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The Graduate College Handbook

for students, faculty and staff – August 2017

Chapter 5: Policy for the Off-Campus/Online Delivery of Graduate Degree or Certificate Programs

A. Introduction

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has traditionally sought to extend its graduate-level instruction mission to include the continuing education needs of citizens throughout the State of Illinois. In particular, the Urbana campus has placed a high priority upon meeting the continuing education needs of professionals such as teachers, social workers, engineers, and farmers as they strive to improve their skills and broaden their perspectives related to their own professional practice. The national and international role of the campus has also created opportunities where it is appropriate to extend graduate-level instruction beyond Illinois.

The Graduate College seeks to support units in their efforts to expand and improve off-campus/online educational opportunities and to encourage greater participation by academic units in the lifelong education of nontraditional students, particularly as it relates to continuing professional education. Graduate College policy allows students to satisfy their graduate residence requirement either through courses meeting on the Urbana campus, online, or through courses that are offered by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but meet off-campus. All courses must be approved before they can be offered. See Developing Courses and Programs for the graduate course approval policy and procedure.

While Graduate College policy has expanded access to graduate education at Urbana-Champaign, it is also clear that high quality graduate programs often involve more than required courses. Graduate programs often include an independent experience, whether it be professional or research, that challenges the student to examine a topic in detail and draw a unique conclusion. In addition, programs must also involve such elements as a capable and accessible faculty, motivated students, a strong curriculum, competent academic advisement, appropriate and accessible academic facilities, and skilled program administration. Attention to these elements is particularly important in the case of off-campus/online graduate programs because learners may not have as many synchronous interactions with their classmates or the rest of the campus community during their program, as a student residing on campus.

In this regard, the Graduate College has a particular responsibility to make clear its expectations regarding the design and conduct of off-campus/online graduate degree and certificate programs and to assist academic units to develop programs that meet these expectations.

It is the position of the Graduate College Dean and Executive Committee that the quality of off-campus/online graduate degree and certificate programs could be further enhanced if the Graduate College were to review the plans of academic units to offer such programs prior to program implementation. The process would allow the Graduate College, through its staff and committee resources, to share its experience and insight regarding graduate education in the process of program development.

By upholding these standards, the Graduate College hopes to be an active and involved partner in the design and implementation of off-campus and online graduate degree and certificate programs. By working collaboratively with colleges and academic units, the Graduate College hopes to assist in addressing both the unique problems and opportunities associated with off-campus/online graduate education.

B. Definition

Graduate degree and certificate programs delivered off-campus/online are those in which more than one-half of the graduate hours required for the degree or certificate completion are offered either online to students at a distance or at off-campus sites.

Certificate programs are defined as a series of graduate-level courses designed to further the professional development of specific groups. Completion of a certificate does not lead to a degree nor is it noted on the transcript, with the exception of the Certificate of Advanced Study (C.A.S.). Because of this, credit earned while enrolled in a certificate program (except of a C.A.S.) may be applied toward a degree according to Graduate College transfer policies.  Transcripted certificate programs, such as the C.A.S., follow standard campus policies for creation of a new degree program.

C. Authorizations

Authority is vested in the Graduate College for approval of post-baccalaureate (graduate-level) degree and certificate programs.

Graduate programs determine whether or not on-campus graduate students may enroll in the courses they offer online.

All programs offered online and off-campus must be reported to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. However additional reports, reviews and approvals may be necessary depending upon the type of program and the location/mode of delivery as follows:

  1. Certificates:
    New credit-bearing certificate programs where more than 50% of the coursework is not associated with an existing previously approved degree program will require review and approval by the Higher Learning Commission.
    Certificates offered off-campus/online will require reporting to the Higher Learning Commission.
  2. Degree Programs:
    Any off-campus site-based degree program will require review and approval by the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Higher Learning Commission prior to enrolling any students. The Office of the Provost will oversee the submission of proposals and reporting of approvals at all levels above the Graduate College.
  3. Off-site:
    Any new site outside of Illinois where five or more courses are offered must be approved by the Higher Learning Commission.  All new sites outside of Illinois must comply with any local or state regulations for delivery of educational programs.
  4. Online:
    All Title IV-eligible degree or certificate programs where 50% or more of the coursework is delivered online or through another means of distance education must be approved in advance by the Higher Learning Commission.

D. Approval of Off-Campus/Online Graduate Certificate and Degree Programs

Graduate degree programs must go through an extensive approval process to be offered on campus. This discussion pertains to the process of approving a certificate program or an existing graduate degree program for delivery off-campus/online.

Graduate degree and certificate programs offered off-campus/online must be approved by the following units:

  • The department, and school, if applicable;
  • the academic college;
  • the Office of International Programs and Studies (if instruction will take place outside the U.S.) to secure needed campus and University approvals, and;
  • the Graduate College

Approval for all program proposals is communicated by signatures on the Clearances sheet, which should be submitted with the proposal. Some proposals may need additional reviews.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Higher Learning Commission (the organization that accredits the campus) have complex rules controlling the offering of courses, certificate, and degree programs off-campus or online.  In some cases, the approvals required before any students matriculate in the new program may take as much as a year.  Please consult the web site to see what type of approvals may be necessary. 

E. Items to be Addressed in Off-Campus/Online Graduate Degree or Certificate Program Proposals

Proposals must provide details addressing each of the following topics. These responses are intended to validate the expectations of the Graduate College concerning the design and implementation of high quality off-campus/online graduate degree or certificate programs. Units must use the Template to Develop a Proposal for Offering a Graduate Degree or Certificate Off-Campus/Online, and an accompanying form is provided.

  1. Program Identification:
    Describe the specifics of the program to be offered off-campus/online.
  2. Program Purpose:
    An academic unit proposing off-campus/online delivery of a degree or certificate program must clearly state the purposes it intends to serve and the goals that it hopes to achieve through such a program. In particular, how does the program contribute to the unit's teaching, research, and service missions?

    In addition, the decision to offer an off-campus/online degree or certificate program must be based upon a thorough and systematic assessment of program need. The needs and how they were assessed must be documented. Based on the needs and the unit resources, what are the projected program enrollments for startup and future sustainability?

  3. Relationship to Existing Programs:
    How will this new cohort of students be similar to or different from the existing on-campus cohort with regard to the department, the curriculum and the employment sector? How will the new and existing programs benefit or hinder each other?
  4. Faculty:
    Faculty members involved in an off-campus/online graduate degree or certificate program should ordinarily be members of the Urbana-Champaign faculty or in the case of multi-institutional programs, faculty at that institution. Exceptions to this rule are often made, including the use of adjunct faculty, but should be allowed only by reason of a person's ability to make a unique contribution to the program because he or she possesses professional skills, experiences, or perspectives that are not represented or not available within the academic unit's own graduate faculty.
  5. Student Admission:
    The quality of a graduate degree or certificate program is directly related to the quality of the students. A graduate program should therefore endeavor to select and admit applicants who show the greatest academic or leadership potential.

    Graduate College minimum admission requirements are the same for off-campus/online students as they are for their on-campus counterparts (minimum GPA and an earned bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution). However, departments may require different application materials of on campus, online and off-campus students if they desire, in order to assess each of those groups for admission purposes. Nevertheless, the overall quality required of an applicant to be admitted must be similar across the programs. In the case of programs admitting international students, the Graduate and Professional Admissions unit should be consulted regarding appropriate admission policies and procedures for those applicants prior to promoting the program.

    The program should also consider the maximum number of admissions per year that can be allowed in the online or off-campus cohort and whether students are admitted as non-degree or degree seeking. Whatever the academic unit's admission criteria, they must be well defined and articulated before seeking approval for an off-campus/online degree or certificate program.

  6. Curriculum:
    The requirements for the degree must be the same as the approved on-campus program.

    Academic units proposing an off-campus/online degree or certificate program should include a list of courses that may be offered online or off-campus as part of that program. In most cases, the online or off-campus program will not provide the same variety of courses available to students enrolled in the similar program on-campus. However the courses offered must allow the student to be able to complete the program as approved. Thus required courses and adequate electives must be offered using an equivalent mode of distance delivery and in a time period to allow for completion within the Graduate College time limit policies (Master's and Doctoral). 

  7. Advising:
    Academic advising is a fundamental dimension of any graduate degree program. Due to the unique nature of these programs, students enrolled in off-campus/online programs must be assigned an adviser at the time of admission and must be provided with the regular opportunity to communicate with their advisers to discuss not only choice of course enrollment and satisfaction of degree requirements, but other intellectual and professional concerns as well. In addition, Graduate College policy describes the requirements of advisers for master’s students completing a thesis. A method must exist to assist students with particular academic or professional interests to be linked with faculty members with similar interests. This opportunity is essential for both on-campus and off-campus/online students. Provisions must also be made for the continuous monitoring of student progress and the maintenance of appropriate academic records for that purpose.

    In addition, Graduate College policy requires annual reviews of the academic progress of all degree-seeking graduate students, including those enrolled in off-campus/online degree programs. See the policy for Graduate Student Annual Academic Progress Reviews for details. 

  8. Academic Support:
    Off-campus/online graduate study requires the availability of adequate academic support which might include computer technologies and software, or classrooms or laboratories which are well-equipped and up to the standards required for graduate study. Library resources should contain the necessary books and periodicals and be accessible at times convenient for nontraditional students. Access to needed computer hardware, software and technical assistance should be assured.
  9. Program Administration:
    The program must be under the direct and continuous supervision of the academic unit(s) sponsoring the program. The responsibility for the oversight, especially with respect to the academic issues related to an online or off-campus degree or certificate program must be assigned to faculty within the academic unit that is offering the program. The academic unit's program administrator should work cooperatively with other involved administrative and academic units to ensure that the following issues are adequately addressed:
    • That the academic unit ensures, prior to enrollment, that students are fully and accurately informed about the purpose of the program, objectives, admission requirements, program requirements, degree awarded, cost, academic and financial policies, timelines, and the services to be provided or not provided.
    • That adequate communication channels exist between students and faculty, between students and the academic unit.
    • That courses will be scheduled far enough in advance to assure that students have adequate time to plan their schedules.
    • That steps will be taken to ensure that the faculty understands the purpose of the program, the characteristics of the students, and the nature of the off-campus/online teaching/learning setting.
    • That if non-Urbana-Champaign faculty is utilized, the academic units have a mechanism to ensure consistency in course content and academic standards.
    • That program planning involves those academic units who may necessarily have to contribute to the program. (For example: Education Policy, Organization and Leadership and Educational Psychology in the College of Education degrees, because their foundations courses are required.)
    • That the funding is adequate to ensure a quality program.
    • That all necessary approvals from governmental bodies will be obtained prior to offering the program.
    • That if professional accreditation is needed for entry into the field, as specified in the objectives of the program, this need has been addressed.
    • That in the case of discontinuation of the program, all obligations to current students be fulfilled, including the opportunity to fulfill their degree requirements within the regular mode of offering.
    • That in the case of contractual programs, the arrangement is consistent with State of Illinois guidelines for contract credit programs and the contract specifies that the University controls the program, consistent with its academic policies, requirements, and procedures.
    • That in the case of international programs, the program is consistent with the "Principles of Good Practice in Overseas International Education Programs for Non-US Nationals" subscribed to by the regional accrediting associations.
  10. Resource Implications:
    The program must have thoroughly investigated the long-term budget and resource implications of starting an online or off-campus program. The program must be sustainable both in terms of unit budget and staffing of faculty and administrators. Account for potential program growth in this section. If special tuition or tuition arrangements are desired, these require additional campus approvals. These approvals must be obtained before a program may be implemented.
  11. Program Evaluation:
    Units must describe the process for evaluation of the program in addition to the periodic program review conducted by the Graduate College. The evaluation should include review of the curricula, student satisfaction, faculty and program resources. Departments are encouraged to require evaluation of all their off-campus/online offerings.
  12. Clearances:
    A Clearance sheet documenting the approval date and appropriate signature from each participating academic unit must accompany each proposal.


May 6, 1980
Revised October 1984; November 1994
Updated August 2002
Revised December 2012

Revised May 2016