Online Learning

Becoming an online student: The adult learner’s ultimate guide

Becoming an Online Student 


When considering advancing your education, there’s a lot more that goes into the decision-making process than you’d initially expect – especially for adult learners who are undoubtedly juggling a host of other responsibilities.

It’s a process that’s plagued with questions: Can I afford it? Will it be worth the investment? Which type of learning is right for me? How do online classes work? Will I learn as much if I attend online? How do I know what school is right for me? What should I look for in a quality program?

We understand that committing to a new degree program can be an overwhelming process. But it helps to break it down into manageable steps along the way. We created this ultimate guide to becoming an online student, catered specifically for adult learners like you. Consider this your one-stop shop to get all your questions answered.

Begin exploring by choosing which step best describes your current objective:

  1. Commit to advancing your education
  2. Determine your ideal type of online program
  3. Familiarize yourself with the admissions process
  4. Evaluate final schools
  5. Consider UMass Global

STEP 1: Commit to advancing your education

For some, this first step is the easiest – but for others, it can actually be the most difficult. Making the initial commitment to go ahead with school is what will set everything else in your higher education journey into motion.

Before you can do that, however, there are a few boxes you’ll need to check to ensure now is the right time. It will help if you explore the following questions.


  • When determining whether you should enroll in a new degree program, it’s important to evaluate the various ways advancing your education could impact your life. While it might result in a more hectic schedule for the next few years, for example, there are some long-term advantages that can’t be ignored.

    The benefits of higher education are widespread. Consider the following:

    • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that with each level of education attainment, unemployment rates go down and median annual wages go up.
    • From September 2019 through August 2020, there were 10 million more job postings available to bachelor's degree holders compared to those with a high school diploma, according to a job market analysis. *
    • U.S. adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher have lower yearly mortality rates than their less educated peers in every age, gender and racial or ethnic subgroup of the population.
    • Self-reports of fair or poor health are five times higher among those without a degree.


    It’s clear the benefits of a college education are numerous, but if you’re still struggling with your decision to take the next step, you can evaluate further with our article, “Should I go back to school? 5 Questions to consider.”

  • Higher education is expensive, and the desire to stay away from student loan debt holds a lot of people back from advancing their education. In fact, it was found that cost is one of the leading reasons would be college students choose not to attend or opt out of attending their university of choice. So, you’re not alone in worrying about how you’re going to fund your education.

    As an adult student, you have financial responsibilities you’ll still need to account for alongside potential tuition payments, and that can feel daunting. But in addition to the extra expenses, adult learners are often privy to some supplemental resources that can make paying for college a bit more doable.

    Grants and loans are still available to non-traditional students, but you may also encounter some scholarship opportunities that are specific to adult learners. It’s also possible that you’ll have access to some additional financial assistance from your employer. 

    For more information about paying for college as an adult student, consider the resources outlined in our article, “The working professional’s guide to paying for college.”

  • One of the key things that makes adult learners different than traditional students is the fact that school is often just one of many responsibilities they’re juggling at once. It’s been found that 70 percent of college students work while in school – a figure that’s likely higher among adult learners. It’s also been revealed that approximately 19 percent of working students have children.

    The idea of balancing full-time work and potentially even childcare with the rigor of a degree program can seem like a tall task. If you have big responsibilities like this on your plate, you’re likely wondering if you’ll even have time left over to squeeze in any schoolwork.

    While it may not be easy, it is possible to manage if you follow a few key tips. Learn more about the ways you can make it work by visiting our article, “How to go back to school as a working professional.”

  • Online learning opportunities allow adults to balance the demands of a degree program with the demands of their busy lives. While the overall number of students enrolling in college has fallen in recent years, the number of those taking online courses continues to rise annually, reaching nearly 7 million in 2018.

    But in order to maximize the value of this flexible modality, there are a few traits you should have. The most successful online learners are those who know how to prioritize time management, can articulate themselves well through writing and can remain both motivated and confident as they pursue their studies remotely. Those who do well in the online learning environment are also unafraid to ask for help.

    To learn more about what it takes to thrive as an online student, check out our article, “6 Signs you’re ready to conquer the online classroom.”

  • While facts and figures can help determine a generalized return on investment (ROI) of getting a degree, the ways higher education can impact your own career trajectory can seem difficult to pin down. Whether you’re looking to climb the ladder or change careers entirely, an online degree can certainly hold the key to achieving your professional goals.

    Everyone’s path is different, but it can be helpful to review the experiences of successful online students who came before you. After all, one of the clearest signs that higher education – or a specific school or degree program – is accomplishing what it’s been designed to do is if graduates are experiencing the type of career advancement they aimed for in going back to school.

    For inspirational stories from UMass Global alumni who were once in your shoes, check out our article, “3 Inspiring professionals who prove a career change is possible.”


STEP 2: Determine your ideal type of online program

Online learning is becoming increasingly common, but if you haven’t experienced distance education for yourself, you may be wary of what it entails. Will the learning outcomes be as valuable as those offered by on-campus programs? Will the virtual classroom be an effective learning environment for you? What about other forms of online education, such as hybrid or self-paced learning?

Consider these questions as you begin to narrow down the most effective modality for your learning style and educational goals.


  • Some adult learners who are looking to drive their careers forward by advancing their education fear that online degrees may not be as well-respected by potential employers. But in fact, data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) indicates that an overwhelming majority of surveyed organizations regularly hire graduates of online programs.

    But not all online programs are equal. One important factor that signifies a quality distance learning program is that it’s accredited. Accreditation, an evaluation that’s conducted by a third party, effectively verifies that an institution or program meets certain criteria that are considered essential for providing students with a good education.

    Learn more about what standards to look for in an online program and 5 questions to ask when evaluating schools in our resource Are online degrees accredited? How to identify quality distance learning programs.

  • Traditional online programs are ones in which 100 percent of the learning takes place from a distance. Some programs may require students to participate in synchronous learning – meaning all students would need to log on at the same time – in addition to the flexible, asynchronous learning we’ve all come to expect from online programs.

    Dr. Jennifer Murphy, associate vice chancellor of instructional innovation at University of Massachusetts Global, notes that the technology incorporated into online learning platforms has grown increasingly easy for students to use. “If you are able to do basic things on the internet – Google searches, navigating through a website, sending email – online learning management systems will come pretty intuitively to you,” she says.

    Learn more about the online student experience before you commit to enrolling in remote learning by reviewing our article, “How do online classes work? What you can expect from the virtual classroom.”

  • The demographics of today’s college population are changing, and learning modalities have evolved to support the needs of these students. In response, many colleges and universities now offer hybrid class and programs, which are especially appealing for adult learners.

    All hybrid programs have one thing in common: they offer the unique opportunity to benefit from both in-classroom instruction and at-home learning. Exactly how each hybrid course is formatted, however, may vary depending on the institution – and sometimes depending on the student.

    At a school like University of Massachusetts Global, students can enroll in undergraduate, graduate, credential and certificate programs either completely online or in a hybrid format with in-person classes held at 25+ campuses across California and Washington. On-campus classes in these hybrid programs are held in the evenings to accommodate the busy schedules of working students.

    To get a better idea of the details of this blended learning format, visit our article, “What is a hybrid class? Exploring this increasingly popular college learning modality.”

  • Adult students are attracted to the flexible nature of both online and hybrid classes, but self-paced learning takes it to the next level. Competency-based learning models were created to help free busy students from the restrictions common among time-based systems that award credits based on a set number of hours.

    Competency-based education (CBE), on the other hand, takes into account that some students may master certain subjects faster than others. Those same students could potentially benefit from some extra time spent on a different subject. Self-paced learning programs like this allow students to work through the material as quickly or slowly as needed.

    The benefits of CBE for adult learners are numerous, from the flexible and customizable nature of the programs to the subscription-based tuition model and even having an advantage based on prior work experience.

    Discover more about the ins and outs of competency-based learning by reading our article, “Self-paced learning: what to expect from a CBE program.”


  • With all the different types of online programs available to students today, an undergraduate and/or post-graduate education has become more accessible than ever before. Adult learners can earn their degrees without stepping foot on campus or committing to a rigid schedule. They could even finish college for a fraction of the price they would have paid by attending a traditional university program.

    But with so many options available, it can actually become more difficult to determine which type of program is the best fit for you. Even if the convenience of completing your studies at home is what most appeals to you, it’s no longer as simple as deciding to enroll in an online program.

    If you’re curious to learn which type of online program may be the right fit for you, take our 10-question quiz to see where you’d thrive most: What type of online learner are you?


STEP 3: Familiarize yourself with the admissions process

Once you’ve made the decision to go ahead with online learning, it’s time to gather everything you’ll need for the admissions process. But if you’ve been out of school for a while, you may feel a little mystified about the ins and outs of applying to a new program.

As you begin to get organized, it’ll be helpful to review the following information about the college admissions process.


  • Some people hold a general misconception that online programs are easier to gain acceptance to than traditional on-campus ones. But according to the data, acceptance rates for both types of programs differ by just a couple percentage points.

    In the same way that high quality online programs provide educational outcomes that are equivalent to those of traditional programs, the admissions processes remain fairly similar. The most notable difference, however, is that online programs will often have rolling admissions, rather than the strict college admissions deadlines utilized for most traditional on-campus offerings. This means that applicants are reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis and receive a decision from the college immediately after the evaluation is complete.

    It’s also true that online programs designed for working adults may be less likely to require ACT or SAT test scores. In fact, a record number of higher education institutions began adopting test-optional admissions models for online and on-campus programs in the wake of COVID-19.

    For answers to your questions about bachelor's-level admissions standards check out our resource FAQs about undergraduate admissions requirements for online programs.

    For specific requirements for University of Massachusetts Global programs, visit our Undergraduate Admissions page.

  • The admissions process for online graduate programs can become a bit more nuanced. When it comes to post-baccalaureate degrees, the requirements to apply are very much determined by the specific field of study, program or even school.

    Some universities require GRE scores for certain programs and not for others, for example. Certain subjects may even require a set amount of prior work experience before you can qualify for admission.

    If you’re scoping out online master’s programs, the best course of action would be to learn more about the specific requirements for the schools and/or programs you’re looking at.

    For details on common questions about the process check out our resource Answering 8 common questions about grad school requirements

    Get started with University of Massachusetts Global by exploring our master’s or doctoral degree program requirements on the Graduate Admissions page.

  • There are some benefits to having more experience under your belt when enrolling in an online program. You’ve likely gained a range of skills and experience that can make your higher education journey a bit easier.

    In some cases, you can even get actual college credit for your past experience. Not only could this potentially make your degree more affordable, but it may also help you complete your studies faster.  Whether you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in your career field or you’ve dedicated some time to military service, it’s worth looking into whether you can utilize your existing expertise toward your degree.

    See if your background aligns with any of the options that can help cut time and costs by reading our article 4 Ways transfer students can get college credits for prior experience

    Learn more about the ways UMass Global students can shorten their path to graduation by visiting our Transfer Center.

STEP 4: Evaluate final schools

Now that you know the learning outcomes of online degree programs are in keeping with those of traditional on-campus ones, you’re starting to feel confident that you’re ready to become an online student. That said, it’s important to note that all online programs are not necessarily created equally.

As you continue to narrow your list of potential schools and programs, you’ll want to be sure you have a solid grasp on the criteria you should be searching for. Exploring the answers to the following three questions can help.


  • The higher education industry has recognized that more and more students are becoming interested in online learning. That’s why colleges and universities across the nation have been investing more into those offerings.

    With the prevalence of online programs increasing so rapidly, it can be hard to separate the good from the bad. Once you know what to look for, however, you’ll be able to narrow your list in no time.

    Homing in on things like accreditation and national/regional rankings may seem like an obvious first step. But you can take it further by looking into things like graduation rates, student loan default metrics and even student support services to get a better idea of the type of education and experience you’d be in for at a particular school.

    For more information about what to look for, refer to our article, “4 Things the best online programs have in common.”

  • As you narrow your list of final contenders, there are a number of evaluation factors you’ll want to take into account. You’ll begin having conversations with enrollment representatives to gather the data you’ll need to compare schools.

    When navigating those discussions, be sure to ask some questions that can help you get a better idea of what each school has to offer its adult students. Learning more about transfer policies, student outcomes, faculty qualifications and support resources will help guide your decision.

    To review the questions you should ask in greater depth, head over to our article, “The adult learner’s guide to choosing a college.” There’s even an accompanying worksheet you can use to compare different schools.


STEP 5: Consider University of Massachusetts Global

Ultimately, the best way to ensure you choose an online program that will meet the needs unique to busy adult learners is to go with a school that designed its online offerings with students exactly like you in mind.

University of Massachusetts Global is a regionally accredited, private, nonprofit university specifically designed for working adults who want to improve their careers through education. Each year, more than 13,000 students benefit from our flexible learning formats, relevant curricula and range of student services and resources. Explore below to determine if you can envision yourself as a part of this learning community.


  • You can learn a lot from accomplished graduates who were once in your shoes. As you evaluate online programs at University of Massachusetts Global, explore just a few of the many success stories of our alumni. Just like you, these working adults were in search of a program that would fit into their busy lives and they found their perfect fit here.

    Hear their firsthand advice in our article, “Why I chose University of Massachusetts Global: 5 Students share their stories.”

  • The online programs at UMass Global were designed to help busy working adults achieve their educational goals. Enrolling in one of these programs means joining a community of learners who are share the common goal of earning a degree while juggling other responsibilities. Students feel at home because many share similar circumstances, challenges and successes.

    Find out if it’s the right fit for you in our article, “8 Signs you belong at UMass Global.”

Learn more about University of Massachusetts Global’s student-centric philosophy and proven results today.


*Source: (analysis of U.S. job postings from Sep. 01, 2019 – Aug. 31, 2020)

Become a Student

Have questions about enrollment, degree programs, financial aid, or next steps?

Further your education with a few questions

Student Type
Please enter your zip code to proceed.
Please enter a valid zip code to proceed.
Please select a degree type
Please select your area of interest
Please select a program type
Please select a session
Have you served in the U.S. Military or are you a Military Dependant?
Please enter your name
Please enter your last name
Please enter your email to proceed
Please enter a valid email address
Please enter your phone number to proceed.
Please enter a valid phone number.

UMass Global is partnered with hundreds of employers like yours—learn if you’re eligible for tuition discounts by providing your work email address.

Please enter a valid work email address
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

About UMass Global

Earn your bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or certificate at UMass Global, a regionally accredited university.

We value your privacy

By submitting this form, I agree that UMass Global and/or Kaplan North America, LLC may contact me about educational services by voice, pre-recorded message and/or text message using automated technology, at the phone number provided, including wireless numbers. I understand that my consent is not required to attend University of Massachusetts Global. Privacy Policy