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How to Decide Between Full-Time, Part-Time Online Degrees

Obligations outside of class and the desired time frame for earning a degree should be strongly considered, experts say.

How to Decide Between Full-Time, Part-Time Online Degrees

Many college students in online degree programs opt to enroll part time for various reasons, such as balancing their education with work and family life or making a college education more affordable.

For example, at the University of Florida’s online program, about 60% of students take classes part time during any given semester, says Rhiannon Pollard, interim director of UF Online.

Generally, students are considered enrolled full time when they take 12 or more credits in a given semester, which equates to 12 hours of classroom instruction per week. When factoring in additional work like homework, papers and exam prep, Pollard says full-time students can expect to spend about another 15 to 18 hours a week working on their degree.

If that sounds tricky to balance with work and family obligations, or you aren’t sure you’re ready to dive into classwork full time, you may be wondering whether you should take on a part-time course load. Here are a few factors to consider when deciding between part-time and full-time enrollment in an online college program.

Obligations Outside the Classroom

It’s important to make sure you can balance your coursework with commitments outside of the classroom to avoid burnout, experts say.

If you’re enrolling in an online degree program after you’ve already entered the workforce or started a family, it could be a good idea to ease into things by taking classes part time. It can be challenging to succeed in your classes while taking a full course load on top of raising children, taking care of family members or working a full-time job.

“A big point of discussion when we talk with students is how you can be at peace with what you're taking on for school in terms of your family responsibilities,” says Anna Keck, interim director of academic and professional programs at California State University, Sacramento’s College of Continuing Education, which offers several online degree programs largely geared toward adult learners who are returning to school after taking a break.

On the other hand, Pollard says, students enrolling in an online degree program right out of high school or transferring from another full-time program could be well-suited to taking classes full time. She says these students typically are already accustomed to a full-time class schedule.

Difficulty of Classes

If you have to take several particularly rigorous classes, Pollard says it might be a good idea to consider taking a part-time course load, so you don’t overwhelm yourself, Pollard says. “Right off the bat, if you're talking about calculus and chemistry, maybe you don't want to overload yourself that first semester.”

However, if you plan to take a lot of electives or less-demanding courses, a full-time course load may be better, Pollard says. She encourages students who aren’t sure about how demanding a course will be to reach out to the professor and ask to see the syllabus to help decide whether to enroll full time.

It’s also a good idea to consult your academic adviser to see if a full-time course load is right for you. Keck says that your adviser will be able to look more closely at your personal situation and help you determine if a full-time course load would be too challenging during a given semester.

“There are many factors to consider, but ultimately a student’s ability to successfully persist takes precedence,” Whitnie Powell, assistant vice president for enrollment management and student services at Indiana University—Online, wrote in an email. “If a student is on the fence regarding their ability to successfully enroll in full-time coursework, I would suggest starting with part-time status to evaluate the addition of pursuing a degree into their existing priorities.”

Cost of Your Education

Financial aid and the overall cost of your education are other important factors for you to consider. Powell says cost of attendance is one of the most common reasons students decide to take classes part time.

The way each institution handles tuition is different, but if you pay per credit, taking classes part time can make the cost of your education more manageable, Keck says. Pollard notes that many students’ employers will fund the cost of their education up to a certain dollar amount each semester – and if that doesn’t cover the cost of attending full time, going part time is a good option.

Keep in mind that choosing part-time rather than full-time college may affect your federal financial aid eligibility.

Students getting financial aid must "take a certain threshold of credits, and anything less than that is not going to get them the financial aid that they need,” Pollard says.

It’s important to communicate with your school’s financial aid office and advisers to understand how your class schedule could affect your financial aid package.

Degree Completion Timeline

While taking classes part time may be a good way to cut costs and balance your schoolwork with other obligations, it will slow down progress toward your degree.

Powell notes that online students who enroll in just six credits per semester for two semesters each academic year will take 10 years to complete a 120-credit bachelor's degree. Alternatively, enrolling full time and attending part time a few semesters won’t slow you down nearly as much.

Although it’s important to consider the impact a part-time schedule will have on your degree completion timeline, Keck says it’s also important to keep your end goal in mind. If you worry about burning out from taking classes full time every semester, it’s perfectly fine to take classes part time even if that will slow things down, she says.

“You don't have to fit in that box of what is supposed to be the pathway and the unit load and the timeline for graduation. We just want you to get through and complete it.”

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