Higher education is more important than ever in America. Unemployment among those who hold at least a four-year degree is now 2.8 percent (Inside Higher Ed, “The New Bachelor’s Payoff”)—less than half of the overall national unemployment rate. Historically, students would enter a college or university and live on or near campus for four or more years, dedicated to studying and learning. But society has changed, and learning has become a lifelong activity necessary to keep up with workplace and career demands.

Classroom flexibility

In the U.S. today, fewer than 15 percent of college students live on campus. The new normal is the adult student who is working while taking online courses leading to certificates and degrees to advance their careers.

The National Center for Education Statistics defines these students, also referred to as nontraditional students, as typically being over the age of 24, and often with “family and work responsibilities.” These students typically do not live on campus, are not enrolled full-time in classes, are working (likely full-time), have family responsibilities and often include active duty military personnel and veterans.

"The new normal is the adult student who is working while taking online courses leading to certificates and degrees to advance their careers."

Convenience on the rise

Leading colleges and universities have come together through the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) to develop policies and practices that reflect the highest quality in emerging flexible learning options to meet the needs of these students.

Online learning degree and certificate programs offer students the classes, full library services, student support centers and access to faculty advisers entirely online. That means that adult students can take their classes and access support services at their convenience, outside of their work schedules. They save the costs of commuting to campus, child care services and scheduling hassles. Even examinations are offered in secured online environments so that they can be taken from a home or office.

Recent advances include the advent of “on-demand” learning. More and more universities are offering self-paced online classes that students can start at any time—not just at the beginning of a semester. These courses offer support services year-round so students can progress at their own pace.

The case for competency

Competency-based learning is another growing model in online higher education. Offering credit for learning outside the classroom continues to grow as students engage in prior learning assessment of work and other experiential learning that can applied to a college degree program. This has led to experimentation with the development of “competency reports” that one day may replace the venerable, but increasingly arcane, college transcript. These reports list the competencies—such as leading multicultural teams or performing statistical analyses profiling consumer bases—that students have demonstrated or mastered rather than grades in courses.

As you look to complete a degree or begin a new career, you need look no further than your Internet browser to find highly-regarded, responsive and flexible higher education options.