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online college courses
Types of Providers
Types of Providers
Types of Courses
Types of Courses
Credit vs Non Credit
Credit vs Non Credit
Online courses
General Information
Additional Resources
Additional Resources

Online College Courses

Online Courses

Before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 30% of college students were taking online courses. Now that percentage is much higher. And most colleges and universities offer some form of distance learning, even if they didn’t before. This abundance of courses offers the prospective student options: Credit vs. Non-credit; Degree Programs vs. Certification; Enhancing Business Skills; Tuition and Fees vs. Free. In this guide, we are going to walk you through all aspects of online college courses.

Featured Online Programs

Types of Providers that offer Online College Courses

It goes without saying that every institution offering the online course will be different. But we can classify them by certain criteria:

Private Non-Profit Colleges & Universities

Private nonprofit schools are funded by private organizations (as well as the tuition and fees students pay) rather than taxpayers. These include well-known universities such as Harvard and Yale. The school may require the student to go through an admission process before enrolling in an online course, degree, or certificate program.

Public Colleges & Universities

Most public colleges and universities, which are state-funded institutions, offer online courses to enrolled students as part of their degree programs.

Online Schools

Several schools, such as the University of Phoenix and Capella University, are completely online and do not have a physical campus. Online schools offer vocational, certificate, undergraduate, and/or graduate degree programs. Admission requirements depend on the school and program. These online schools don’t always follow a traditional semester or quarter-based schedule so that students may complete courses at an accelerated pace.

Free Providers

A recent development in online learning is called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These are designed to accommodate dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of online students. A growing number of top colleges, universities, and industry experts partner with online course providers such as Coursera, Udemy, and edX, to deliver these courses, sometimes for free. 

Most free online courses require internet access only, so users from different educational and geographical backgrounds can join. Courses cover a wide range of topics, including traditional college subjects, tech skills, and personal development. While it is often free to participate in the online course, the provider may charge a fee for a certificate of completion or grading papers and exams.

Types of Online College Courses

Understandably, the motivation of every student is different. Some want credit towards a degree, others may want to gain experience and grow within their current career path, and some may want to learn a new skill in the interest of self-improvement.

Courses for College Credit

Online college courses for-credit are geared toward students looking to earn an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree. A minimum number of credit hours required courses and prerequisites may be necessary.


Certification and licensing programs typically focus their curriculum on subjects relevant to the field of study. General education requirements are usually not necessary. A variety of online certification and licensing programs are available. These include:

  • HVACR Certification
  • Real Estate License Courses
  • Six Sigma Certification (Management Training)

Skill Enhancement

Some working professionals use online college courses to develop additional skills to boost their resume. They also take courses to increase their employability or advocate for a raise or promotion. A few in-demand skills that can be obtained through online classes include:

  • Business Writing
  • Coding, e.g., JavaScript or Python
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Project Management

Career Change

Online college courses can be invaluable for someone considering a career change, whether within the same industry (such as a registered nurse looking to transition to nursing management) or to a different industry (an accountant seeking to become a computer programmer). In these cases, online college courses help someone already in the workforce pursue a career change while remaining employed in their current role.

General Knowledge or Interest

From all educational backgrounds, many adults have found that online college courses can help them learn more in-depth about a specific subject or learn new skills for personal development. Popular courses for general learning include:

  • Art History
  • Foreign Languages
  • Photography

Online College Courses: For-Credit vs. Not-for-Credit

For-credit or not-for-credit, that’s your first decision. Taking an online course for-credit allows you to receive a letter grade and apply the credit hours toward a chosen degree program. If you take a course for no credit, you may forego a letter grade and progress toward the credit quota for your degree. But that doesn’t mean a no-credit course holds no value. Here are four ways you can still benefit:

Educational Development

To move forward in your degree program, you may need to acquire a skill that your fellow students already have. And doing so with a traditional class can mean tuition money you can’t spare.

Workforce Development

Build job skills needed for employability, help secure a promotion, or explore a career change. No-credit classes are an excellent way to show initiative and learn outside of your often-busy business hours.

Personal Development

Reading a book can be enough for some, but others prefer a classroom (real or virtual) with instructions to guide them and fellow students to push them. Online courses for no credit, especially when free, offer a zero-commitment way to learn new things.


Most not-for-credit online college courses are very low-cost (and may even be free) compared to courses taken for college credit. This keeps the real commitment relegated to the time spent learning and completing coursework. Read about the cost of a Master’s Degree.

General Information about Online College Courses

Online courses can be as difficult or as easy as the same course conducted face-to-face. Three aspects of an online class that may be more challenging than a traditional class:

  • Online courses may require more self-discipline because they’re not set to regular class times.
  • All communication with the instructor and other students is online, so there may be delays in response times.
  • Online courses can involve more individual reading or study time than in traditional classroom courses.

Transferring college courses for-credit to a degree program depends entirely on the school accepting the transfer credit. Each college and university has specific guidelines for transferring credit that must be followed. It is important to confirm course transferability with your target school’s admissions office or registrar before you enroll to ensure the course will transfer to both the institution and degree program you intend to pursue.

Online courses can be less expensive per credit hour than traditional on-campus courses, but fees vary widely by institution and program. Students can save money on transportation costs, such as gas and parking fees. For students already in the workforce and/or raising families, online courses allow the flexibility needed to maintain their work schedule to preserve their paycheck. Some online programs also allow out-of-state students to pay in-state tuition for courses, which can be a huge cost-saving and saving on room and board.

Some degree programs have lab, clinical, or field requirements that cannot be met by online college courses alone. This includes some in the medical, education, or social work fields. However, hybrid degree programs that combine online college courses with classroom training and/or fieldwork may be offered.

If you qualify for federal financial aid, you can receive federal financial aid for an online college course at a regionally accredited institution. Check with your school’s financial aid office for more information.

You need regular and reliable access to a computer with internet access to complete assignments and communicate with your instructor or other students. Many online schools offer apps that allow access to course materials from smartphones or tablets, which can help stream video lessons, read course content, or contribute to discussion boards. Also, typing up an essay or research paper on your smartphone could be incredibly tedious and time-consuming.


Online College Courses – Accreditation

In the U.S., Accreditation is a guarantee that a college or university meets or exceeds minimum standards of quality. It helps students determine acceptable institutions for enrollment. And it assists institutions in determining the acceptability of transfer credits. 

Formally, Accreditation is a validation process in which colleges, universities, and other higher learning institutions are evaluated. Accreditation standards are set by a peer-review board whose members include faculty from various colleges and universities that have already gone through the accreditation process. The board aids in the evaluation of each potential new school accreditation or the renewals of previously accredited colleges/schools.

How can you tell if an online college or university is accredited and therefore legitimate?

Any college you are considering should be accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. You can check their Accreditation on the U.S. Department of Education website. Read more about Accreditation.


Online College Courses – Additional Resources

Coursera: A leading online learning platform for higher education, where 71 million learners worldwide come to learn skills of the future. More than 200 of the world’s top universities and industry educators partner with Coursera to offer courses, Specializations, certificates, and degree programs.

edX: The edX portal allows access to some of today’s greatest minds in various fields. edX is the trusted platform for education and learning. Founded by Harvard and MIT, edX is home to more than 20 million learners, top-ranked universities globally, and industry-leading companies. As a global nonprofit, edX is transforming traditional education, removing the barriers of cost, location, and access.

Online Learning Consortium: Online Learning Consortium (OLC) is a collaborative community of higher education leaders and innovators. OLC is dedicated to advancing quality digital teaching and learning experiences designed to reach and engage the modern learner- anyone, anywhere, and anytime.


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