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Programs and Curriculum Policies

GCAC-213 Residency and Related Policies for Off-Campus Degree Programs

Purpose: to define residency and other requirements for graduate degrees classified as “off-campus degree programs.”

Academic Goal: to ensure the academic standards of traditional programs are maintained as graduate degree programs are offered via distance education and other nontraditional means.

Scope: all graduate 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.

“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. As a result, it is appropriate to reconsider the meaning of “residency” and its applicability to graduate degree programs.

In addition, there are important implications with respect to the offering of graduate degree programs via distance education and other nontraditional means. This policy also addresses those issues.

Overall, the intent of Graduate Council 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.



Extended Graduate Degree Programs: Programs that are extended from the University Park campus or other approved graduate center (Behrend College, Great Valley School of Graduate Professional Studies, Capital College, College of Medicine) to another University location.

Off-Campus Courses: Refers to graduate courses that are offered remotely from the site responsible for the class via any suitable technologies.

Off-Campus Degree Programs: Refers 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. Off-campus degree programs are offered at a non-University location (e.g., World Campus, corporate facility, school district, etc.), and include both programs delivered in a traditional face-to-face format and those delivered at a distance.

Policy Statement

  1. The essential elements of residency, particularly with respect to research degree programs, are:
    1. interaction between faculty members and students above and beyond direct instruction (e.g., “journal clubs,” “coffee hour” discussion groups, hallway conversations, etc.)
    2. interaction between peers (i.e., among students in a given program)
    3. access to information and instructional resources (such as libraries, laboratories, and research facilities)
    4. 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
    5. ready access to suitable academic advising and support services
    6. 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
    7. identification with Penn State
  2. To fulfill the residency requirements for a graduate degree, 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 GCAC-601 Residency Requirement - Research Doctorate,  and GCAC-631 Degree Requirements - Research Master's are appropriate and effective in meeting these objectives.
  3. 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.


  1. Off-campus programs must receive approval from the Graduate Council Committee on Programs and Courses. To determine whether a program change proposal is necessary, consider the following: delivery of any graduate (500- and 800-level) course to students at an off-campus location, either in face-to-face instruction or through distance delivery technologies, requires academic approval as noted below.
    • Up to three existing graduate courses may be offered to students at an off-campus location with approval from the chair of the Graduate Council Committee on Programs and Courses and the Dean of the Graduate School through an expedited process; see guidelines and request form for the Expedited Review Process for Limited Off-Site Course Offerings.
    • Approval to offer four existing graduate courses up to half of the course credits required for completion of the degree to students at an off-campus location requires submission of a program change proposal by the graduate program to offer a blended program.
    • Approval to offer more than half of the course credits required for completion of the degree to students at an off-campus location requires submission of a program change proposal by the graduate program to offer the degree program off-site.
  2. Expedited Review Process for Limited Off-Campus Course Offerings

    There are situations in which Penn State’s graduate degree-granting colleges or campuses (i.e., University Park, Penn State Great Valley, Penn State Harrisburg, Penn State Erie, Penn State College of Medicine) must move quickly to schedule courses off-site (i.e., either a Penn State location that is not a graduate center approved to offer a graduate degree, or a non-Penn State location). These situations may involve an invitation by a corporation to offer courses to employees at corporate headquarters or an unscheduled opportunity to offer courses at an undergraduate campus that does not offer a graduate degree.

    The following process is designed to enable graduate degree-granting programs to offer up to three existing graduate courses at a specific off-site location for specific semesters, while bypassing the full procedure of review by the Graduate Council Committee on Programs and Courses. This process is not a substitute for proposals involving more than three courses, new courses, or degree program delivery.


    1. No more than a total of three existing courses per graduate degree program may be submitted for approval by this expedited process. Requests for more than three existing courses must be submitted to the Graduate Council Committee on Programs and Courses.
    2. The courses to be delivered off campus must be previously approved, existing courses.
    3. The faculty members teaching the specified courses are members of the graduate faculty or have been preapproved to teach the courses by the Dean of the Graduate School.
    4. If courses at a specific location are successful and the campus/college decides to seek approval for additional offerings, existing procedures for proposing off-site graduate degree programs must be followed.
    5. Whether the courses offered would be accepted as graduate-level courses applicable toward a Penn State graduate degree would depend upon the criteria of the graduate program as defined by the graduate degree program and approved by Graduate Council.
    6. Registrants in these courses must have been admitted to the Graduate School as nondegree graduate students or as degree-seeking graduate students.


Checklist for Off-site/Online Program 3-Year Follow-up Reports

Expedited Review Process for Limited Off-Campus Course Offerings - Procedure

Fulfilling the Essential Elements of Residency in Off-Campus Graduate Degree Programs


Expedited Review Process for Limited Off-Campus Course Offerings - Form (PDF)

Revision History

Approved by Graduate Council, April 1997.
Revised by Graduate Council, September 2013.

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