the requirements for a bachelor's program. Many schools offer these degrees online, allowing working nurses to take full-time coursework year round and finish in as little as 12 months. Part-time students may take 24-36 months to graduate.

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    Example Courses
    • Population-based Health Promotion: Learners study the application of health beliefs and models on families, individuals, and communities.
    • Gerontological Nursing: Students consider the social, psychological, biological, and physical aspects of aging in contemporary society.
    • Transition Into Professional Nursing: Registered nurses consider the roles of professional nurses, including what affects the nursing discipline and environment.
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    Program Requirements

    Applicants must hold state licensure as a registered nurse, an appropriate associate degree, and have completed all prerequisite courses with a GPA of 2.0 or higher (in most cases). Some schools may also require students to hold experience in nursing practice. Students also need to complete 150 clinical hours in an approved setting.

Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction
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    Completion Time

    Teachers who work full time on a master's degree can finish in 9-12 months, while part-time students may take two years. Many education master's programs operate cohort groups in eight-week accelerated classes.

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    Example Courses
    • The Educator as Leader: Students consider what it means to be a leader among teachers in contemporary, multicultural environments.
    • Evidence-based Research for Education: Learners look at action research models to read, interpret, and apply data.
    • Leadership in Teaching and Learning: Students learn to apply collaboration and communication tools to solve educational problems in the classroom.
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    Program Requirements

    Most master's in education programs require applicants to hold a state-issued teaching license, bachelor's degree, and minimum GPA ranging from a 2.0-3.5, depending on the school. In some initial certification programs, students may need to complete practicum work.

Master of Business Administration
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    Completion Time

    Students can complete an accelerated online master of business administration in a year or less if they enter a program with the right mix of undergraduate coursework. It takes an average of 30-35 hours of work a week to complete a one-year MBA. Accelerated MBAs rarely require more than 18 months unless students need to slow down the program for personal reasons.

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    Example Courses
    • Managing People and Teams: Students learn essential skills related to effective management in a global environment, including budgeting and ethics.
    • Operations Management: Learners study how to asses operations management, including global supply chains and geographically dispersed customers.
    • Strategic Planning: Students explore strategic planning through marketing, research and development, finance, production, human resources, and total quality management.
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    Program Requirements

    Students with a bachelor's degree in business from an accredited institution can usually gain entrance into an MBA program, although some top schools may require high GPAs and excellent GRE or GMAT scores. A few MBA programs require practicums or internships, but most accelerated degrees focus on coursework since students typically already hold jobs in the workplace.

Bachelor's in Information Technology
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    Completion Time

    Some schools offer IT students self-paced learning formats that allow them to move through each course at their own pace. Students may be able to take an unlimited number of courses per session and set their own completion deadlines. Students who have already completed general education credits can graduate in as few as 12 months.

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    Example Courses
    • Data Structures: Learners explore specialized layouts for storing and organizing information using fundamental programming knowledge.
    • IT Theory Fundamentals: Students examine and apply discrete mathematics concepts and techniques common in information technology settings.
    • IT Infrastructure: Students receive a basic survey of information technology, including the structure and purpose of hardware and software components.
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    Program Requirements

    When applying to an accelerated online bachelor's program for working adults, students may only need a high school diploma or GED. However, many colleges require applicants to hold at least one year of postsecondary coursework.


 

Post-baccalaureate or Post-master's Certificates

Many schools offer post-baccalaureate or post-master's certificates. These credentials represent another option that allow students to gain specialized knowledge more quickly, without having to complete an entire degree. These programs may take as little as one semester or as long as 1-2 years if individuals study part time.

Admission standards usually allow anyone with the requisite degree to enter, and these programs cost far less than a standard degree track. Students should keep in mind that, while a certificate program may be shorter and less expensive than a degree, it also receives less recognition in academic settings. However, in fields like business, K-12 education, and nursing, students can receive pay raises or promotions by earning a certificate.

Other Ways to Accelerate a Traditional Online Program

Other approaches outside of accelerated programs can be used to shorten degree completion times. For example, high school students can take AP classes or participate in a dual-credit program at a local college. Gaining work experience or joining the military can provide funding for school along with nontraditional credit options. However, future students should be aware that not all universities accept life-experience credits, so they should check with their top school choices before going this route. Tests such as CLEP or DANTES can help students skip some general education courses. By choosing to earn credits outside the classroom or through exams and special classes, students can save money and time.

Expert Advice on Attending Online College While Working

Erin Looney is a professor and public relations professional, splitting her time between teaching in Florida and managing communications and marketing for a law school in Washington, D.C. Looney brings experience in radio and television broadcasting, social media, public relations, media relations, and communication strategy to the classroom. She works to empower students by incorporating their real-life experiences into course concepts, helping them connect everything they learn to something they care about.

Explain your experience with online students, and the common challenges your accelerated students who balance online school and work face?

I've taught online courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels for several schools, including Valencia College, the University of South Alabama, Florida State University, Arkansas State University, and Full Sail University. I've also tutored students in online and accelerated programs at Grand Canyon University, Johns Hopkins University, and Arizona State University.

Online Classes May Have in-Person Components, Understand the Requirements

I taught my first online course in 2010 at South Alabama during my first master's. It was public speaking, and it was a nightmare. Students were confused when they found out their online course still required them to report to campus at designated times to deliver their speeches, and the windows we offered spanned eight hours a day. That meant there were plenty of times when the required eight students would sign up for a specific time but only one or two would show, leaving them delivering a speech in front of an "audience" of three.

Throughout that semester, I heard the same refrain from students: "I signed up for an online class because I work/have a family/own a business/moved a state away and don't have time to come up here several times a week." Many were only available during one window.

Professor Availability Can Be Challenging

Online students are often unsure of the availability of the professor to help them complete assignments or clarify concepts. They're sometimes afraid to ask, thinking they must complete all work totally on their own. To overcome this, I am clear from day one about the times of day I will be checking in and how long they should expect to have to wait for a response. I also state in nearly every unit introduction that I am here and will gladly take questions about what they're reading before they get overwhelmed or behind. Then it's on me to adhere to this, which I do by setting alarms and reminders everywhere I can until I get into that semester's routine.

Success Can Depend on the Class, Timeline, and Dedication of the Professor

Teaching an online course requires more concrete and detailed feedback on assignments [as a professor]. Without a live lecture or even with an online lecture (live or recorded), there are not as many opportunities for students to ask for more information about their grades and feedback. [Professors] must clearly articulate what they do well and where they need to improve, even offering suggestions for further reading, providing lots of samples, or forecasting how upcoming units might clarify concepts for them.

With accelerated courses and programs, these things are amplified. The condensed timeline means there is far less downtime between assignments and readings, and students can fall behind very quickly when they feel the course is moving on without them--even if they're keeping up with all the course dates. Students, understand what they've signed up for, but expectations and reality are often not in perfect alignment.

The key as a professor in online and accelerated programs is to meet students where they are. To help our students be successful at a breakneck pace that relies on technology, we must tailor our approach, our messaging, and even our content. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it's not always that easy. We have to be willing to add new content types (video, live chats or study groups, interactive case studies, assignments with automatic feedback and multiple attempts, etc.) while still making sure all students can access the content easily (alt-tags, transcripts, captions, etc.).

In what ways can an online degree be well suited for a working adult?

The easy answer is that time and location flexibility make online degrees very attractive for working adults. The allure of cooking dinner while listening to an audio lecture or completing that quiz on a lunch break makes it sound like a dream come true for working adults who have always wanted to further their education but saw rigid schedules as a barrier. Of course, even with the flexibility, most online programs are not "work-at-your-own-pace" programs, and students have to be willing to make the time to complete the work on schedule.

Who is a good candidate for an accelerated online program?

I've observed a couple large differences between online programs that follow a traditional 16-week semester and those that are condensed or accelerated.

  1. It's often good for that student to have at least some background in the material. I can't speak to other disciplines, but I've taught an athletic training course in an accelerated program, and the students who were able to keep up were those with some knowledge of the subject matter coming into the course. It was much easier for a high school baseball coach or a college basketball manager to keep up with the course in the accelerated seven-week timespan than for students who were new to the sports industry. Thus, a good candidate for an accelerated online program is someone who is looking to advance in their existing career without leaving the workforce to do so.
  2. It's important for students to want to show up. A good candidate for an accelerated online program is someone who is willing to put in a sufficient amount of time to grasp concepts--someone with a specific motivation to succeed. Everything moves so quickly and can be frustrating, but a student who keeps remembering they are there for a reason and using that reason to push through the weird hours and multitasking will do well.
How do you tailor your accelerated online programs to help working students succeed, versus traditional online classes?

Traditional online programs run the full 16-week semester and are often modeled on an existing on-campus program. They're basically an adaptation from on-campus to an online environment, matching pace and content but offered in an online environment through a learning management system. On the other hand, an accelerated online program--while still an adaptation from on-ground to online -- differs in the time it takes to complete the program and thus the intensity. The number of courses and the amount of content are often the same for a traditional and accelerated program, which requires students to move more quickly from one concept to the next.

One way I consistently work to respect my accelerated students' time commitments while still ensuring they're responsible for the same material as traditional students is to make all work build on itself. I long ago did away with extraneous assignments, choosing instead to focus on a major project at the end of the semester with incremental steps toward its completion serving as graded "checkpoints."

For a more in-depth review of the specific challenges non-traditional students face in college in general, check out the page below, which includes information and advice on choosing a major, assistance programs for adults returning to college, and scholarship and financial aid information.

Non-Traditional College Student
Support Guide

Online Resources for Working Adults

  • How to Navigate Online Learning as a Working Adult: This article provides a full guide to help learners choose an online program, along with a list of resources and tips for students. 
  • GoGrad: GoGrad offers an extensive array of resources for graduate students, such as guides to help learners choose a school, get financial aid, pass standardized exams, and secure needed academic assistance.
  • Five Tips to Succeed in an Online Course: U.S. News & World Report offers tips on topics such as connecting with instructors early and creating a schedule to help working adults succeed while getting an accelerated online education.