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Residency and Related Policies for Off-Campus Graduate Degree Programs

One of the traditional goals of universities has been to make graduate education accessible to the widest possible range of suitably prepared and motivated students, while maintaining the academic quality that gives advanced degrees their value. With the rapid changes in available instructional technologies, a considerable array of new and innovative approaches to graduate education has become feasible. As a result, it is appropriate to reconsider the meaning of "residency" and its applicability to graduate degree programs. In particular, there are important implications with respect to the offering of graduate degree programs via distance education and other nontraditional means. Our intent is to encourage creative ways of addressing student and community needs, while ensuring that such graduate degree programs maintain academic standards parallel to those of more traditional programs.


  1. "Off-campus courses" will be used in this document to refer to graduate courses that are offered remotely from the site responsible for the class via any suitable technologies.
  2. "Off-campus degree programs" will be used in this document to refer to graduate degree programs in which more than half of the course credits required for completion of the degree consists of off-campus courses, as defined above. (Note: such off-campus programs must receive approval from the Graduate Council Committee on Programs and Courses as described in the guidelines for submitting proposals for extended and off-campus graduate degree programs, available on the Graduate School’s web page that documents Graduate Faculty Policies, under the heading “Programs.”


"Residency" requirements previously have been met by a period of enrollment or the completion of a minimum number of credits that are administratively associated with a specific Penn State campus and that are fulfilled in residence. The essential elements of residency, particularly with respect to research degree programs, are:

  • interaction between faculty members and students above and beyond direct instruction (e.g., “journal clubs,” “coffee hour” discussion groups, hallway conversations, etc.)
  • interaction between peers (i.e., among students in a given program)
  • access to information and instructional resources (such as libraries, laboratories, and research facilities)
  • exposure to and socialization in the field of study, including but not limited to seminar series, workshops, research exhibitions, discussions with professional peers, informal departmental activities, and other shared experiences
  • ready access to suitable academic advising and support services
  • contribution of graduate students to the degree program, the college, and the University, particularly with respect to the research and scholarship of the institution as a research-intensive university
  • identification with Penn State

To fulfill all of these requirements, it is necessary that students be physically present on campus for at least part of their graduate studies. Therefore, the existing residency requirements for the research degrees offered by the University (Ph.D., M.A., and M.S.), as described in the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin, are appropriate and effective in meeting these objectives.

However, for professional master’s degree programs, it may not always be possible, desirable, or necessary to fulfill residency in the traditional manner. Availability of professional mentors and accessibility to unique facilities at students' work sites or other locales may, in some instances, confer special advantages in well-designed off-campus master’s degree programs. Nonetheless, the components of residency described above are important factors in the graduate experience. Consequently:

  1. Professional master’s degree programs that are not "off-campus degree programs" as defined above (i.e., those in which less than half of the course credits consist of off-campus courses) implicitly have a substantial involvement of the students with the campus responsible for the program, thus fulfilling the majority of the functions of residency. No further requirements are necessary.
  2. Professional master’s degree programs that fall under the definition of "off-campus degree programs" must incorporate as many of the essential elements of residency as possible, including faculty-student and student-student interaction, access to instructional and other resources, exposure to and socialization in the field of study, and suitable academic advising. When the master’s degree program is established, these components must be included. Their successful incorporation into the degree program must be demonstrated and documented to the Graduate Council Committee on Programs and Courses during the third year after inception of the program.
  3. Postbaccalaureate and graduate credit certificate programs need not require satisfaction of any residency requirements, but incorporation of elements that provide experiences typically provided by residency also may be appropriate for off-campus postbaccalaureate and graduate credit certificate programs.

Related Policies for Off-Campus Courses and Graduate Degree Programs:

  1. All 500- and 800-level courses, whether on- or off-campus and regardless of the delivery mode, must be delivered by members of the Graduate Faculty or individuals who have been preapproved to teach specific 800-level courses by the Dean of the Graduate School.
  2. New or revised off-campus degree programs delivered at a distance must be offered through existing departments, colleges, and/or intercollege programs at the University, and those units are to retain academic control over program definition and content.
  3. While all degree programs must be available to and advertised to all applicants, off-campus degree programs or courses delivered at a distance may be offered at specific company or other organizational sites, and instruction (e.g., case studies, problems, or class projects) may be tailored to particular groups of students. Off-campus delivery sites may restrict access at proprietary facilities to their employees or other approved participants. However, off-campus degree programs will not be created to serve a specific organization or client exclusively, and a “public” offering of every degree program must be made available. Off-campus postbaccalaureate or graduate credit certificate programs also must follow these policies where possible.
  4. All students enrolled in off-campus degree programs are to be advised throughout their studies, beginning with or prior to initial enrollment, by Graduate Faculty members who serve on the faculty of the relevant degree program.
  5. Admissions criteria for off-campus degree programs should be the same as those for traditional degree programs, and ideally should be handled by the same individuals or committees making the admissions decisions for the corresponding on-campus degree programs. Admission is not to be offered on a blanket basis (e.g., to all students who have completed a particular training or certificate program, or to all employees identified by a given company).
  6. Off-campus degree programs must have a specific program faculty director to act as a focal point for the program and to oversee its development and delivery. This individual must be a member of the Graduate Faculty in the department offering the program, and may be the program chair, department head, graduate program officer or coordinator, or any other suitable faculty member.
  7. Off-campus degree programs must meet the normal accreditation standards that are applicable to corresponding on-campus degree programs, where such accreditation related to the field exists.
  8. Credits completed in undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, or graduate credit certificate programs may not be used to satisfy residency requirements of a subsequent graduate degree, but if eligible by Graduate Council standards, may be counted towards degree requirements at the discretion of the graduate program.
  9. Consideration should be given to offering off-campus degree programs on a fixed-cycle basis or cohort model, with recognition of the limitations vs. benefits of this model.

Approved by Graduate Council, April 1997

Revised by Graduate Council, September 2013

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