If you are like many online college students, you’re not taking courses solely for personal growth. Instead, you’re seeking a degree that will allow you to start a new career or advance in your current career. You want to know that all of your hard work is worthwhile and that you are making progress toward earning that degree. Today’s online college programs measure progress toward a degree in a couple of different ways, like counting semester hours or basing degree requirements on professional competency.

Semester Hours

Historically, online colleges have followed the same route as traditional colleges and measured progress toward an associate’s, bachelor’s or advanced degree in terms of semester hours or credit hours. Semester hours or credit hours are simply units of measurement. Traditional college classes are usually between three and five credit hours. Typically, credit hours are determined by how many hours per week you will have to spend in class. Laboratory courses often count for an additional credit hour compared to lecture-only courses. The typical bachelor’s degree requires approximately 120 semester hours of study, which translates to four years of full-time study.

Competency-Based Curriculum

While semester hours or credit hours have traditionally been the way colleges – both online and brick-and-mortar – have measured academic progress toward a degree, it’s not the only way modern colleges do so. Now many online college programs are starting to use what is called a competency-based program, in which the academic institution weighs skills and experience over simply hours spent in the classroom.

Competency-based degree programs are good news for students who are going back to school or going to school for the first time with professional experience already under their belts. These students can achieve progress toward their degree based on the skills they have already developed by testing out of lessons, making the quest to earn a degree less time-consuming, according to The Business Journals. When students have to take fewer courses, they can save money, too, which makes the cost of earning a degree more affordable.

Even for students who don’t yet have professional experience in their intended field of study, competency-based online degree programs can be beneficial. A new program from the College for America, which will offer a $10,000 bachelor’s degree program to student who work for certain employers, is a case in point. Students will be evaluated based on projects that approximate real-world job duties, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported. As opposed to a traditional semester hour system of measurement, where students can do just enough work to pass their classes but may not truly become competent in their field of study, students of competency-based programs get credit for developing the skills they will need in their careers.

For some students, how an online college measures progress can be an important factor in their choice of schools. All online students should find out how their intended school measures progress and what is expected of them to earn their degree.