10 Types of Credentials You Can Earn Online

·7 min read

Pick the right credential.

When it comes to online learning, students should choose a credential that fulfills their goals while providing flexibility -- whether it's a single course certificate or a full degree. "There's such a wide range of offerings to them at economical prices that allow them to target their education specifically to their career plan," says Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois--Springfield. In fact, the nonprofit Credential Engine calculates more than 738,428 "unique credential programs" in the U.S., a number that Executive Director Scott Cheney expects to continue to rise. Here are 10 different credentials students can earn online.

MOOC verified certificates

Providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs -- virtual courses generally available at no charge to anybody worldwide with internet access -- have options for users to pay to earn certificates of completion that highlight specific skills. There's a broad spectrum of options in the MOOC world, meaning that students can earn verified certificates in areas from data science to library management and beyond. Costs of verified certificates usually start around $50 but vary up to around $300, typically. Earning a verified certificate involves ID validation via webcam, and students must pass a class by meeting exam and assignment requirements.

MOOC series certificates

Students considering paying for MOOCs can sign up for what popular MOOC providers edX and Coursera, which partner with colleges and universities to launch online courses, refer to as multicourse "XSeries" and "specializations," respectively. After completing multiple MOOCs and earning certificates for each, students build up to a final certificate highlighting mastery of job-related skills. Examples include edX's three-course Fundamentals of Neuroscience XSeries and Coursera's 10-course data science specialization.

MOOC-based degrees

Students in certain programs can complete portions of graduate degrees through MOOCs and then apply to pursue the full degree at a lower cost. Students may first audit MOOCs for free and decide whether to continue. Analysis from Class Central, a hub for MOOCs, listed 55 MOOC-based master's degrees in a May report. "The micro bachelor's degree and the micro master's degrees have continued to grow," Schroeder notes. Examples include a bachelor's degree in applied arts and sciences at the University of North Texas, launching on Coursera this fall at a cost of $330 per credit hour, and a Master of Science in computer science from Georgia Institute of Technology for about $7,000 total via Udacity, another MOOC provider.


Udacity offers "nanodegree" programs across a variety of tech-oriented subjects. Students select a subject area such as web development, pay about $400 a month and complete several projects to demonstrate skills and earn their credential. The Udacity website notes that nanodegrees typically take six to 12 months to complete, but that depends on specific program timelines and some students may be able to finish sooner. According to the Udacity website, nanodegree programs include insights from industry experts, mentor support, and career coaching and services. Udacity also partners with employers on custom enterprise programs. Clients listed on its website include AT&T, Google and other familiar names.

Digital badges

Some faculty incorporate digital badges into courses, whether MOOCs or for credit. These credentials, experts say, allow students to showcase certain milestones or skills they developed in online courses and post them on social media or online portfolios. EDUCAUSE, an IT-oriented educational nonprofit, describes digital badges as a "way to recognize microcredentials, units of study that focus on particular skills or competencies." Or, as Cheney of Credential Engine, puts it: "For us, a credential is anything that is intended to signal what a person knows or can do."

Coding boot camp certifications

Coding boot camps focus on developing job-specific skills over at least a few months -- unlike degrees, which generally take years and explore disciplines in their entirety. Many online coding boot camps offer both full-time and flexible options, the former more closely mimicking the face-to-face classroom experience and the latter allowing students to work at their own pace. According to Course Report, a website that tracks the industry, there are more than 500 coding boot camps to choose from globally between online and in-person models. Coding boot camps typically last six to 28 weeks, per Course Report, with the average being 14 weeks and the average total cost about $13,500.

Undergraduate and graduate certificates

Online certificates allow students to gain a specific skill or further knowledge in an area, experts say. That contrasts with online degrees, which are often broader in scope and take longer. Unlike traditional degree programs, which come with general education requirements, certificates are focused on one subject area, meaning these credentials can be earned in a much shorter time. Arizona State University, for example, offers more than 30 certificate programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels on a wide range of topics. At ASU Online, these programs feature a sequence of courses, typically made up of five to seven classes and ranging from 15 to 21 credit hours, well short of the 120 credit hours traditionally required for a bachelor's degree.

Undergraduate degrees

Before MOOCs, coding boot camps or various other online credentials, there was the online bachelor's degree, which remains popular today. Online education largely became the norm this spring as the novel coronavirus forced many campuses to close and pivot to remote instruction. "Much has shifted due to the pandemic. Institutions are quickly moving into or expanding their online courses," Traci Lepicki, an administrator in the Center on Education and Training for Employment at Ohio State University--Columbus, wrote in an email. She adds that many in higher ed are thinking of how to expand online offerings to meet demands for "affordable alternatives to face-to-face training." Nearly 15% of students were enrolled exclusively in online courses in fall 2016, according to a 2018 study by the Babson Survey Research Group.

Postbaccalaureate certificates

Graduates pursuing a career path who don't hold a related bachelor's degree might pursue a postbaccalaureate certificate online to obtain certification or fulfill grad school prerequisites. Such certificates can be a way to level up skills to join another field, such as an economics major making the jump to the teaching profession, for example. It's not uncommon to change career fields, notes Schroeder, pointing to U.S. Department of Labor data that indicates workers stay with an employer just over four years. "That means every four years, not only are employees changing jobs, but they're changing companies, they're going to a different employer," Schroeder says. "So the demands for retraining or upskilling ... to improve their skills and refine and sharpen their skills and knowledge is enormous."

Postsecondary degrees

Whether students want to pursue an associate degree or Ph.D., there are plenty of options online. Many reputable universities now offer online and blended, or partially online, programs across disciplines -- from the liberal arts to nursing to engineering. The quality of different online degree programs varies widely regardless of level, so students should research thoroughly beforehand, experts say, considering factors such as accreditation, flexibility, convenience and cost. "I would encourage everyone to get as much objective information as they possibly can," Cheney says. "There's going to be a lot of marketing of new opportunities, new credentials, new delivery methods that are better, faster, cheaper, more effective. And a lot of that is just going to be marketing."

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Credentials that can be earned online

-- MOOC verified certificates

-- MOOC series certificates

-- MOOC-based degrees

-- Nanodegrees

-- Digital badges

-- Coding boot camp certifications

-- Undergraduate and graduate certificates

-- Undergraduate degrees

-- Postbaccalaureate certificates

-- Postsecondary degrees

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