Degrees by Subject
Home > Resources > General Information > Article
Online Degree Glossary

Online Degree Glossary

November 30, 1999

AACRAO: The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Academic Year: The period of formal academic instruction, usually from September or October to May or June. Divided into semesters, quarters, or trimesters.

Accreditation: Recognition of a school by an independent private organization. Not a governmental function in the U.S. There are more than 100 accrediting agencies, some recognized by the Department of Education and/or CHEA, and some unrecognized, some phony or fraudulent.

ACE: The American Council on Education, an influential non-government association in Washington.

ACT: American College Testing program, administrators of aptitude and achievement tests.

Adjunct Faculty: Part-time faculty member, often at a nontraditional school, often with a full-time teaching job elsewhere. More and more traditional schools are hiring adjunct faculty, because they don't have to pay them as much or provide health care and other benefits.

Advanced Placement: Admission to a school at a higher level than one would normally enter, because of getting credit for prior learning experience or passing advanced-placement exams.

Alma Mater: The school from which one has graduated, as in "My alma mater is Michigan State University."

Alternative: Offering an alternate, or different means of pursuing learning or degrees or both. Often used interchangeably with external or nontraditional.

Alumni: Graduates of a school, as in, "This school has some distinguished alumni." Technically for males only; females are alumnae. The singular is alumnus (male) or alumna (female), although none of these terms are in common use.

Alumni Association: A confederation of alumni and alumnae who have joined together to support their alma mater in various ways, generally by donating money.

Approved: In California, a level of state recognition of a school generally regarded as one step below accredited.

Arbitration: A means of settling disputes, as between a student and a school, in which one or more independent arbitrators or judges listen to both sides, and make a decision. A means of avoiding a courtroom trial. Many learning contracts have an arbitration clause. See binding arbitration; mediation.

Assistantship: A means of assisting students (usually graduate students) financially by offering them part-time academic employment, usually in the form of a teaching assistantship or a research assistantship.

Associate's Degree: A degree traditionally awarded by community or junior colleges after two years of residential study, or completion of 60 to 64 semester hours.

Asynchronous: not at the same time, as in an asynchronous on-line course, in which the faculty leaves messages for students, who read them later. Opposite of synchronous.

Auditing: Sitting in on a class without earning credit for that class.

Authorized: Until recently, a form of state recognition of schools in California. This category was phased out beginning in 1990, and now all schools must be approved or accredited to operate. Many formerly authorized schools are now billing themselves as candidates for approval.

Bachelor's Degree: Awarded in the U.S. after four years of full-time residential study (two to five years in other countries), or, typically, the earning of 120 to 128 semester units by any means.

Binding Arbitration: Arbitration in which both parties have agreed in advance that they will abide by the result and take no further legal action.

Branch Campus: A satellite facility, run by officers of the main campus of a college or university, at another location. Can range from a small office to a full-fledged university center.

Campus: The main facility of a college or university, usually comprising buildings, grounds, dormitories, cafeterias and dining halls, sports stadiums, etc. The campus of a nontraditional school may consist solely of offices.

CEU: Continuing Education Unit, typically given in training courses at the rate of one for each ten hours of contact time. While standards are maintained by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, the awarding of CEU's is not regulated, and they are rarely considered as equivalent to academic credit.

Chancellor: Often the highest official of a university. Also a new degree title, proposed by some schools to be a higher degree than the Doctorate, requiring three to five years of additional study.

CHEA: The Council on Higher Education Accreditation, successor to COPA and CORPA as the agency that recognizes accreditation agencies in the US.

CLEP: The College-Level Examination Program, a series of equivalency examinations given nationally each month.

Coeducational: Education of men and women on the same campus or in the same program. This is why female students are called coeds.

College: In the U.S., an institution offering programs leading to the Associate and/or Bachelor degree, and sometimes higher degrees. Often used interchangeably with university, although traditionally a university is a collection of colleges. In England and elsewhere, college may denote part of a university (Kings College, Cambridge) or a private high school (Eton College).

Colloquium: A gathering of scholars to discuss a given topic over a period of a few hours to a few days. ("The university is sponsoring a colloquium on marine biology.")

Community College: A two-year traditional school, offering programs leading to the Associate degree and, typically, many noncredit courses in arts, crafts, and vocational fields for community members not interested in a degree. Also called junior college.

Competency: The philosophy and practice of awarding credit or degrees based on learning skills, rather than time spent in courses.

Continuing Education Credit: see CEU

COPA: The Council on Post-secondary Accreditation, a now defunct private nongovernmental organization that recognized accrediting agencies.

CORPA: The Commission on Recognition of Post-secondary Accreditation, a nationwide nonprofit corporation, formed in 1994, that took over the role of COPA (see above) in evaluating accrediting agencies and awarding recognition to those found worthy, and then relinquished it to CHEA a couple of years later.

Correspondence Course: A course offered by mail and completed entirely by home study, often with one or two proctored, or supervised, examinations.

Course: A specific unit of instruction, such as a course in microeconomics, or a course in abnormal psychology. Residential courses last for one or more semesters or quarters; correspondence courses often have no rigid time requirements.

Cramming: Intensive preparation for an examination. Most testing agencies now admit that cramming can improve scores on exams.

Credit: A unit used to record courses taken. Each credit typically represents the number of hours spent in class each week. Hence a 3-credit or 3-unit course would commonly be a class that met three hours each week for one semester or quarter.

Curriculum: A program of courses to be taken in pursuit of a degree or other objective.

DANTES: The Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, which regulates financial aid programs for active military, and administers equivalency exams for military and civilians.

Degree: A title conferred by a school to show that a certain course of study has been completed.

Department of Education: In the U.S., the federal agency concerned with all domestic educational matters that are not handled by the departments of education in the 50 states. In other countries, similar functions are commonly the province of a ministry of education.

DETC: The Distance Education and Training Council (formerly the National Home Study Council) is the recognized accreditor for schools offering degrees and diplomas largely or entirely by distance learning.

Diploma: The certificate that shows that a certain course of study has been completed. Diplomas are awarded for completing a degree or other, shorter course of study.

Dissertation: The major research project normally required as part of the work for a Doctorate. Dissertations are expected to make a new and creative contribution to the field of study, or to demonstrate one's excellence in the field. See also thesis.

Doctorate: The highest degree one can earn (but see Chancellor). Includes Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Education (EdD.), and many other titles.

Dormitory: Student living quarters on residential campuses. May include dining halls and classrooms.

Early Decision: Making a decision on whether to admit a student sooner than decisions are usually made. Offered by some schools primarily as a service either to students applying to several schools, or those who are especially anxious to know the outcome of their application.

ECFMG: The Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which administers an examination to physicians who have gone to medical school outside the U.S. and wish to practice in the U.S.

Electives: Courses one does not have to take, but may elect to take as part of a degree program.

Essay Test: An examination in which the student writes narrative sentences as answers to questions, instead of the short answers required by a multiple-choice test. Also called a subjective test.

Equivalency Examination: An examination designed to demonstrate knowledge in a subject where the learning was acquired outside a traditional classroom. A person who learned nursing skills while working in a hospital, for instance, could take an equivalency exam to earn credit in, say, obstetrical nursing.

External: Away from the main campus or offices. An external degree may be earned by home study or at locations other than on the school's campus.

FAQ: frequently asked questions. Increasingly, on Internet and in print, information sources provide a list of FAQ's to assist "newbies" (newcomers) in learning more without having to bother people.

Fees: Money paid to a school for purposes other than academic tuition. Fees might pay for parking, library services, use of the gymnasium, binding of dissertations, etc.

Fellowship: A study grant, usually awarded to a graduate student, and usually requiring no work other than usual academic assignments (as contrasted with an assistantship).

Financial Aid: A catch-all term, including scholarships, loans, fellowships, assistantships, tuition reductions, etc. Many schools have a financial aid officer, whose job it is to deal with all funding questions and problems.

Fraternities: Men's fraternal and social organizations, often identified by Greek letters, such as Zeta Beta Tau. There are also professional and scholastic fraternities open to men and women, such as Beta Alpha Psi, the national fraternity for students of accounting.

Freshman: The name for the class in its first of four years of traditional study for a Bachelor's degree, and its individual members. ("She is a freshman, and thus is a member of the freshman class.")

Grade-point Average: The average score a student has made in all his or her classes, weighted by the number of credits or units for each class. Also called G.P.A.

Grades: Evaluative scores provided for each course, and often for individual examinations or papers written for that course. There are letter grades (usually A, B, C, D, F) and number grades (usually percentages from 0% to 100%), or on a scale of 0 to 3, 0 to 4, or 0 to 5. Some schools use a pass/fail system with no grades.

Graduate: One who has earned a degree from a school. Also, in the US, the programs offered beyond the Bachelor's level. ("He is a graduate of Yale University, and is now doing graduate work at Princeton.") In the U.K. and elsewhere, the word is postgraduate.

Graduate School: A school or a division of a university offering work at the Master's or doctoral degree level.

Graduate Student: One attending graduate school.

GRE: The Graduate Record Examination, which many traditional schools and a few nontraditional ones require for admission to graduate programs, and which can earn credit in some Bachelor's programs.

Honor Societies: Organizations for persons with a high grade point average or other evidence of outstanding performance. There are local societies on some campuses, and several national organizations, the most prestigious of which is called Phi Beta Kappa.

Honor System: A system in which students are trusted not to cheat on examinations, and to obey other rules, without proctors or others monitoring their behavior.

Honorary Doctorate: A nonacademic award, given regularly by more than 1,000 colleges and universities to honor distinguished scholars, celebrities, and donors of large sums of money. Holders of this award may, and often do, call themselves "Doctor."

Junior: The name for the class in its third year of a traditional four-year U.S. Bachelor's degree program, or any member of that class. ("She is a junior this year.")

Junior College: See community college.

Language Laboratory: A special room in which students can listen to foreign-language tapes over headphones, allowing many students to be learning different languages at different skill levels at the same time.

Learning Contract: A formal agreement between a student and a school, specifying independent work to be done by the student, and the amount of credit the school will award on successful completion of the work.

Lecture Class: A course in which a faculty member lectures to anywhere from a few dozen to many hundreds of students. Often lecture classes are followed by small group discussion sessions led by student assistants or junior faculty.

Liberal Arts: A term with many complex meanings, but generally referring to the nonscientific curriculum of a university: humanities, arts, social sciences, history, and so forth.

Liberal Education: Commonly taken to be the opposite of a specialized education; one in which students are required to take courses in a wide range of fields, as well as courses in their major.

Licensed: Holding a permit to operate. This can range from a difficult-to-obtain state school license to a simple local business license.

Life-Experience Portfolio: A comprehensive presentation listing and describing all learning experiences in a person's life, with appropriate documentation. The basic document used in assigning academic credit for life-experience learning.

LSAT: The Law School Admission Test, required by most U.S. law schools of all applicants.

Maintenance Costs: The expenses incurred while attending school, other than tuition and fees. Includes room and board (food), clothing, laundry, postage, travel, etc.

Major: The subject or academic department in which a student takes concentrated coursework, leading to a specialty. ("His major is in English literature; she is majoring in chemistry.")

Mentor: Faculty member assigned to supervise independent study work at a nontraditional school; comparable to adjunct faculty.

Minor: The secondary subject or academic department in which a student takes concentrated coursework. ("She has a major in art and a minor in biology.") Optional at most schools.

Modem: the device that lets you send and receive messages over a computer and a telephone line.

MCAT: The Medical College Admission Test, required by most U.S. medical schools of all applicants.

Multiple-Choice Test: An examination in which the student chooses the best of several alternative answers provided for each question; also called an objective test. ("The capital city of England is (a) Zurich, (b) Ostrogotz-Plakatz, (c) Tokyo, (d) none of the above.")

Multiversity: A university system with two or more separate campuses, each a major university in its own right, such as the University of California or the University of Wisconsin.

Narrative Transcript: A transcript issued by a nontraditional school in which, instead of simply listing the courses completed and grades received, there is a narrative description of the work done and the school's rationale for awarding credit for that work.

Nontraditional: Something done in other than the usual or traditional way. In education, refers to learning and degrees completed by methods other than spending many hours in classrooms and lecture halls.

Nonresident: (1) A means of instruction in which the student does not need to visit the school; all work is done by correspondence, telephone, or exchange of audiotapes or videotapes; (2) A person who does not meet residency requirements of a given school and, as a result, often has to pay a higher tuition or fees.

Objective Test: An examination in which questions requiring a very short answer are posed. It can be multiple choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank, etc. The questions are related to facts (thus objective) rather than to opinions (or subjective).

Online: Connected, via computer, to another party, whether the Internet, a school, or an individual.

On the Job: In the U.S., experience or training gained through employment, which may be converted to academic credit. In England, slang for having sex, which either confuses or amuses English people who read about "credit for on-the-job experience."

Open Admissions: An admissions policy in which everyone who applies is admitted, on the theory that the ones who are unable to do university work will drop out before long.

Out-of-State Student: One from a state other than that in which the school is located. Because most state colleges and universities have much higher tuition rates for out-of-state students, many people attempt to establish legal residence in the same state as their school.

Parallel Instruction: A method in which nonresident students do exactly the same work as residential students, during the same general time period, except they do it at home.

Pass/Fail Option: Instead of getting a letter or number grade in a course, the student may elect, at the start of the course, a pass/fail option in which the only grades are either "pass" or "fail." Some schools permit students to elect this option on one or two of their courses each semester.

PEP: Proficiency Examination Program, a series of equivalency exams given nationally every few months.

Phi Beta Kappa: A national honors society that recognizes students with outstanding grades.

Plan of Study: A detailed description of the program an applicant to a school plans to pursue. Many traditional schools ask for this as part of the admissions procedure. The plan of study should be designed to meet the objectives of the statement of purpose.

PONCI: The Program on Non-Collegiate Instruction; they evaluate educational training programs.

Portfolio: See life-experience portfolio.

Postgraduate: The British word for a person or a program more advanced than the Bachelor's level. "She is working on a postgraduate certificate." Equivalent to "graduate" in the U.S.

Prerequisites: Courses that must be taken before certain other courses may be taken. For instance, a course in algebra is often a prerequisite for a course in geometry.

Private School: A school that is privately owned, rather than operated by a governmental department.

Proctor: A person who supervises the taking of an examination to be certain there is no cheating, and that other rules are followed. Many nontraditional schools permit examinations that are not proctored.

Professional School: School in which one studies for the various professions, including medicine, dentistry, law, nursing, veterinary, optometry, ministry, etc.

PSAT: Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, given annually to high school juniors.

public school: In the U.S., a school operated by the government of a city, county, district, state, or the federal government. In England, a privately owned or run school.

Quarter: An academic term at a school on the "quarter system," in which the calendar year is divided into four equal quarters. New courses begin each quarter.

Quarter Hour: An amount of credit earned for each classroom hour spent in a given course during a given quarter. A course that meets four hours each week for a quarter would probably be worth four quarter hours, or quarter units.

Recognized: A term used by some schools to indicate approval from some other organization or governmental body. The term usually does not have a precise meaning, so it may mean different things in different places.

Registrar: The official at most colleges and universities who is responsible for maintaining student records and, in many cases, for verifying and validating applications for admission.

Rolling Admissions: A year-round admissions procedure. Many schools only admit students once or twice a year. A school with rolling admissions considers each application at the time it is received. Many nontraditional schools, especially ones with nonresident programs, have rolling admissions.

SAT: Scholastic Aptitude Test, one of the standard tests given to qualify for admission to colleges and universities.

Scholarship: A study grant, either in cash or in the form of tuition or fee reduction.

Score: Numerical rating of performance on a test. ("His score on the Graduate Record Exam was not so good.")

Semester: A school term, generally four to five months. Schools on the semester system usually have two semesters a year, with a shorter summer session.

Semester Hour: An amount of credit earned in a course representing one classroom hour per week for a semester. A class that meets three days a week for one hour, or one day a week for three hours, would be worth three semester hours, or semester units.

Seminar: A form of instruction combining independent research with meetings of small groups of students and a faculty member, generally to report on reading or research the students have done.

Senior: The fourth year of study of a four-year U.S. Bachelor's degree program, or a member of that class. ("Linnea is a senior this year, and is president of the senior class.")

Sophomore: The second year of study in a four-year U.S. Bachelor's degree program, or a member of that class.

Sorority: A women's social organization, often with its own living quarters on or near a campus, and usually identified with two or three Greek letters, such as Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Special Education: Education of the physically or mentally handicapped, or, often, of the gifted.

Special Student: A student who is not studying for a degree either because he or she is ineligible or does not wish the degree.

Statement of Purpose: A detailed description of the career the applicant intends to pursue after graduation. A statement of purpose is often requested as part of the admissions procedure at a university.

Subject: An area of study or learning covering a single topic, such as the subject of chemistry, or economics, or French literature.

Subjective Test: An examination in which the answers are in the form of narrative sentences or long or short essays, often expressing opinions rather than reporting facts.

Syllabus: A detailed description of a course of study, often including the books to be read, papers to be written, and examinations to be given.

Synchronous: at the same time. In a synchronous on-line or satellite course, the faculty and students can interact with one another. Opposite of asynchronous.

Thesis: The major piece of research that is completed by many Master's degree candidates. A thesis is expected to show a detailed knowledge of one's field and ability to do research and integrate knowledge of the field.

TOEFL: Test of English as a Foreign Language, required by many schools of persons for whom English is not the native language.

Traditional Education: Education at a residential school in which the Bachelor's degree is completed through four years of classroom study, the Master's in one or two years, and the Doctorate in three to five years.

Transcript: A certified copy of the student's academic record, showing courses taken, examinations passed, credits awarded, and grades or scores received.

Transfer Student: A student who has earned credit in one school, and then transfers to another school.

Trimester: A term consisting of one third of an academic year. A school on the trimester system has three equal trimesters each year.

Tuition: In the U.S., the money charged for formal instruction. In some schools, tuition is the only expense other than postage. In other schools, there may be fees as well as tuition. In England, tuition refers to the instruction or teaching at a school, such as the tuition offered in history.

Tuition Waiver: A form of financial assistance in which the school charges little or no tuition.

Tutor: See mentor. A tutor can also be a hired assistant who helps a student prepare for a given class or examination.

Undergraduate: Pertaining to the period of study from the end of high school to the earning of a Bachelor's degree; also to a person in such a course of study. ("Alexis is an undergraduate at Reed College, one of the leading undergraduate schools.")

University: An institution that usually comprises one or more undergraduate colleges, one or more graduate schools, and, often, one or more professional schools

USMLE: The U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, required of everyone who graduates from a non-U.S. medical school and wishes to be licensed in the U.S.