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What Are External Degree Programs?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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External degree programs allow students to pursue college degrees without being physically present on campus. Also called remote or distance learning, this provides opportunities for people who want to access higher education but cannot attend classes in person. There are a number of options available including remote classes, independent study work, and classes offered at other institutions that are accepted for transfer credit. Students in an external degree program need to meet certain standards to graduate, and these can vary by institution.

The earliest programs of this nature were located in England, and the concept spread to other regions, allowing people to attend colleges and universities without being in class. Some operated through correspondence courses, where students completed modules and sent materials in to an adviser or instructor. Others encouraged independent study followed by an examination to test knowledge, which could be proctored in the student’s hometown. Both options are still available at some external degree programs today.

Other options for external degree programs can include online classes, which may include downloadable lectures and message boards as well as real-time interactions with students, and coursework at partner institutions. People in an external degree program can attend classes at a local campus or extension service instead of the main campus to earn credits to apply towards graduation. Schools may offer a mixture of options as well, to meet differing student needs.

Colleges set specific standards for external degree programs, especially if they want to retain accreditation. The program may need to meet criteria set by regulatory agencies in order to qualify the school for accreditation, including a set number of hours of coursework and study in specific subject areas to ensure that graduates are well-rounded. Graduates of such programs may receive a degree from the institution without any special note, or the documentation could indicate that it was earned through the distance learning program.

Alternative education can be useful for nontraditional students like older adults, single parents, and people in prison. These students may not be able to relocate for college or could have trouble traveling to a campus to take courses. External degree programs may help them earn a degree which may open up more job opportunities or create more possibility for advancement in an existing job. It can also be useful for continuing education in a career where this is expected or required to remain current with developments in the field.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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