Alternative Options for Earning Undergraduate College Credit

Young man starting his undergraduate program

If you’re an adult learner looking to go back to college, these questions will help guide you on your return to school.

If you are considering going back to school and do not yet have a college degree, you have options—whether you have zero college credits or are close to a degree. Perhaps you have accumulated credits from various colleges, the military, or a community college over the years without earning the degree yet, or maybe you started out after high school working towards a degree you aren’t interested in anymore and have never been back. Even if you don’t have any college experience at all yet, there are more ways than one to officially earn that bachelor’s degree. 

If you are thinking about going back to school, here are some things to ask yourself: 

  • What type of degree do you want?
  • How much time do you have to pursue a degree?
  • What is your budget?
  • How will you use your new degree?
  • Are there other non-degree programs you might want to consider?
What Type of Degree Do You Want? Both bachelor and associate degree programs are considered undergraduate degrees. At the most basic level, the biggest difference between the two is that one is a two-year degree (associate), and the other is a 4-year degree (bachelor). However, with all the various options there are for working professionals these days (online, hybrid, or accelerated) it may be best to think about the differences in other ways to determine which one would be the best degree to begin with, such as time or cost.
 
How Much Time Do You Have to Pursue a Degree? An associate degree typically requires 60 college credits while a bachelor’s degree requires 120. Therefore, the associate degree takes less time to complete than the bachelor’s degree. Sometimes people find it might be in their best interest to start with the associate degree to get a more short-term credential instead of taking longer to achieve that 120 credit total before receiving a degree.
 
What Is Your Budget? In some cases, starting with an associate degree can save a lot of money in the long run, even if a bachelor’s degree is your end goal. If you complete the associate degree at a community college, you can essentially get half of the bachelor’s degree done at half the cost. You can’t get any lower in tuition rates than a community college, so it can really provide a huge cost savings. For either degree, you will be required to complete a set of general education (or liberal arts) courses so you can get these out of the way during the associate degree and then be ready to just complete the courses in your major of choice for the bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, if you know you want to complete a program completely online and your community college does not offer this option, you may want to go straight towards the bachelor’s degree. The cost per credit is no different for an online associate degree or the online bachelor’s degree at a four-year university, so you would not incur the cost savings.
 
How Will You Use Your New Degree? Sometimes, depending on what you are interested in pursuing, the associate degree is required before you can do anything, so you must start there. Or, perhaps it is something that cannot be done online. For example, careers in healthcare like Surgical Technologist or Radiology Technologist require a two-year degree. If you are interested in nursing, you can start with an associate degree or go straight into a bachelor’s program. For anything general such as business, social sciences, education, or technology, you can also choose either option and start by getting your associate degree to transition into a four-year school, or go straight into a bachelor’s degree program.
 
Are There Non-Degree Programs You Might Want to Consider? It is also possible to pursue an undergraduate certificate program in certain fields of study instead of a degree. These are typically even shorter than an associate degree (anywhere from 12 to 30 credit hours). Fields like medical billing and coding, design, technology, business, or finance have options for undergraduate certificate programs—most of which are designed to give you a very specific set of skills and training in a certain field. Sometimes they might suffice for the coursework you need in order to set for an exam to become certified and gain that credential, such as a PMP (Project Management Professional).
 
There are many ways to begin as an undergraduate student, especially being a working professional, with many things to consider. Look at how far along you already are with credits earned, and what career path you are considering, as well as the format and the cost of the program you are looking to pursue as a starting point for going back to school. 
Good luck!