When University of Pennsylvania faculty and administrators conceived of the online Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences (BAAS), they set out to create a new kind of Ivy League undergraduate education from the ground up, one optimized for today’s adult and nontraditional students. As the first fully online undergraduate degree in the Ivy League, the BAAS brings Penn courses out of the classroom to computers and mobile devices everywhere, no commute necessary. Most courses are offered without set meeting times, so students can fit their coursework into their already busy lives. The program’s curriculum and academic policies are just as innovative as its delivery model. Together, they make the strength of a Penn education attainable and relevant to working adults with a wide range of educational backgrounds and goals.
The BAAS curriculum includes more than 20 professionally applicable subjects from across the University that were selected based on student demand. To create this applied liberal arts degree, Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies (LPS) conducted extensive research and asked hundreds of prospective adult students and hundreds of employers about the most important skills for career success. Both groups identified the same key strengths, such as leadership, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and collaboration. These skills are ingrained in the design of every Penn LPS Online course, whether it is in data analytics, English literature, neuroscience, or organizational anthropology.
BAAS students can follow vastly different pathways to and through the program, and yet all emerge with highly marketable skills and having met the same University of Pennsylvania standards of academic excellence. That’s because the requirements for the degree balance structure and flexibility and give students a platform to demonstrate their knowledge, showcase their best work, and unpack how their time at Penn strengthened them as professionals.
An overview of the degree requirements
To graduate, BAAS students need 30 course units (c.u.), which are equivalent to 120 semester hours of credit. When academic credit is awarded for courses taken at other institutions, typically courses worth 3, 4, or 5 semester hours or 5 quarter hours are awarded 1 c.u. Within the 30 c.u. requirement, students select courses in foundation, concentration, and elective areas. To guide their choices, BAAS students have access to an academic advisor who can help them build a strategic degree path based on their personal and professional interests.
During their time in the BAAS program, students visit Penn’s campus for two on-campus learning experiences of their choosing to learn from instructors and peers face-to-face. One way that students can meet this degree requirement is by enrolling in a hybrid course. The hybrid sections of online courses meet entirely online except for one intensive session on Penn’s campus, scheduled over a weekend (Saturday–Sunday). The intensive weekend includes class meetings and opportunities to meet with faculty, participate in advising sessions, attend evening activities, and connect with other campus resources. (Note: The on-campus learning experience requirement is subject to change as a result of COVID-19.)
Mapping your path to a Penn degree—online
BAAS students take several foundational courses, which encompass the values and core competencies of Penn LPS Online: ethical reasoning, qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis, scientific process, writing, and cross-cultural interactions and diversity. As the name implies, these courses give students a broad foundation across the arts and sciences, upon which they can build the rest of their 30-course-unit academic program.
Additionally, all students choose a degree concentration, which is similar to a traditional college major but more customizable and interdisciplinary. Each concentration includes course options from two or more academic fields and invites students to explore their specific areas of interest within an established framework. They develop more advanced knowledge as they progress toward degree completion. Students can work with their advisors to determine the best concentration for their goals, or even create an Individualized Studies concentration that brings together courses from very different areas under one umbrella. The last 10 of the 30 required c.u. are electives, which provide an opportunity to deepen an existing interest or area of expertise, or explore a whole new field. Electives also offer those with transfer credits maximum flexibility in applying them to degree requirements.
It can be hard to wrap your mind around what a 30-course-unit academic program might entail without mapping it all out visually. That’s why Sarah Libros, Student Success Advisor for Penn LPS Online, recommends that students make ample use of the Course Planning Guide tool in the University’s student portal. “It’s an electronic worksheet that tracks progress toward the degree requirements,” she explains. “As an advisor, I’ll maintain an official worksheet for each BAAS student, but students can create hypothetical worksheets for themselves,” Sarah says. This can be especially helpful when choosing a degree concentration. “Say you’re equally interested in the Literature, Culture, and Tradition concentration and the Physical and Life Sciences concentration. You can create different worksheets to see what it might look like to complete the degree with one concentration versus the other,” she notes. Not all classes are offered every semester, so Sarah recommends that students look ahead to make sure that the courses they need to graduate are going to be available in the timeline they are envisioning. “We don’t want students to be in a position where their graduation is delayed, so having that foresight is helpful,” she says.
Flexible transfer credit policies that let you graduate faster
A large number of prospective BAAS students have already earned some college credits in the past. With that in mind, the program is designed to help them make the most of that prior investment of time and resources so they can finish faster and start reaping the increased earning power that often accompanies completion of a bachelor’s degree. Kathy Urban, Director of Undergraduate Programs for Penn LPS, was part of the team that crafted the BAAS program. She explains, “We thought about the unique needs of our students and it was important to build maximum flexibility for those coming in with a significant amount of transfer credits. Students come to us with an array of courses from both the liberal arts, and outside of the liberal arts from areas like business, technology, allied health, and others.” To that end, students can transfer up to 15 (50%) of the total required c.u., including 4 c.u. for the foundational requirement, up to 3 c.u. for the concentration requirement, and a considerable 8 c.u. of electives. Kathy says the BAAS has a distinctly flexible set of transfer credit policies compared to more traditional undergraduate programs.
Students who transfer in with several credits should be aware that they will have less room to play around and sample courses from different concentrations. Sarah explains, “A student who transfers in with eight elective credits, which is the most you can transfer (15 transfer credits are allowed in total), is only going to do two more at Penn. They might start out doing one concentration and then realize that it’s not their area of interest and want to switch gears—and if it’s just one or two classes, then I say, great, no worries; we’ll slot those into your final two electives and we’ll keep moving in this new direction. But, if they take more than that, it may set them back in their goals.” In such cases, Sarah says students should always talk to their advisor so they can get a full picture of every option available to them and make the most informed decision. She notes that Penn LPS Online advisors are skilled at developing creative solutions to help their students succeed.
Write your own story with the ePortfolio and capstone
In addition to fulfilling the course unit distribution requirements and attending two on-campus learning experiences, BAAS students must also compile an ePortfolio and complete a final capstone project. The ePortfolio showcases the breadth of knowledge and skills that a student has developed in their time at Penn. Students assemble the ePortfolio over the duration of the program, with milestones starting at the 16 c.u. mark to help them pace their progress. In consultation with Kristin Sowden, Associate Director of Career Advising and Planning for Penn LPS Online, students choose a total of eight “artifacts” for the ePortfolio. These can be essays, exams, presentations, or other pieces of academic or co-curricular work that demonstrate the student’s learning outcomes across eight domains. Students also write short reflections to accompany each of the artifacts and synthesize all the different elements of their experience.
Toward the end of their BAAS program, students complete a final capstone project as part of one of their advanced courses, and this goes in the ePortfolio as well. The capstone is students’ opportunity to demonstrate all of the skills they have learned in the program in the context of a topic that inspires them, personally and professionally. When complete, the ePortfolio tells a cohesive story about the knowledge and professional skills the student has developed at Penn, and it can be shared with prospective employers and graduate school admissions committees.
The Ivy League undergraduate degree that cares where you’re going, not where you’ve been
The beauty of the BAAS is that it offers an Ivy League undergraduate degree to anyone with the drive to excel, even if they have been out of school for 10 or 20 years, and even if their past academic record does not reflect their current potential. This is accomplished by giving students the opportunity to demonstrate they are now ready for an Ivy League experience. The Gateway Program is an alternative admissions process for students who may not meet the standard requirements for admission. Kathy says this “on-ramp to the BAAS” is one of the most important innovations of the degree. “It gives people an opportunity to get back in the game, knock off the rust, and start a new chapter in their life,” she says. Gateway students take four courses, one each in humanities, science, writing, and math. As long as they achieve a cumulative grade point average of 2.7, with no grade lower than a C, they have met the academic requirements for admission. If and when they matriculate, all four courses count toward the foundational courses required for the degree.
Whether students enter through the Gateway Program or the traditional admissions process, and whether they complete all 30 c.u. for the BAAS at Penn or transfer in the full 15 courses allowed from other schools, they all leave as Penn alumni. Above all, Kathy says, “by the time they graduate, they will have developed extraordinary rhetorical skills.” BAAS students consistently list their improved writing skills—and increased confidence in their writing ability—as the single most valuable takeaway from their time as a Penn undergraduate. Another powerful, in-demand skill BAAS students develop is the ability to connect seemingly disparate topics thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum.
Nontraditional students make exceptional classmates
Beyond all of the thoughtfully designed components of the degree, an essential part of what makes the BAAS program valuable and unique is the students themselves. Penn LPS Online student Ruben Camacho says that “each student comes from a different walk of life and brings a plethora of experiences to class discussions.” He has made several friends and professional contacts in his courses and encourages students to stay connected beyond their last classes together. Another student, Mark Sudell, reflects, “I'm learning so much from my classmates as well as my teachers. I didn't have the storybook educational career, but to be able to finish it at Penn and learn with such smart people, and so many different kinds of people, makes it worth the wait.” Mark says the wide range of student identities in every course makes for richer discussions and hones students’ collaboration skills.
The fact that BAAS students skew older than traditional undergraduate students enhances the educational experience for students and instructors alike. Kris Rabberman, Assistant Vice Dean and Director of Academic Affairs at LPS, says that in her experience as a professor, students with more life experience often have more insights to share and more self-knowledge to guide their studies. “They are able to really reflect on the experiences that they've had, what they find interesting, what they find challenging, and how they want to grow and develop as individuals and as professionals. They also find a deeper sense of engagement with the material,” she notes. “Your perspective deepens and changes as you've lived more.”
Learn more about the degree requirements that launch BAAS students into the University’s global network of bright and accomplished alumni.