How Do Online Students Graduate?: Explore 7 Different Ways!

Laptop with graduation cap and books
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As soon as my academic advisor started talking about applying for graduation, my first thought was, “how do online students graduate?” Do online students even have graduation? I had no idea.

While researching about my graduation, I discovered there are many different types of graduation ceremonies for online students.

Most colleges invite online students to the commencement ceremony, and some have ceremonies in multiple locations. Other universities have ceremonies that are pre-recorded or lived-streamed, webpages, or virtual graduations using either video chat or avatar-based game worlds. 

Graduation vs. Commencement

We colloquially use graduation and graduation ceremony (commencement) interchangeably, but it is important to note that we are talking about the different types of graduation ceremonies/celebrations. The actual graduation process is generally the same for in-person or online students and across all schools:

  1. complete all the academic requirements (take the necessary classes/credit hours)
  2. meet the financial requirements (pay all your bills)
  3. apply for graduation

So rest assured, how your school celebrates online students’ graduation or whether you attend does not impact whether you graduate!

Do online students have a graduation?

Online students have a graduation. While the type of graduation ceremony for online students varies by school, they can be categorized as either in-person or virtual: 

In-person graduation ceremoniesVirtual graduation ceremonies
1. Traditional commencement ceremony1. Live-streamed ceremonies
2. Multiple-location commencement ceremonies2. Pre-recorded videos
3. Graduation webpages
4. Graduations over video chat
5. Graduations using avatar-based game worlds
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In-person graduation ceremonies for online students

When graduating from online college, students may have the option to attend the graduation ceremony at the school’s campus or an event closer to home. 

Traditional graduation ceremonies

Graduate in cap and gown with diploma

It is common for online students to ask: “Can online students attend graduation?” and “Do online students get to walk at graduation?”. 

The answer is almost always- YES!

If the college has an in-person graduation ceremony, online students are usually invited. Online students can attend the traditional commencement ceremony in either May or December and walk across the stage just like their in-person peers.

Even if you have never been to the campus throughout your time as a student, you are still a part of the student body! You worked hard for your degree, and most schools recognize this by including you in their traditional ceremony. You will wear a cap and gown, there will be speeches, you will walk across the stage, and your loved ones can attend.

Most schools that have traditional ceremonies invite online students, such as: 

While attending the traditional commencement ceremony can be a great option for online graduates, there can also be logistical challenges that should be considered. The campus may be halfway across the country. This means that you will need to make transportation and lodging plans (which can be expensive).

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If you do go, make sure you get directions and allow extra time (since you aren’t familiar with the area or campus).

Multiple-location graduation ceremonies

Knowing that it can be difficult for all online students to attend a graduation ceremony in one centralized location, some universities, such as the University of PhoenixOpens in a new tab. Opens in a new tab.and Purdue UniversityOpens in a new tab., host multiple commencement ceremonies throughout the country. This allows graduates to attend an in-person ceremony in an area closer to where they live.

There were even a few years where Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) had an SNHU bus diploma delivery tourOpens in a new tab.. They traveled around the country to graduates’ homes and delivered their diplomas in front of their friends and family. 

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Virtual graduation ceremonies for online students

You may be asking yourself, “What does graduating virtually mean?”. I completely understand. It can be hard to visualize.

Let’s go over how online graduation works and look at the many types of virtual graduations for online students. 

Streamed ceremonies 

One of the most common virtual options for online students is to view the live stream of the school’s in-person commencement ceremony. Most colleges live-stream their ceremony. 

You can see Berkeley College’s ceremony: 

Or Arizona State University’s (where I graduated from):  

Some universities will recognize online students that are not present. Others, such as ASU, give online students the option to add their names to the program. 

Pre-recorded videos

Some colleges will record a graduation ceremony specifically for online students. There are speeches, and students are recognized with a slide with their name and picture. 

American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS) is one college that records its ceremony: 

Graduation webpages

Some schools build a webpage for graduation. It can include videos, commencement awards, graduate profiles, and an area where family and friends can comment. 

Virtual graduations

What is a virtual graduation? 

A virtual graduation is a graduation ceremony that happens online. Colleges can host virtual graduations with live webinars. These webinars can consist of people attending over video chat, such as Zoom, or people using avatars in 3D virtual worlds, such as Second Life.

Video chat ceremonies 

Ceremonies over video chat, such as Zoom or Skype, allow students, faculty, family, and friends to join from their computers. This is the most interactive and personal virtual option.

One school that offers this is Colorado State University:

Avatar-based ceremonies

Though this is much rarer, some colleges host virtual graduations using avatars in the online game Second Life. Colleges create a virtual campus. Students create avatars for themselves and then “attend” the graduation ceremony, where they can move their avatar through the ceremony.

Take a look at Florida State University’s first virtual graduation using Second Life:

You should check with your school (either on their website or ask your academic advisor) to see what kind of graduation your school offers for online students.

How long does a virtual graduation last?

In general, a virtual graduation lasts around 2 hours. However, a virtual graduation can last anywhere from 30 minutes to around 4 hours. The length depends on how many speakers there are and if they individually call students’ names.

No matter what type of graduation ceremony your school offers, finishing your degree is a moment that needs to be celebrated! Whether that be by attending an in-person commencement ceremony, watching the ceremony online, attending a virtual ceremony, or checking out a graduation webpage, make sure that you take the time to acknowledge this incredible accomplishment and celebrate all your hard work!

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