Martin K. Smith lives in a town of about 550 people in Northeastern Nebraska. The nearest college, he says, is roughly 40 to 45 miles away.
So when the now-55-year-old military veteran wanted to come out of retirement and go back to school a few years ago, he turned to an online degree. Smith, who now works as an operations manager for two health care clinics, enrolled in the online bachelor’s degree program in human services at Purdue University Global. Following his May 2017 graduation, he then went to earn his master’s online from the school.
“I picked human services because I felt that was closely related to what I did in the military for nine years,” he says. He was also searching for a university that would accept his two associate degrees and other previously earned college credits.
The broadly defined field focuses on serving clients in various public outreach settings, preparing students for positions such as social workers, substance abuse counselors, child welfare specialists and probation officers, among many others.
“It’s a generalist degree, so they can graduate and move within social services and do different things,” says Julie Riley, academic department chair of Purdue Global’s human services department. “So they work in schools, they work in state agencies, they work as case managers, things like that.”
Some online students, many of whom are working adults, also go on to launch their own businesses, says Riley.
While a student’s specific goals can vary, a bachelor’s degree can be a good option for somebody first entering the field, whereas a master’s can help them attain leadership positions, experts say. Demand for human services employees varies depending on a student’s desired career path, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.
Here’s what prospective students should expect when enrolling in an online human services bachelor’s degree program.
Curriculum and Requirements. Online students at Purdue Global complete an interdisciplinary curriculum that covers human services as well as psychology, sociology, law and criminal justice, according to the school’s website. The program requires 180 quarter credit hours.
How long it takes students to complete an online bachelor’s in human services varies depending on whether they already have credits from their previous education, and how many. At the undergraduate level, students may also need to complete general education requirements in the arts, humanities and sciences if they haven’t already done so at another institution.
Meanwhile, at St. Joseph’s College in New York, which offers online bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the discipline, students can choose among a wide variety of electives, some of which examine topics like human sexuality in health and disease, alcoholism, event planning, grant writing and counseling.
Certain schools may also allow students to choose concentrations in an area of human services that satisfies their career goals. At Southern New Hampshire University, online undergraduates have options to focus on child and family services, gerontology or substance abuse.
Types of Coursework. Given the variety of classes students generally take in a human services curriculum, prospective students should expect all different types of assignments in an online undergraduate program.
In the online bachelor’s degree program at St. Joseph’s College, students complete coursework ranging from virtual presentations to case studies and research papers to exams, says Jo Anne Durovich, chair of the undergraduate human services department at the school. She has also assigned video projects where students role-play to get a better understanding of different situations they may face in the field.
“I’ll give them an actual summary of an actual client situation – a client walks into your office and is experiencing homelessness, or is having a medical emergency, et cetera,” Durovich says. “I ask them to kind of act that out. What would you do if this happened? They can record themselves – with someone else, or with an instructor, or they can do it with another student – handling a mock situation.”
As is common across disciplines, online undergraduate students often participate in discussion boards, where they answer the professor’s prompt and then respond to their classmates’ thoughts, drawing on previous work and life experience.
“They’re very eager to tell us about their stories because they want to hear how that plays into the learning and how they can actually utilize that going forward in landing that career that they’re seeking,” says Tina Bynum, program director for the College of Security Studies at the for-profit, online Colorado Technical University, which has an online bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in human services.
Durovich says the fact that a lot of coursework is completed in writing benefits students because human services professionals are increasingly working with clients in ways other than traditional face-to-face communications.
“They’re using work cellphones and texting with clients, they email clients, they use a lot of different kinds of electronic communication, so this actually supports them in some of those communications,” Durovich says.
Even online classes sometimes have group projects or assignments, where students must collaborate – even across different time zones – through email, phone conversations or videoconferencing.
Course Structure. Whether a program requires students to visit campus at any point varies – as does whether students need to attend classes through videoconferencing at specified times each week, experts say. Otherwise, online classes are often self-paced with weekly deadlines.
“Because it’s self-paced, you have to be disciplined to be able to dedicate enough time to do what’s asked of you,” Smith says.
In CTU’s live – or synchronous – class sessions, “students who are working in the field also will bring forward timely questions that they’re facing,” says Douglas Stein, the school’s vice provost.
At Purdue, many online students also volunteer at agencies in their home communities, though doing so isn’t required, Riley says. Students may also take part in internships locally as part of a 10-week course, she says.
Your Classmates. Prospective human services online bachelor’s degree students should expect their classmates to come from a variety of professional backgrounds. At St. Joseph’s, online undergraduates consist both of those who are already in human services roles and those looking to first enter the field, Durovich says.
“It’s a really diverse student body, actually, that comes in, and it works really nicely in the online classroom,” she says.
This overall variety allows students to learn from each other as well as from the instructor, experts say.
“I think they should expect to have a lot of interaction,” Durovich says, “and a lot of support.”