Complete Guide to an Online Human Resources Degree
Online human resources degrees train students to work as HR specialists and managers for small and large organizations. HR professionals are charged with the responsibilities of directing and taking care of an organization's personnel resources, including recruitment and candidate interviews, orientation for new employees, dismissal procedures for separating employees, payroll management, and personnel paperwork. During or prior to earning a degree, students can gain experience in the field by working as an HR assistant.
Unlike some disciplines that have accreditation agencies specifically designed to sanction degree programs in that field, there is no single national accrediting agency for HR degree programs. Instead, schools that offer HR degrees can be accredited at the regional or national level. The US Department of Education offers a database of currently accredited schools and programs. Read More
Comprehensive List of Schools for an Online Human Resources Degree (211)
Overview of Available Online Human Resources Degrees
Associate degrees provide students with a foundation of both general education courses and human resources topics, such as employee compensation and benefits, creating job advertisements, and labor relations issues. Graduates with a two-year associate degree may qualify for some entry-level HR positions, but many jobs require at least a bachelor's degree.
Bachelor's programs require four years of study and include both general liberal arts requirements as well as core classes and electives in HR subjects. Classes directly related to majors in HR include industrial or labor relations, industrial psychology, and organizational development. Other classes that may be required of students include information technology, business management, finance, and different subjects in education.
Master's degrees are required for HR professionals seeking advanced positions that involve supervision and management. These graduate programs usually allow individuals to specialize in a certain area of human resources management. In addition to earning a master's degree in HR, candidates can also qualify for advanced positions in this field by pursuing a master's in labor relations or business administration.
Scholars or business professionals with a master's degree may pursue a doctorate in human resources areas such as management, workforce development, and organizational leadership. Doctoral programs encourage students to use current research theories to solve complex HR management issues. Graduates will be prepared for HR leadership positions or postsecondary teaching and research careers.
The associate degree in human resources provides students with a solid introduction to the major concepts of human resources management, including organizational behavior, training and development, and employment law. These programs typically take two years to complete and are comprised of 60 credit hours of coursework. Community colleges and career training institutes offer both terminal Associate of Science and transferable Associate of Arts degrees. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED.
The curriculum in the associate program may be completely focused on HR issues, or it may include a business core with a human resources specialization. In a program with a business core, students learn about basic business principles in accounting, management, finance, and marketing. This foundation is useful for applying human resources concepts in a strategic way, with the entire business’s goals in mind. Human resources classes discuss employee selection, recruitment, training and development, compensation and benefits, and diversity in the workplace. Graduates understand the basic skills for increasing the performance and morale of a team of employees.
While a bachelor’s degree is usually required for human resources specialist or management positions, the associate degree can be used to enter human resources assistant roles. These workers assist with employee files and data and information systems. With professional experience, HR assistants can move into specialist or management roles. In larger organizations, human resources specialists focus on a particular area of HR, while those in smaller organizations may perform a variety of tasks related to recruitment and development.
The human resources bachelor's degree teaches students how to manage employee relations in order to boost productivity within an organization. Prospective HR bachelor's students need a high school diploma or GED. Applicants may also need SAT/ACT test scores and a particular high school GPA. This degree program typically requires 120 credit hours and four years of full-time work.
The HR bachelor's degree typically includes a core of business classes, along with a specialization in human resources topics. The business core includes courses in accounting, statistics, business information systems, finance, business law, operations management, and business communication. Future human resources workers are thus able to perform their roles with a vision of the entire organization's success in mind. The human resources focus in the degree discusses the skills for recruiting and retaining the best employees. Students study labor economics, human resources management, employee development, and compensation and benefits planning.
A bachelor's degree is the typical entry-level requirement for human resources specialist positions. At small organizations, human resources specialists may oversee all areas of employee relations, while those in larger organizations might specialize in recruitment, placement, or labor relations. After gaining professional experience, specialists may be able to enter human resources management positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that job seekers with a relevant bachelor's degree and professional experience are likely to have the best HR job prospects. (BLS)
Human resources master's programs train students to integrate the practices of employee selection and retention with a larger understanding of business operations. Master's programs are typically available as a Master of Science (MS) or a Master of Business Administration (MBA) in HR management. In some cases, human resources is not a major, but rather a specialization within a general MBA in management. Most programs require about 10-15 courses. When enrolled on a full-time basis, students can complete this 30-credit master's degree in about two years.
Applicants to master's programs need an accredited bachelor's degree; some programs also require standardized test scores and a statement of purpose. Although MBA programs rarely mandate that the bachelor’s degree be in business, having an undergraduate degree in business or related field may increase an applicant's chances of being selected for the program.
The core of the human resources master's includes advanced courses in HR and business strategy. Common courses include workplace ethics, strategic thinking, labor management relations, staffing, and compensation. General business courses include statistics, performance management, and leadership. Classes in HR management teach students about labor law and procedure, employee compensation and benefits, organizational leadership, labor unions, training, and dealing with disputes among workers.
Some programs require students to choose a specialization in a particular HR area, such as diversity and inclusion, benefits and compensation, international HR management, or human capital management. Many programs also require an internship or a capstone course. The capstone course involves working on a research project to address a human resources problem.
Master's degree holders are prepared to apply for human resources specialist or management positions. Both specialists and managers may focus in a particular area of HR, such as labor relations, recruiting, payroll management, placement, or employee development. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those with a human resources master's degree and/or professional experience should have the best opportunities for landing HR management positions. (BLS)
Doctoral degrees in human resources management provide a foundation in HR theory and practice for future careers in academia, the private sector, or government. Depending on the program, applicants need a bachelor's or master's degree; many schools also require at least one year of work experience, GRE or GMAT scores, and letters of recommendation. Doctoral programs typically take three to five years to complete, depending on the applicant's highest degree. The degree requires information-based coursework and a dissertation project.
The HR doctorate coursework generally covers human resources quantitative methods, theory, and practical applications. Common first-year courses look at HR research methods, statistics, and software packages. Other foundational courses include diversity in the workplace, employee well-being, and performance in non-profits and government organizations. Students also study strategies for integrating HR into an overall business strategy to make a business more competitive. The dissertation is a major part of the HR doctoral program. This research project must be carefully written and defended before the student's degree will be granted. Students work with a faculty advisor to devise and develop their project.
Human resources doctorate graduates can become human resources instructors at the college level. Other career opportunities include research and policy work in government or management in the private sector. Graduates should be well situated to pursue careers in academia or the private sector, as a doctorate is the terminal degree in this field.
Human resources certificates provide introductory and advanced training in the skills for managing an organization's human capital. These programs are available in general HR areas, as well as focused topics like HR management or benefits and compensation. The prerequisites for HR certificates depend on the program level; entry-level certificates typically require a high school diploma, while advanced programs require a bachelor's degree. Certificates generally require 6-12 courses and can be completed in one year or less.
The courses in an HR certificate depend on the certificate level and specialization. Entry-level certificates provide an overview of the human resources field, including classes in human resources practices, organizational development, employee relations, and compensation and benefits. Graduate-level certificates tend to focus in a particular area of human resources. For example, a benefits and compensation certificate would require classes in benefits design, labor and employment law, and communication, while a program in HR management might include coursework in organizational behavior, recruitment, and diversity management.
HR certificates can be used to land entry-level or supervisory roles in human resources. Undergraduate certificates can lead to work as a human resources assistant or payroll assistant. Those with a bachelor's degree can use the HR certificate to launch a human resources career or to advance into management positions. Advanced HR certificates can be used to specialize in particular areas of the field, such as recruiting, labor relations, or placement.
Prospective human resources students are encouraged to research online degree programs that are offered by accredited institutions. Accreditation means that a school has voluntarily gone through a comprehensive evaluation process by an outside agency and been deemed acceptable by that agency. While some disciplines have field-specific accrediting agencies to evaluate individual degree programs, the human resources discipline does not. Instead, students may choose a human resources program at a school that has been accredited for its overall academic offerings.
Attending an accredited school will help students meet eligibility requirements for federal financial aid and for transferring credits among other accredited institutions. It can also help students feel confident that they are investing their time and money in a degree program that meets high academic standards. The US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation both recognize several regional and national accrediting agencies and list them on their websites. Please visit our accreditation hub for more information about the benefits of accreditation.
Deciding upon a major is not just about deciding if the degree will lead to a rewarding career or education. Whatever you decide to major in will change your schooling experience significantly and can mean the difference between being satisfied or unsatisfied with your education over the next few years. Therefore, it is important to understand what courses you will be taking if you choose to study human resources. Below are some areas of study that you are likely to encounter if you study human resources:
Accounting/Finance: When working in HR, you will come across situations where you will influence the finances of the company you are working for, including issues dealing with employee compensation, payroll, and staffing needs. Classes in finance and accounting will provide you with the tools to understand how to make these decisions and to predict the impacts they will have on a business as a whole. These classes will involve some math and logic skills.
Law: Whether you are making a decision about hiring contractors, firing an employee, or dealing with employee misconduct situations, as an HR professional, it's important to understand the basics of employment law. While you won't need to understand law to the same extent that a lawyer would, it's important for HR professionals to be able to analyze laws and rights as well as determine how to best comply with them. HR professionals are in charge of coordinating with attorneys to ensure that their company is implementing lawful policies. Courses will typically cover legal basics and employment law, among other topics.
Management: Throughout your study of HR, you will likely come across multiple classes in management and leadership. These classes will teach you everything from communication skills and human behavior to employee training principles and labor relations. Some classes will teach you practical skills that you can take directly into your first HR job, while others will teach you abstract concepts to help you solve problems. These classes will be integral to your education and will provide you with a set of skills to take into your first HR position.
Human resource management is the part of an organization that recruits and manages the people who work within that organization. HR duties are performed by specially trained individuals who act as a liaison between different departments of a company and ensure that the approach to managing employees is strategic and uniform. HR professionals may oversee everything from recruiting and payroll to employee misconduct and training, as well as legal issues. A job in human resources can be incredibly varied (as with an HR generalist) or quite narrow (as with a college recruiter). The following list represents just some of the areas that HR professionals may specialize in:
Benefits Administration: Providing employee benefits, such as insurance or retirement, creates a need to manage the plans associated with those benefits. This includes selection of providers and negotiations, which is often an annual process. Many organizations track usage of benefits and survey employees on their preferences related to benefits; they then use the data from these sources to design a benefits strategy that will maximize employee satisfaction while managing costs. An HR education or a general business education is very helpful in this specialty.
Compensation Management: Many companies make an effort to ensure uniformity in the wages paid to similar employees performing comparable work. Reviewing the classifications of employees and ensuring that all employees are accurately categorized can be handled by a compensation expert in human resources. Such reviews (typically performed annually) may also involve review of outside salary surveys to ensure that the organization’s compensation is competitive enough to attract qualified candidates.
General HR Management: As organizations become larger, the issues associated with their workforces get more complicated, and the risk associated with inconsistent policies increases. A human resources manager is typically involved in running processes that ensure that a company is in compliance with the law and consistent in its treatment of all of its employees. An organization may create policies around situations such as employee complaints of harassment, discrimination or other behaviors covered by law or statute, employee misconduct, employee requests for time off due to medical issues, performance appraisals, or separations (voluntary employee departures, terminations, and layoffs).
It is possible to learn these skills on the job -- particularly in companies that have someone with a legal background crafting and communicating policies. However, a specialized HR education can greatly improve someone’s ability to carry out these functions, many of which involve nuanced understanding of legal concepts such as at-will employment, protected classes, and legal precedents related to them. Typically, in order to land a general HR position, a candidate will be required to have earned a bachelor’s degree or have prior HR experience.
Payroll and Record Keeping: At the most basic level, human resources requires careful record keeping. Any time an organization adds a new employee, there are official federal and state forms that need to be collected, recorded, and filed. Throughout the tenure of any given employee, there can be numerous updates to those records (for example, certain federal tax forms must be updated annually, and employees can typically make changes each year to their health insurance and retirement plans). For hourly employees, someone in either the accounting or human resources department will review and finalize time records before payment is issued. Payroll also requires filing and payment of certain taxes.
Recruiting: The human resources department of an organization will often provide support to managers in the hiring of employees. This support can be as simple as placing advertisements and doing paperwork associated with formally opening the position, or it can involve active recruitment (sometimes referred to as “headhunting”): proactively reaching out to individuals who may be a fit for the role and working to get them interested in the role. A human resources professional can also provide training for managers on how to interview prospective employees -- both how to ask good, insightful questions that lead to a beneficial hire and how to avoid topics that might create the risk of a discrimination claim if the candidate did not get hired. Recruiters may find themselves traveling a fair amount for their job.
Training and Development: Some organizations recognize that organizational effectiveness is best supported by providing consistent training to employees. Identifying the topics, frequency, and participants for such training and ensuring that such training is taking place is sometimes handled by a human resources department. It can also come out of a dedicated training department, a training professional within an operations team, or other areas of an organization. An education in human resources with a concentration in training and development is important to a job in this area.
- Human Resources Managers. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/management/human-resources-managers.htm.
- Human Resources Specialists. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics of the US Department of Labor. Published January 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/human-resources-specialists.htm.