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Smart Options for Finishing Your College Degree Online After a Long Absence

Solutions for Professionals, Stay-at-Home Parents, and Non-Traditional Students



Creative solutions can make it easier for returning students to complete their degrees online.

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If you have an old college transcript but no degree, finishing your studies through an online program might be the best option for you.

One of the major problems with returning to college after a long absence (5 years, 10 years, or even longer) is that there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Returning students often become frustrated when the requirements have changed, older coursework is considered “expired,” or their entire degree program no longer exists. It’s not uncommon for returning students to express surprise when a semester worth of degree requirements turns into two years of work a decade later. This can be particularly burdensome for students that are already trying to balance their coursework with family and work demands.

Many returning students are also dismayed at the amount of general education requirements they will need to complete in order to finish their degrees. Professionals that have developed knowledge through years of business and civic experience often want to start on their major requirements right away rather than taking the physical education, American government, arts appreciation and other basic general education requirements that are common for freshmen.

The truth: there is no easy solution. If you want to finish your degree, you’re going to have to jump through a few hoops. However, selecting the right kind of program can speed along your studies and help you focus on the kind of work that feels meaningful to your life.

Here are a few smart college degree options for returning students:

Western Governor’s University

Through Western Governor’s University, students are able to complete their degrees based on proving competencies rather than completing coursework. Create a study plan by working with your personal mentor, show what you know through completing writing assignments or passing exams, and use their study materials to work on your own schedule. Rather than paying tuition based on credit hours, students at this college pay a flat rate for every six month term. The more work you’re able to complete each term, the better deal you get. Western Governor’s is a non-profit school founded by the governors of 19 states. The materials and learning system is intentionally designed in a way that meets the needs of non-traditional students. 

Thomas Edison State College

Thomas Edison State College offers an online college experience tailored to returning students. (In fact, the school’s tagline is “Exclusively for Adults”). Students can work towards degree completion by passing standardized subject-matter examinations and taking online classes. They can also get credit for what they already know by completing prior learning assessments. Through these assessments, returning students create portfolios demonstrating what they have learned through professional work, independent study (i.e. learning through opencourseware), volunteer activities, military training, and other life experiences. Thomas Edison State College is a New Jersey public institution.

Excelsior College

By enrolling in Excelsior College, returning students can bypass some of the traditional coursework by proving their current knowledge. “UExcel” tests are taken at approved testing centers around the nation and can be listed on the transcript in lieu of coursework for subjects in business, education, nursing, humanities, natural sciences, mathematics, and social science. These courses are also accepted at a number of other universities across the nation. To meet the needs of returning students, credit requirements are also kept to a minimum. Excelsior is run as a private, non-profit school.

Is Online Learning for You?

Returning adult learners face some unique challenges. The programs listed in this article offer several creative solutions for providing flexibility and an acknowledgement of life experience. Even for professionals, completing a degree can have concrete benefits. Choosing to complete a degree online definitely isn’t the right fit for all adult learners. But, it might be the best solution for you

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