Flexible College Programs: Making it Possible to Earn Your Degree on Your Schedule

Flexible college programs make it easier for parents and working adults to earn their degree


Flexible College Programs: Making it Possible to Earn Your Degree on Your Schedule

Flexible college programs make it easier for parents and working adults to earn their degree

Are you considering going back to school as a parent, working adult, or an otherwise busy individual who feels like they don’t have the time to add school to their schedule? Earning your degree doesn’t mean you’re just a student, nor are you a machine - you’re a whole person! You’ve got a life to live, complete with people to take care of, meals to put on the table, work to get done, health concerns to address, unfinished house projects, and friends to catch up with. It’s no wonder adding something else to your plate sounds daunting. 

However, there are a growing number of college degree options that understand you live a busy life and aim to meet you where you’re at. They are called “flexible degree programs.” These programs are educational pathways to earning your undergraduate or graduate degree that offer flexible scheduling and curriculum so that you can complete college at a self-determined pace. Flexible degree programs are built with the “post-traditional” learner in mind. 

Post-traditional learners are students who frequently must balance life, work, and their education. These students might be age 24 and older, care for a child, work full time while enrolled, or be connected to the military.

Sound like you? You’re not alone. 74% of people going to college are now considered “post-traditional.” Most people in college don’t actually fit the archetype of the 18 year old studying in the library and socializing on the grassy quad. For the “post-traditional student,” the fixed structure of a classic college degree program doesn’t work. Flexible degree programs are increasingly popular because they fit the needs of the post-traditional student, rather than trying to make the student fit the program. 

Flexible degree programs have a flexible structure, but a similar and equally rigorous curriculum to a traditional college degree. In other words, it’s like making a meal with the same ingredients but a different recipe - the content and the end result are the same, but how you get there is different. 

These programs “switch up the recipe” and provide flexibility in several ways. Many programs use “distance-learning” technologies to offer all or most of their courses online. Online courses and curriculum can be offered asynchronously, meaning students can log in and complete the content at any time of day. This might look like accessing recorded lectures, completing course activities, participating in online discussion boards, or completing assignments. Some online coursework may require synchronous learning, meaning students need to be logged on to a teaching module at the same time. Flexible programs typically schedule synchronous instructional sessions in the evenings, on weekends, and at other times that are less likely to cause scheduling conflicts with a typical work day. 

Why You Might Want to Consider a Flexible Degree Program: 

Flexible degree programs are meant to serve students who are often balancing school with other work-life commitments. Flexible degree programs are more convenient, more affordable, and often more effective than a traditional college program. 

More convenient: 

  • You can earn your college degree in a format that minimizes disruption to your daily life. 
  • Flexible degrees are adaptable to your schedule. For example, you can increase or decrease your course load from one semester to the next depending on what else is happening in your life. 
  • Flexibility allows for a better balance of work and studies, so there’s no need to give anything up.
  • More convenient means you have more ability to tailor your schedule to what you need, which also requires strong time management skills. While figuring out the right study-work-life balance can be challenging, it actually allows you to develop vital time-management skills that you can emphasize when applying to jobs. 
  • A flexible degree means that much if not all of your learning will be online, which reduces the time you might spend commuting (and saves you money). You can do your coursework from the convenience of your own home - and in your pajamas if you want! 
  • Most flexible degree programs are online, which means you might have access to a wider selection of courses and teachers. If a class isn’t working out or you want to change your degree, it will be easier to do so than an in-person program. 

More affordable: 

  • Usually online, flexible programs (or a hybrid program with both online and in-person coursework) are less expensive than traditional on-campus programs. Since the school doesn’t have to maintain the physical facilities and grounds, it’s able to save on operational costs. These savings trickle down - ultimately allowing you, the student, to pay a better price. 
  • You also get to “earn while you learn.” Flexible programs are structured so that you can keep your job, and your paycheck, while in school. Since classes are online and often asynchronous, you don’t have to take time off or miss work to learn. 
  • There are many scholarships for adult and nontraditional students enrolled in flexible degree programs. Check out this list of scholarships for Black students (LINK) as one example. 

Highly effective: 

  • Many flexible degree programs offer both online and in-person/on-campus components, thereby offering you the ease and convenience of studying from home and the support and community of a physical campus space. 
  • Over the last two decades, the growth of online learning has expanded access to higher education for millions of people. As of 2018, a total of 3.3 million students in the U.S.—nearly 1 in 5 of all American postsecondary students—were enrolled in distance-only education programs (PEPG study). 

Competency Based Programs: Adding an Additional Layer of Convenience and Flexibility 

Flexible degree programs are a great choice for adult learners and non-traditional students. If you want to take it one step further, it’s also worth checking out competency-based flexible programs. In a competency-based program, you can speed up or slow down your course load based on what concepts are easier or harder to master. Traditional college courses are based on earning credits based on a set number of hours of coursework. This system means that even if you’re already competent at one concept, you are still stuck having to complete all the coursework hours. It also means that if you need more time to dig in deeply to understand a concept, you might not be able to do so and be forced to move on too quickly. In a competency based learning model, students can demonstrate their mastery of the concepts that they know and move forward faster - and therefore get to spend more time focusing on and learning the concepts they don’t know. The idea is that you decide what you learn based on the concepts that are most challenging, rather than based on an arbitrary set of hours that assume mastery of a subject.

In this style of program, you are empowered to still experience transformative learning and growth, and prepare for more career options, with the additional convenience of an even more self-paced program.

Are you a good fit for a flexible degree program?

  1. The busy parent: Flexible and self-paced courses support working parents. Parents in particular are going to have to deal with unplanned hiccups and challenges when their child gets sick or has a day off school or needs extra help. For parents, no amount of planning can avoid the inevitable need to flex and adapt when things come up. Flexible and competency-based degrees are especially well-suited to a student-parent because they can rearrange their coursework based on the moment. The work will still need to get done, but the student isn’t penalized for not completing it by a certain deadline. 
  1. The hard worker: Maybe you work more than one job, or your job schedule changes from week to week, or maybe you work nights and weekends. In any of these cases, fitting a traditional school program into your schedule can be hard. Flexible and competency-based programs can allow you to tailor your school schedule around your job, rather than the other way around. 
  1. The mid-life career changer: You already understand the ins and outs of the working world and have built a career, but maybe you want to change it and head a different direction, or maybe you feel like you’ve hit a wall and need to go back to school in order to keep growing in your profession. If this is you, you’re also probably already juggling a jam-packed work schedule, so you need a program that is flexible enough to keep up with the responsibilities of the job you already have. A flexible program, and especially a competency based program, is a good fit for you because it will allow you to curate your education experience to get what you really need out of it. You already have wisdom and experience from your career, you just need to brush up on certain subjects. With a flexible, competency-based program, you’ll have the ability to focus on the education content that really matters to you on your schedule and terms. 

All sorts of people can benefit from the format of flexible and competency based programs. As one student-athlete shared:

“At first I was kind of skeptical of the flexible program at Gateway U but after talking with [an academic coach], I warmed up to the idea. I just didn't believe the “make your own schedule”. Now the flexibility is actually my favorite part of the program. Going to college and playing football was always a part of my plan but the pandemic kind of changed those plans. Because of Gateway U, I was able to gain credits during the pandemic and practice full time to get ready for tryouts.”

A flexible degree program may not be the pathway to college you originally imagined, but it might end up being the one that works best. Choosing a flexible degree program is a great option, but knowing how to get the most out of it is equally important. Read on for some pointers. 

How to survive and thrive(!) in a flexible degree program: 

A flexible degree program may be a fantastic fit for you. It offers you convenience, affordability, and quality without the hassle and risk of an on-campus college experience. But, how to make the most of an online and flexible degree? These programs can be incredible options, but it’s important to make sure you set yourself up for success. 

  1. Time management: Flexible programs offer asynchronous learning, meaning you can choose when and where to study. But leaving that choice up to you can get tricky when you’re navigating busy days with lots of other competing priorities. It’s easier to let school fall by the wayside. Getting to know yourself and how to best manage your time (link) is an essential life skill and it will serve you in your next job too. In fact, being able to talk to hiring managers about how you balanced school and work will be a huge asset as you apply to jobs after graduation! 
  1. Coaching, mentorship, and tutoring: Working 1:1 with a coach or mentor can go a long way in helping you manage your time and address challenges or road bumps early before they become barriers to obtaining your degree on your schedule. For example, Gateway U has a coaching program that offers personalized and one-stop-shop support. Each student works hand-in-hand with a dedicated personal coach for up to 3 hours per week. Coaches don’t just help with academics - they understand that academics need to fit into the larger reality of your life. They help you set and stick to your personal goals, access school and community resources, and more. 
  1. A community of peers: A flexible degree that’s online and asynchronous doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone. You’ll be completing your degree alongside a cohort of students just like you - people who are also balancing jobs, family, home and other life commitments. Most flexible degree programs offer various ways for you to stay connected to your cohort and get support, encouragement, and help from other students. 

As you consider your options, it’s important to know that you can both “do it all” and earn your degree, while also setting healthy expectations about how you’ll do it. A flexible degree offers a way to earn a degree, improve your career opportunities, and increase your economic mobility while also managing other aspects of your life. It’s easy to delay taking the leap when imagining all the potential challenges that might be ahead of you, but you never truly know what’s coming - finding a flexible degree program that helps you navigate those challenges when they inevitably arrive is the most important part. 

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