Weigh Noncredit, For-Credit Online University Courses

Many noncredit online courses, experts say, allow working adults to prep for certification exams in various fields.
Weigh Noncredit, For-Credit Online University Courses
Those who may ultimately pursue a full degree should enroll in for-credit online courses, experts say. (BraunS/Getty images)
After Tiffany Williams-Rice decided to pursue a career in health care administration, she spoke with employers and conducted research online.
Ultimately, she discovered that a master’s degree would help her move into a hospital setting. The recent graduate, now 33, enrolled in an online graduate program at Colorado State University—Global Campus.
But when Florida resident Alexandra Faugeras decided to transition from a career in business operations to one in project management, she believed a noncredit online course allowing her to earn a certificate in the field was sufficient. She already had a bachelor’s and master’s in other disciplines and performed some project manager duties at her job.
“You find sometimes that there are additional supplemental things that might be noncredit-based that help you move forward,” says the 30-year-old, who completed her noncredit online program through the University of Miami Division of Continuing & International Education.
Many prospective online students aim to change careers or earn a promotion, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to get there, experts say. That might involve deciding between an online course or program that’s for college credit and one that’s not.
That distinction is more relevant to some prospective online students than others, experts say. But for those making a choice, here are four factors to consider.
1. Academic and career goals: Though career aspirations remain the primary reason to pursue a degree online, according to one 2017 survey, students’ specific goals vary dramatically.
“What students have to think about is, what’s their educational objective? What do they want to do? What do they want to be?” says Kim Scalzo, executive director of Open SUNY at the State University of New York, a collaboration between 64 SUNY campuses offering both for-credit and noncredit online programs.
For students working toward a degree, for-credit online courses that transfer are usually the way to go. But if somebody hopes to improve his or her job performance without switching fields – or, if a full online degree isn’t required to do so – a noncredit training program can be a good choice.
“Careers are changing at a very rapid rate,” says Rebecca Fox, dean of continuing and international education at UM, which offers both types of courses and programs. “Because of a need for certain skills in various areas, it is becoming more and more common for people who are in jobs to want to take noncredit certificates simply to give themselves an edge.”
Lori Swinney, director of the Center for Instructional and Learning Technologies at the University of North Dakota, recommends that prospective online students research potential online courses’ expected outcomes and determine if those match their goals – whether it’s just gaining a new skill or also receiving credits.
2. Enrollment options: Sometimes, whether to pursue an online for-credit versus noncredit course depends largely on what and how many classes are offered. That varies among institutions.
If a prospective online student who doesn’t need another degree wants to take a for-credit course because it meets their needs, they should research whether the school will allow that, experts say.
For example, at the University of Richmond, which offers online for-credit and noncredit online courses, nondegree students can enroll in up to nine credits’ worth of online or on-campus graduate classes, says Jamelle Wilson, dean of the university’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies
3. Certifications: In fields such as project management, a certification is required for certain jobs or can lead to a salary boost. For those who already have the required degrees and need training and to pass an exam to either earn or maintain their industry certification, a noncredit online option can be the right move, experts say – though some for-credit online certification options do exist.
The University of North Dakota offers a noncredit online course allowing students to gain field experience and then complete a certification exam to become dietary managers and food protection professionals, and another for certification in medical coding and billing.
4. Cost: Prospective online students should compare costs when deciding between credit and noncredit online offerings, experts say.
While the prices of noncredit online courses vary widely, Scalzo, of Open SUNY, says they are generally cheaper – though that changes if there’s a certification.
“You could be looking at upwards of a few thousand dollars.”
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.