Back to School

Countless options to consider for those seeking higher education

by Ray Harkins

As I write this article, I am halfway through a three-year, part-time MBA program, and like one in three college students today, I’ve chosen to complete my studies online.1 The graduate program I’m attending is a distance learning, asynchronously delivered, online program offered by a traditional university.

After I decided to return to school, I spent a year studying educational options that would best fit my situation. Like most working professionals, my time and energy are scarce resources that I can’t afford to squander.

Full time vs. part time

My biggest question prior to selecting a program of study was, "How much time must I commit to furthering my education?"

Most U.S. universities set full-time status at 12 semester credit hours for undergraduate students and nine semester credit hours for graduate students. These credit hours approximate the student’s hours of direct exposure per week to instruction such as lectures and labs.

In addition to the actual lecture time, a popular rule of thumb states that for each undergraduate credit hour, a student should expect two additional hours per week studying, and for each graduate credit hour, a student should expect three additional hours studying. Using this rule of thumb, a full-time student will spend at least 36 hours per week on school work.

That is a colossal commitment for working professionals, so most return to school part time usually attending one or two classes per semester. A significant downside to the part-time pace is the perseverance required to complete a program. A typical 124-credit bachelor’s degree program, for instance, could take eight to 10 years to complete while attending part time.

Distance or in-person learning

When I first attended college in the late 1980s, nearly every post-secondary program required you to physically attend school. Today, distance learning opportunities without residency requirements are far and wide. According to a 2013 study, more than 80% of educational institutions now offer courses online.2

Distance-learning programs—combined with the proliferation of mobile devices, or "e-learning"—has created an "anywhere, anytime" learning environment.3 Essentially, prospective students can choose the institution, program and price point that best fits their lifestyle and goals regardless of location.

Because e-learning dramatically reduces or even eliminates commuting and class schedules, students now have an attractive alternative to the traditional educational model that requires less time and offers increased flexibility.

Traditional class vs. MOOC

Even with the extensive offerings of traditional universities, no discussion about e-learning initiatives would be complete without including massively open online courses (MOOC).

MOOCs are free, online, university-level courses without admission requirements. Dozens of world-class universities have created MOOCs with titles such as "Anthropology" to "Visualizing Japan," and numerous science, technology and business courses. MOOC creators typically offer a video-based lecture series, periodic quizzes, assignments and forums.

Recently, organizations that host MOOCs have worked with the creators to develop specializations or prescribed sequences of courses designed to offer a student a greater depth of learning in a broad topic, such as managerial accounting or data analysis. Specializations typically require a few months to one year to complete. After completing the course work, the student receives a certificate indicating the program of study and issuing university.

Based on my experience with MOOCs, the information they provide and their format for learning is excellent. Also, according to a 2015 study published by Harvard Business Review,4 72% of students who complete MOOCs report positive career benefits such as getting a raise or finding a new job.

Online only vs. blended

There are two university-sponsored distance learning program distinctions that affect a program’s flexibility and time commitment: online only versus blended, and synchronous versus asynchronous.

An online-only program offers everything needed to complete your studies online. Blended, or hybrid programs are largely online, but they also require the student to periodically visit campus for a lecture series, presentation or similar group activity.

Cleveland State University, for instance, offers a doctorate in operations and supply chain management consisting mostly of online coursework, but students must attend periodic research seminars on campus.5

While an online-only program offers maximum flexibility, a hybrid program is still flexible, and offers students face-to-face sessions with university faculty and networking opportunities with fellow students.

Synchronous vs. asynchronous

For the most part, instructional content for online courses is delivered asynchronously, meaning students can log in to their university’s e-learning platform at any time to download assignments, take quizzes or upload papers.

A synchronously delivered course, on the other hand, follows a set class schedule, and students tune in to a livestream at a particular time. Webinars, for instance, are commonly delivered synchronously. Certain instructors also require periodic online meetings where all students attend simultaneously via WebEx, Skype or similar conferencing platform.

Academic level

Many MOOCs, trade school and undergraduate college programs are excellent choices for someone with little or no post-secondary education, or for someone wishing to change careers or become more proficient in a skill set. Bachelor’s degree programs are generally designed for students with at least an associate’s degree or equivalent.

At the graduate level, a handful of degree programs such as a master’s in operations management or an MBA are offered to students with a range of academic and professional backgrounds. Most graduate programs, however, require substantial prerequisites, including a bachelor’s degree in the same discipline.

Area of study

For the quality professional, areas of further study may include data science, engineering, business management or industry-specific training such as machining, computer-aided design or regulatory compliance. For professionals seeking to advance their formal education in quality engineering and management, colleges such as Arizona State University in Tempe, California State University—Dominguez Hills, and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti offer highly rated and fully online degree programs.

For me, advancing my formal education was about preparing for future leadership opportunities. For others, career change or personal growth may drive their decisions to seek additional training.

But whatever reasons you have for returning to school, today’s world of educational opportunities abounds with options to help you meet your goals.


  1. National Center for Education Statistics, "Fast Facts: Distance Learning," http://tinyurl.com/distancelearning-facts.
  2. Jacqueline Bichsel, "The State of E-Learning in Higher Education: An Eye Toward Growth and Increased Access," Educause Center for Anaylsis and Research, http://tinyurl.com/bichsel.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Chen Zhenghao, "Who’s Benefiting from MOOCs, and Why," Harvard Business Review, http://tinyurl.com/hbr-moocs.
  5. Cleveland State University, "DBA in Operations and
    Supply Chain Management," http://tinyurl.com/csu-dba.

Ray Harkins is the quality manager of the Ohio Star Forge Co. in Warren. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology from the University of Akron in Ohio, and is working on his MBA at Youngstown State University in Ohio. Harkins is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified quality engineer, auditor and calibration technician.

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