Annette Velarde, 54, had worked for 30 years in business administration and financial management. She made a comfortable living as a mortgage broker for a major bank when the housing market and Wall Street meltdowns hit in fall of 2008. As she watched her industry crumble she knew her days were numbered at the bank. Being her family’s breadwinner Ms. Velarde was more than a little anxious about finding new employment. Why? Because she had never finished college.

“I had college credits from three different schools over 12 years,” says Ms. Velarde. “Washington State University, The University of Nevada—Reno, and Reno Community College, but I never did finish. As I started to look around for a new job I noticed more employers required college degrees. At that point I knew I had to go back yet again and finally complete my formal education.” Before she was forced out of the mortgage industry entirely she enrolled in Kaplan University as a distance learner and got the ball rolling on finishing her degree.

There are now 5.6 million students going to college online and the average age of those students is 34. Like Ms. Velarde, most go back to school because they feel they can increase their chances of finding a good job IF they complete a degree or garner a new one in a different field. But then the question comes up, what does a student major in if they simply want to become more competitive in the job market?

In this case, the student’s best bet is to go back to the roots of higher education and get a degree without a major. Yes, you heard that right. Originally, a Bachelor of Arts degree (BA) was awarded for completing undergraduate coursework in liberal arts, the sciences, or both. But then around the mid-twentieth century students started specializing by declaring a major and before you knew it the BA (or BS—Bachelor or Science) degree in specific subjects like math, sociology, or literature was born. As a result, the general education college degree faded into oblivion.

But now a handful of colleges that offer online degrees are bringing it back. For example, Kaplan University offers a four-year bachelors degree in Professional Studies. University of Phoenix offers a two-year Associate of Arts degree (AA) in General Studies, and Excelsior College offers a four-year Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Arts (BSL). Dr. Scott Dalrymple, Dean of Liberal Arts at Excelsior says that of the 30,000 students enrolled in distance learning programs at Excelsior, 8,000 are in the College of Liberal Arts and of those 90% opt for the BSL degree.

But why would that be when all online colleges offer the same majors as any brick-and-mortar school? “Our students come to us with a variety of college credits under their belts,” says Dr. Dalrymple. “We assess the college classes our students have already taken and unlike many universities give them credit toward their degrees without making them take the same classes over.” So even if a student had previously changed majors, the eclectic array of liberal arts class credits they’ve already accumulated could quickly add up to a BSL degree. That coupled with the “low residency” requirement of NOT having to take the last 30 credits of their classes at Excelsior keeps tuition costs down for students and allows them to complete a degree in less time.

The military is also a big factor when a student chooses a “major-less” general education degree. “Six thousand of our 8,000 liberal arts students are in the military,” says Dr. Dalrymple. “We assess their military training and if those classes pass our requirements we give our military students college credit for their training.” Plus, a soldier on the move can go to the same online college, no matter how many times he or she is transferred. Under the old model, it used to be that military personnel had to wait until after they were discharged to start college, but with distance learning and the availability of liberal arts general education studies our men and women in uniform are able to earn their college degrees while still serving. That way, when they finally do complete their military service, they arrive in the workforce ready to compete for good-paying, professional jobs.

Regardless of a person’s circumstances, general education degrees give students the freedom of self-exploration and “late blooming” while still in school and without committing to a major they can’t use later. “Originally, I wanted to finish college so I could continue working in the mortgage industry,” says Ms. Velarde. “But once I got my BS in Professional Studies from Kaplan, I realized I wanted to continue with my education and earn a PhD that would allow me to teach ethics online.” So for at least one student the “major-less” degree turned out to be a major turning point that led to a new, and more fulfilling, career. One can only assume that Ms. Velarde is not alone on this new frontier of online learning.

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