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Back to School: Finishing Your Healthcare Degree Online

Online degree completion programs give former college students the chance to return to college to finish what they started. Learn how completing your degree online works in the healthcare field and explore the pros, cons, and key information you need before you get started.

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WRITTEN BY: Kathleen Curtis
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REVIEWED BY: Edumed Editing Staff

Last Updated: 06/12/2023

Editorial Values and Practices

You dropped out of college for a reason, maybe even for a good one. You needed to focus on work or family, or something else happened that made staying in nursing school or earning your degree in healthcare administration impossible at the time. Now that you can focus on your education, this year seems like the perfect time to finish your degree.

The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that only six out of every 10 students completed their degree at the same institution where they started as of 2012. The average six-year graduation rate for public colleges is currently 61% while at private institutions the number is 67%. Students drop out for one reason or another all the time; why you left matters far less than how you plan to get back in school and earn your degree.

Degree completion programs make it easier for you to finish the coursework or program you had to abandon. And now, online programs make finishing college within your reach. Whether you have questions about how these programs work, what they cost, where you can find funding, or what to expect, this guide provides answers.

How Online Degree Completion Works

Getting back into the rhythm of college can take a while after you’ve been out, and you likely don’t know what to expect. The next few sections take a look at how online degree completion programs work and answer some of your most frequently asked questions.

Coursework

Coursework in online programs often mirrors traditional formats, with most core classes taking place online. For those juggling full-time work or personal commitments, these flexible programs make it possible to balance your daily tasks. However, the degree of flexibility depends on the program type. In synchronous programs, you’ll engage with professors and peers in real-time, while asynchronous programs offer more leeway in assignment completion and communication.

Some institutions follow a standard semester-based schedule, while others provide accelerated classes lasting between five and eight weeks. Regardless of the duration, courses are delivered and managed via a learning management system. This platform enables you to attend or view lectures, interact with classmates and instructors, complete assignments, take exams, and collaborate on group projects – all at your convenience.

Clinicals & Lab Hours

Many healthcare programs require students to participate in clinicals and labs, and degree completion programs are no different. While some lab hours can be done via distance learning, clinicals and other types of hands-on training often require in-person participation. If you’re thinking about studying a patient-facing subject such as nursing, dental hygiene, or radiation therapy, clinicals and lab hours will be part of your graduation requirements.

Fortunately, most online healthcare degree completion programs have developed policies that make it easier for distance learners to meet clinical requirements without visiting campus. If you’re attending a school in a different city than where you live, fieldwork coordinators will work with you to find a suitable clinic, hospital, or other type of healthcare facility near you where you can complete required hours. Because it can take extra time to locate an approved site, you should start working with the coordinator well in advance of when the clinical is meant to start.

How to Get Started with an Online Degree Completion Program

To begin your journey to degree completion, you’ll need to check off a few required steps. Some of these can be done in just a few moments while others depend on the participation of others and can take longer. Because of this, it’s best to start gathering required materials early on rather than waiting until the last minute.

  • Meet with an Adviser
    Whether you live close to your chosen school and can meet in person or further afield and meet digitally, this is an important first step in your journey. Schools typically have dedicated transfer advisors on staff who can help you understand the process and get the ball rolling.
  • Make Sure Your Credits Transfer
    It’s important that you get credit for as many of the classes you took previously, but not all schools’ transfer policies are created equally and some are friendlier than others. Because of this, getting a credit audit from each school of interest can help you compare results and make an informed decision.
  • Ask About Financial Aid
    A significant number of degree completion students carry financial obligations when they decide to resume their education; identifying a cost-effective option can be crucial in making the choice to return. It’s essential to inquire about available financial aid packages, the amount they cover, and whether the awards are renewable each year at any prospective institution.
  • Choose a School and Program
    Now that you’ve gathered all of the information highlighted above, it’s time to make an informed decision. Consider creating a pro and con list of each to find the school and program that works best for your unique needs and career goals.
  • Apply to School
    As you research schools, it’s important to pay close attention to the varied deadlines. You can even put these in your online calendar and get notifications along the way so you don’t miss anything. If the school requires recommendations, ask for these early as it can take a few weeks to get them back.
  • Ensure You’ve Got the Right Technology
    Once you get an acceptance letter, it’s time to make sure you have the tools needed to succeed. If the school doesn’t have a technology guide shared on its website, contact the IT department to get a list of required and recommended hardware and software to be successful.

Degree Profiles: 5 Online Degree Completion Programs Worth a Look

If you aren’t sure what’s available or are still considering your academic path, we’ve rounded up several online degree completion programs in various healthcare fields to help show you what’s available. These programs represent only a small sample, so you should do additional research to find the best one for you.

The University of Vermont

Online Health Sciences Completion Program

The online bachelor’s in health sciences degree completion program at UVM supports learners who possess at least one year of postsecondary coursework or have completed an associate degree. The core curriculum focuses on preparing graduates for a wide range of health careers and provides ample electives so they can specialize their knowledge. The amount of time required to graduate will depend on previous coursework. Students are assigned a faculty advisor upon admission who can help them with academic advising and support services while enrolled. The department provides a variety of financial aid services specific to degree completion students.

East Tennessee State University

Online Dental Hygiene Completion Program

ETSU’s online A.S. to B.S. dental hygiene program was designed specifically for students who already completed an associate degree but want to delve more deeply into the discipline and expand their knowledge. The program exists entirely online and classes are taught asynchronously to allow for maximum flexibility. A few courses may require live chats, but these do not take place frequently. The school will work with you to evaluate previous coursework and determine how many credits will transfer. Other admission requirements include proof of graduation from an accredited associate degree in dental hygiene, a current dental hygiene license, and a resume demonstrating existing work experience in the field.

Franklin University

Online RN-to-MSN Completion Program

The RN-to-MSN online bridge program offered by FU supports licensed RNs who hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN) but want to progress into jobs as nurse practitioners or other advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) positions. Students who graduated from an accredited ADN program graduate in 16-30 months and can take advantage of fully online coursework. The program administrator will work with you to locate a suitable site for completing clinical hours. If you already work in a healthcare setting, you may be able to do them at that facility. Newly admitted learners complete a 12-week bridge course before selecting from a traditional MSN or concentrations in family nurse practitioner or nurse administrator.

Oregon Institute of Technology

Online B.S. in Radiology Completion Program

Radiologic technologists seeking career advancement might find OIT’s online B.S. in radiology completion program appealing. If you possess an associate degree and maintain good standing as a registered technologist, you’ll be eligible for an automatic transfer of 89 quarter credits. Depending on your prior coursework, you might be able to skip some general education requirements. While nearly all classes occur online, one or two radiologic science externships will require participation. Employment or access to a radiology laboratory is mandatory, as it serves as the location for both your externship and any clinical courses.

Concordia University Chicago

Online Bachelor’s in Kinesiology Degree Completion

Designed specifically for busy students, CUC’s online bachelor’s in kinesiology program can be finished in as few as 16 months depending on transfer credits. The school does not require any visits to the Chicago campus or in-person clinicals and emphasizes small class sizes with 20 or fewer students. Classes are taught in an accelerated format lasting usually five to eight weeks per class to help you graduate more quickly. Every degree seeker gets a tuition guarantee that costs will not increase while enrolled. The school also provides new classes starting every five weeks to ensure you don’t waste time waiting for the next semester to begin.

Transferring Your Credits: Questions to Ask

The last thing you want to do is retake a class you already passed at another school, making it important to ensure you have a thorough understanding of how credit transfer works. Because degree completion programs cater to a specific type of student, they usually have policies in place that make it easier to transfer credits. We look at some of the most common questions asked about this process below.

How many credits have I earned?

You can find out this information by requesting an official transcript from your previous institution. The longer you were in school initially, the more credits you will have already taken and, presumably, the fewer you will need to take at a new school. Make sure to ask about any possible expiration dates for those credits, as some institutions may have policies regarding credit validity. Remember that just because you earned a certain number at the last school you attended does not mean all of those will be accepted at a different institution.

How do I request an audit of my credits?

How many of the credits I’ve earned will be applied to the completion program?

What courses are still needed?

What if I think something I’ve taken isn’t being applied correctly?

How is my GPA calculated?

Paying for Online Degree Completion

CollegeBoard has consistently published data that shows the cost of higher education increases every year. Financial concerns may have led some students to leave school temporarily. Whether you took a break to save money or for other reasons, you’ve likely put considerable thought into funding an online degree completion program. If you’re returning after an absence of several years, you may even be experiencing some sticker shock over the price of tuition these days. The good news is that numerous financial aid opportunities are available, and some schools even offer funding specifically for returning learners. This can bring your actual cost much lower than the sticker price of your degree. In the following sections, we will discuss the costs and financing options for your degree in more detail.

How Much Does It Cost?

The cost of your degree completion program will depend on several variables. If you’re looking to cut costs there are several things you can do that help lower the final price tag, including finding an accelerated program, attending a transfer-friendly school, and managing living expenses.

The number of credits required to finish your degree will heavily impact cost, making it important that you ask how many credits will count toward your degree versus how many go toward electives. If your new school accepts 60 credit but only 10 go toward your degree, your program will cost a lot more.

Clinicals, labs, and other extra requirements can also influence cost as these require you to participate in unpaid work to gain experience and may limit your ability to work another paying job during that time. You may also need to buy additional items for these experiences, such as scrubs, lab materials, or professional tools.

Lastly, the type of school you attend greatly affects cost. CollegeBoard found average public in-state tuition was $10,940 in 2022-2023, while private schools cost an average of $39,400 during the same timeframe. Finding a public university in your state that offers your chosen program can save you thousands of dollars each semester.

How Will You Pay for a Degree Completion Program?

Contrary to what some may think, plenty of scholarships, grants, and other types of funding exist for degree completion programs. You may also qualify for financial aid, depending on your FAFSA results. We look at a few popular options for covering costs when you go back to school below.

Financial Aid

Just because you transfer schools does not mean you can’t continue receiving federal financial aid, although you will need to fill out a new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and confirm your eligibility. Factors such as defaulting on existing loans, low grades, or incarceration can all affect your eligibility, but most of these scenarios can be rectified. You may even qualify for more funding than before if you were a dependent of your parents at the time but now identify as self-supporting. There’s a lot to know about financial aid, so take your time getting to learn the rules.

Scholarships

eQuality Scholarship

Organization

eQuality Scholarship Collaborative

Amount

$6,000

Deadline

Varies

Eligibility

Students living in central or northern California can apply if pursuing a nursing or graduate health degree. They must also demonstrate their allyship with the LGBTQ+ population. Approximately half of the awards are given to non-traditional students.


How to Apply

Submit an application demonstrating enrollment in an accredited nursing or graduate health program and a 3.0 or higher GPA.

L. Sophia Fairchild Academic Scholarship

Organization

The University of North Texas

Amount

Varies

Deadline

March 1 (yearly)

Eligibility

Non-traditional students enrolled in programs such as health psychology, speech-language pathology, applied gerontology, or another health-related discipline can receive this award if they possess a 3.25 GPA or higher.


How to Apply

Students receive consideration for this award as part of their general application to the university.

Mary Fran Carroll Non-Traditional Student Scholarship

Organization

Catholic Community Foundation

Amount

$3,000

Deadline

March 1 (yearly)

Eligibility

Non-traditional students residing in Sarasota County, Florida an apply if they demonstrate financial need, possess a 3.2 or higher GPA, and have been out of high school for at least three years.


How to Apply

Students must submit an application, upload required documents, and show proof of acceptance to an accredited college program.

Non-Traditional Student Scholarship

Organization

American Legion Auxiliary

Amount

$2,000

Deadline

March 1 (yearly)

Eligibility

Active members of the American Legion, Auxiliary, or Sons of the American Legion can apply if they are pursuing a two- or four-year degree.


How to Apply

Individuals must fill out an online application, demonstrate evidence of being up-to-date on their dues, and write an essay on their educational plans.