What is a Self-Paced Degree Program?

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Key Infor­ma­tion:

  • Many self-paced pro­grams are com­pe­ten­cy-based, mean­ing stu­dents can progress by demon­strat­ing mas­tery of sub­jects rather than adher­ing to a fixed time­line. This can poten­tial­ly short­en the time need­ed to earn a degree and reduce over­all costs.
  • Self-paced learn­ing requires strong self-dis­ci­pline and moti­va­tion. Com­mon chal­lenges include main­tain­ing con­sis­tent study habits and avoid­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion. Cre­at­ing a study plan, work­ing with peers, and reg­u­lar­ly reflect­ing on progress can help over­come these challenges.
  • Self-paced degree pro­grams are avail­able at var­i­ous edu­ca­tion­al lev­els and fields, from asso­ciate to mas­ter’s degrees in sub­jects like com­put­er sci­ence, busi­ness, edu­ca­tion, and more. Accred­i­ta­tion, cost, fac­ul­ty sup­port, and avail­able resources are cru­cial fac­tors to con­sid­er when choos­ing a program.

Self-paced degree pro­grams offer the great­est flex­i­bil­i­ty for com­plet­ing a col­lege degree. Com­plete your work at your own pace, gain valu­able knowl­edge, and acquire skills in demand in today’s work­force. It’s a great combination!

Some self-paced pro­grams are also com­pe­ten­cy-based. This means that rather than being required to spend a cer­tain amount of time (e.g., a semes­ter) learn­ing about a top­ic, you can demon­strate com­pe­ten­cy as soon as you’re ready. These and oth­er types of self-paced learn­ing are grow­ing in pop­u­lar­i­ty in the col­le­giate land­scape, not just because of the flex­i­bil­i­ty and indi­vid­ual learn­ing they pro­vide but also because they offer expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties that pre­pare you for the workforce.

Are online self-paced degrees for you, though? Let’s find out!


Definition of Self-Paced Degree Programs

A self-paced pro­gram is just as it sounds — you work through the mate­r­i­al at your own pace. If it takes you two weeks to com­plete a task, great! If you need a month, two months, or longer, that’s also fine. Many flex­i­ble degree options like this give you wide lat­i­tude for com­plet­ing your studies.

This is, of course, one of the biggest dif­fer­ences between self-paced learn­ing and tra­di­tion­al col­lege degrees. Self-paced learn­ing is much more indi­vid­u­al­ized, allow­ing you to deter­mine how much time you need to mas­ter a top­ic or sub­ject. In many instances, self-paced degrees also give you cred­it for things you already know.

For exam­ple, in a tra­di­tion­al degree pro­gram, your exist­ing col­lege cred­its are eval­u­at­ed and may or may not apply toward your degree. In self-paced pro­grams, though, you can uti­lize past edu­ca­tion­al and work expe­ri­ences to demon­strate com­pe­ten­cy, earn cred­it, and move on to the next topic.

There are time dif­fer­ences as well. A tra­di­tion­al course might be a quar­ter or a semes­ter long. But a self-paced course usu­al­ly has few, if any, time con­straints. And if there are con­straints, they’re usu­al­ly quite broad, like 12 months. Because of the time dif­fer­ence, the costs are dif­fer­ent, too. If you can work quick­ly enough and demon­strate mas­tery of the nec­es­sary top­ics, a self-paced degree can be far faster than tra­di­tion­al options.


Benefits of Self-Paced Degree Programs

The ben­e­fits of self-paced learn­ing go beyond the flex­i­bil­i­ty of learn­ing at your own pace and poten­tial­ly fin­ish­ing your stud­ies faster. These pro­grams are also ide­al for work­ing adults, par­ents, and oth­ers with irreg­u­lar schedules.

In many cas­es, self-paced under­grad­u­ate degrees and self-paced grad­u­ate degrees are asyn­chro­nous. This means you don’t have to meet (either in per­son or online) for class at a spe­cif­ic time. Instead, you work inde­pen­dent­ly and com­plete your stud­ies when you have time, whether that’s morn­ing, noon, or night.

As not­ed ear­li­er, self-paced degrees tend to cost less, pro­vid­ed you have the moti­va­tion to com­plete your stud­ies quick­ly. Since assess­ments are based on your mas­tery of sub­jects (rather than on a spe­cif­ic time­line, like midterms and finals), you can pro­ceed through a course as quick­ly as you like. Since many accel­er­at­ed degree pro­grams like this charge a flat fee (e.g., $3,000 for six months of access to pro­gram mate­ri­als), you can max­i­mize your returns and min­i­mize costs by work­ing quickly.

Oth­er ben­e­fits you can derive from online edu­ca­tion flex­i­bil­i­ty include the following:

  • More free­dom to devel­op your per­son­al learn­ing style rather than adher­ing to tra­di­tion­al teach­ing and learn­ing methods.
  • Devel­op stronger time man­age­ment skills, which are valu­able for all aspects of life, not just school.
  • Improved con­fi­dence in your aca­d­e­m­ic abilities.
  • Gain tech­ni­cal skills relat­ed to online learn­ing (e.g., using spe­cif­ic soft­ware pack­ages, con­duct­ing online research, etc.).

Addi­tion­al­ly, accord­ing to the Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine, self-paced edu­ca­tion improves the reten­tion of con­cepts you study ver­sus tra­di­tion­al face-to-face and direct­ed teach­ing styles.

Challenges of Self-Paced Degree Programs

Though self-paced degrees offer many ben­e­fits, they aren’t with­out their pit­falls. Some of the most com­mon chal­lenges of self-paced edu­ca­tion are out­lined below:

  • Main­tain­ing self-dis­ci­pline and moti­va­tion to study can be difficult.
  • Lit­tle inter­ac­tion with peers and pro­fes­sors can make you feel like you’re com­plete­ly on your own.
  • Too much free­dom to study what you want, when you want, can lead to feel­ing overwhelmed.
  • With no dead­lines, it’s all too easy to push school­work to a lat­er time or date. This can result in get­ting well behind in your studies.

Selec­tive learn­ing is also an issue. This refers to the ten­den­cy of self-paced stu­dents to learn only about things that align with their inter­ests. But by focus­ing on your inter­ests, your edu­ca­tion can be some­what lim­it­ed in scope.

So, how does one over­come chal­lenges such as these?

  • Make a study plan — Have a set time to study each day. Try not to devi­ate from your study plan, as stick­ing to it will help you main­tain a con­sis­tent sched­ule and stick to self-imposed deadlines.
  • Work with peers — Reach out to class­mates to form study groups or to sim­ply check on one another’s progress. A quick week­ly update with a few class­mates can help you stay on track.
  • Drill down to your wants and needs - Iden­ti­fy what you want and need to learn to meet your goals, and ensure the self-paced cours­es you take align with those goals. This can help direct your learn­ing and reduce feel­ings of being overwhelmed.
  • Reflect often - Eval­u­at­ing your progress is essen­tial in mak­ing the most of self-paced learn­ing and will help you address weak areas while mov­ing on from areas you’ve mastered.

Types of Self-Paced Degree Programs

Self-paced learn­ing plat­forms are found in every cor­ner of the nation, in schools large and small. Like­wise, self-paced learn­ing is avail­able at vary­ing lev­els of high­er edu­ca­tion, from associate’s to bachelor’s to master’s degrees. You can enroll in a self-paced pro­gram in any num­ber of pop­u­lar fields, too:

  • Com­put­er Science
  • Busi­ness
  • Mar­ket­ing
  • Data Ana­lyt­ics
  • Man­age­ment

The options above are most­ly in the under­grad­u­ate busi­ness niche. How­ev­er, some schools pro­vide oth­er options in areas like social sci­ences, art, and education.

At the grad­u­ate lev­el, self-paced learn­ing is espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar in the edu­ca­tion field. For exam­ple, cur­rent class­room teach­ers can par­tic­i­pate in grad­u­ate-lev­el stud­ies in cur­ricu­lum and instruc­tion or edu­ca­tion­al lead­er­ship. These degrees lead to new skills and poten­tial­ly help teach­ers move out of the class­room and into admin­is­tra­tive roles.

Busi­ness-focused, self-paced grad­u­ate pro­grams are also pop­u­lar. Orga­ni­za­tion­al lead­er­ship, busi­ness and tech­nol­o­gy, and MBA options are espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar adult edu­ca­tion degrees offered in a self-paced format.

Choosing the Right Self-Paced Degree Program

Select­ing a self-paced pro­gram requires the same research and time com­mit­ment as choos­ing a tra­di­tion­al pro­gram. You should con­sid­er mul­ti­ple fac­tors when choos­ing a pro­gram, such as:

  • Is the pro­gram accred­it­ed? Accred­i­ta­tion ensures you get a qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion aligned to indus­try standards.
  • Are fac­ul­ty mem­bers expe­ri­enced and sup­port­ive? Your suc­cess rests in part on your pro­fes­sors’ abil­i­ty to pro­vide struc­ture and guid­ance to your learn­ing process.
  • What resources are pro­vid­ed to help you suc­ceed? Pri­or­i­tize pro­grams with robust online sup­port cen­ters, study assis­tance, and tech­ni­cal support.
  • How much does the pro­gram cost? Eval­u­ate the poten­tial cost of your degree by explor­ing how you pay for your edu­ca­tion. Are you charged per class? Per semes­ter? A flat fee for the entire program?
  • What are the course offer­ings? Con­sid­er pro­grams that offer class­es you want and need to take to meet your spe­cif­ic goals.
  • What is the program’s track record of stu­dent suc­cess? Inves­ti­gate data regard­ing grad­u­a­tion rate, reten­tion rate, and the per­cent­age of employed graduates.

Enrollment Process

The enroll­ment process for a self-paced degree is not unlike the process of enrolling in a tra­di­tion­al degree. Though every school is dif­fer­ent, you should assume that you will need to meet cer­tain require­ments to enroll in a self-direct­ed pro­gram. Com­mon appli­ca­tion require­ments include the following:

  • Sub­mit an appli­ca­tion for admis­sion and any rel­e­vant appli­ca­tion fees.
  • Pro­vide high school and/or col­lege tran­scripts from every school you’ve attended.
  • Pro­vide SAT or ACT scores as required.
  • Sub­mit a per­son­al essay explain­ing why you’re inter­est­ed in the pro­gram and how it will help you achieve your career goals.
  • Pro­vide let­ters of rec­om­men­da­tion from peo­ple who can speak about your aca­d­e­m­ic and work experiences.

A dif­fer­ence to be aware of is that many self-paced pro­grams admit stu­dents year-round rather than at set times in the fall and spring. This is advan­ta­geous for you because you can begin your stud­ies almost imme­di­ate­ly upon being admitted.


The dif­fer­ences in self-paced vs tra­di­tion­al degrees are clear — self-paced learn­ing is much more atten­tive to your spe­cif­ic inter­ests. What’s more, accel­er­at­ed self-paced col­leges enable you to com­plete your stud­ies faster and often for less money.

Of course, time man­age­ment in self-paced pro­grams is an issue for some stu­dents. Devis­ing a study plan, get­ting help when you need it, and thor­ough­ly inves­ti­gat­ing poten­tial pro­grams before enrolling can help you find the right fit and stay on track through­out your stud­ies. Above all, reflect on your goals and how cus­tomiz­able degree pro­grams fit into the pic­ture. Don’t enroll in a self-paced pro­gram just for the sake of it; ensure it’s the prop­er deci­sion for your future!