How to Get a Bachelor's Degree Using New Alternatives

In 2013, 20-year-old Carmel Wright, who had worked as a nanny and tutor after graduating from high school, was ready to consider college. Then she mysteriously lost the use of her right leg. What turned out to be an unusual muscle-bone condition set her on a yearlong path of treatment in Sacramento, Calif., where she eventually received the surgery that enabled her to walk again. Throughout her treatment she remembers thinking, “I have to recover because I’ve got to go to school.”

Because she had missed the application deadline for the nearby University of California–Davis, Wright registered at Sacramento City College. She earned two associate degrees in two years there — one in political science and one in behavioral science — and was accepted to the University of California–Los Angeles as a junior and awarded a full-ride scholarship.

Wright had taken a specific set of classes at SCC that were guaranteed to fulfill first- and second-year general education requirements for many majors at schools in the University of California and California State University systems. Community college “allowed me to pursue education in a cost-efficient and manageable way,” Wright says.

For some 5.6 million students in 2017, roughly 30 percent of all undergrads, enrolling at a two-year public college was their first choice, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Students choosing this route can save a lot of money, considering that the average yearly tuition at community colleges is about $3,570 compared to roughly $10,000 for in-state public universities and nearly $35,000 for private four-year schools.

[Read: How Students Can Cut Costs With Two-Year College Paths.]

States from California to Florida to Massachusetts have created articulation agreements to clarify requirements for those hoping to transfer to four-year institutions, such as what course credits will be accepted and minimum GPAs — issues that have often tripped up students. Some articulation agreements even promise applicants admission to institutions like the University of Virginia, Arizona State University–Tempe and six of the UC schools if they meet certain guidelines.

Still, a successful leap is not guaranteed. While more than 80 percent of students enter community colleges with the intent to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree, only about 25 percent end up moving to a four-year school within five years, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Wright regularly visited advisers to cross-check information and plot her course schedule. Playing tennis on the intercollegiate team at SCC also helped earn her priority registration for the classes she needed.

On the other hand, there’s no question that an associate degree on its own can open the door to a range of well-paying, middle-skill jobs ranging from web developer to registered nurse with median salaries around $70,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce suggest that continuing on to secure that bachelor’s will yield the biggest payoff: Lifetime earnings for someone with a four-year degree are $2.3 million compared to $1.7 million for an associate degree.

A virtual option. For many who are trying to get their bachelor’s around work or family responsibilities, trekking to campus several times a week is not an option. Distance-learning programs can offer these students the flexibility to hold on to their jobs and salaries. David Taranto, 25, for example, is a clinical microbiologist in Needham, Mass., who is simultaneously earning a fully online bachelor’s in medical laboratory science from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Taranto’s classes include “a little bit of everything,” he says. They might be available live or be posted on a class website depending on the professor. Students generally have discussions and ask questions through online blogs and video threads. They also do group projects, give presentations via video, and take exams in 24-hour windows using a virtual proctoring service. The program includes several in-person clinical practicums at an approved lab of the student’s choice.

“I really wanted to get my bachelor’s so I could grow my career, get new jobs, move up, become a lead tech or a supervisor,” Taranto says. He was able to transfer many of the credits he earned from his associate degree in clinical laboratory science to GW and expects to graduate after about a year and a half.

Taranto’s employer pays for roughly a fourth of the program cost, which can run about $35,000 depending on the amount of credits students are able to transfer. He’s able to cover the rest with his salary. For comparison, full-time, on-campus tuition at GW is more than $55,000 a year.

Over 2.1 million undergraduates were enrolled exclusively in online courses in the fall of 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While many distance-degree programs are fully online, others blend online and on-campus learning.

[Read: 7 Things to Know About Online-Only Universities.]

Students in the bachelor’s in rehabilitation sciences program at New England Institute of Technology, for example, meet for class at the school’s Rhode Island campus once every other week. Other schools, such as Harvard University‘s Harvard Extension School, require students to complete a certain number of credits on campus. At Harvard, weekend or three-week intensive courses are options.

However, online coursework tends to be as rigorous as the on-campus programs, so don’t expect an easier path to a degree.

While students can lose some networking advantages by studying remotely, many college career centers are narrowing that gap by connecting students with job listings, career exploration tools and even one-on-one coaching to help them refine resumes and interview skills. Certain schools invite online students to campus for career fairs and some, like Arizona State, offer virtual job fairs where students can have one-on-one, text-based chats with employers.

When assessing different online programs, students should look at the distinctive elements of each to find the best fit. While earning a bachelor’s online is often less expensive than doing so on campus, this is not uniformly true, so you’ll want to compare tuition costs. Consider, too, issues such as whether you will be taught by full-time or adjunct faculty. You’ll also want to make sure you can get 24/7 technical support and reach faculty as needed.

In GW’s program “you get quite a bit of access to professors,” Taranto says. This access came in handy when his internet crashed on a Saturday night while he was taking an exam. He was able to email his professor and reschedule within 24 hours. Many schools now offer online degrees, including the University of Georgia, West Texas A&M University and Washington State University.

Companies were initially skeptical about online degrees, but they are now more accepting. These days “employers are looking at individuals holistically,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at global staffing company Robert Half. Someone who gets an online bachelor’s in computer science while working in IT, say, is “a very employable person,” he notes. Soft skills like teamwork and public speaking are increasingly important to employers, McDonald adds, so online students should ensure that they can show those abilities through work or other activities.

Emphasizing mastery. Competency-based programs, a fairly new concept in higher education, are popping up as an alternative model to the traditional credit-hour system. They are designed primarily for those with some college credit or on-the-job experience, and students progress through these typically online programs at whatever rate they are able to prove they’ve mastered each concept or skill. Students pay a flat fee to enroll for a certain time frame — a cost-effective model if you’re able to move through coursework steadily to your degree.

Western Governors University, an online school with over 60 competency-based degree programs, including bachelor’s degrees in healthcare management, accounting and software development, was created over 20 years ago by a group of state governors. WGU students pay a bit over $3,000 at the start of each six-month term, an “all-you-can-learn” model during which they complete as many of their courses as possible. On average, students take two and a half years to finish a bachelor’s program, for a total of around $15,000.

Students move through lessons at their own pace and meet with subject experts individually or in groups as needed. Each student also has an assigned mentor throughout the program who helps him or her map out a course plan and stay on track with weekly check-ins. Assessments, which students can take whenever they feel ready, could be tests, projects, papers or presentations. Purdue University in Indiana, the University of Wisconsin system, and Southern New Hampshire University‘s College for America all offer competency-based bachelor’s degrees.

Remember, though, that if you don’t finish your coursework within the set time frame, you can’t defer it or get your money back. Also, many schools may not accept credits from competency-based programs should you try to transfer to a traditional college, so it’s important to research your options carefully.

So, will a competency-based degree help in the job market? Many employers are still learning about them. A 2015 survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that fewer than 10 percent of employers reported a “strong understanding” of competency-based education. But after reading a description, about 85 percent reported being either interested or very interested in hiring those with CBE degrees.

[Read: What Employers Think of Online, Competency-Based Degrees.]

Bottom line: Students can feel reassured that they now have multiple paths to a bachelor’s. Wright graduated from college this past spring and plans to eventually get a joint J.D. and master’s in education administration with hopes of helping reduce racial and economic disparities in K-12 education. “Don’t be afraid,” she says, “to have a different journey.”

More from U.S. News

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5 Signs That a Competency-Based Program Could Help Your Career

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How to Get a Bachelor’s Degree Using New Alternatives originally appeared on usnews.com