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Evaluating Paralegal Degree Programs: How To Unlock These Opportunities

Published on: May 4, 2024

Are you considering a career as a paralegal? You will be glad to know you have several ways to achieve this goal. However, one of the most effective ways to start this process is by selecting the right paralegal degree program. These programs teach students about the U.S. legal system and introduce them to the practical skills and knowledge they need to be successful paralegals.

A Primer on Understanding Paralegal Education

There are several ways to obtain a paralegal education, including an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree, or a post-baccalaureate certificate.

  • An Associate's Degree: This option allows individuals to learn different aspects of the legal field and earn an associate’s degree once the program is complete, which takes around two years.

  • A Bachelor’s Degree: Some universities and colleges, such as the National University, offer a bachelor’s degree in paralegal studies. This four-year program is generally designed to prepare students to become indispensable members of a legal team.

  • Certificate Program: A paralegal post-baccalaureate certificate prepares students for work as a paralegal. These programs generally require students seeking this certificate to have already earned a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree.

These options help students develop skills in researching and analyzing legal documents, data, and evidence and improve fundamental legal abilities such as communication, negotiations, and office management. 

Paralegal and Legal Assistant: Are They the Same Thing?

Although paralegal and legal assistant are often used interchangeably, these positions are different. Paralegals and legal assistants usually have different duties and different requirements. For instance, paralegals are more involved in legal tasks, while legal assistants tend to perform more administrative duties. In addition, while legal assistants do not necessarily need to hold a degree, paralegals are typically required to have an associate's or bachelor's degree.
For a deeper dive into this topic, head over to our paralegal vs legal assistant article.

Let’s Start with Accreditation and Program Recognition

A reputable paralegal education program is usually recognized and certified by associations such as the American Bar Association (ABA), which is the most well-known. Approval from the ABA is considered one of the most distinguished credentials for a paralegal education program, especially since it can open doors for a promising career and offer numerous other benefits, such as:


Individuals who graduate from an ABA-approved program may have an advantage over others when seeking employment. For employers, ABA approval indicates that graduates are well-prepared with the knowledge required to succeed within the paralegal profession.  

High-Quality Instruction

An ABA-approved program will adhere to high education standards and generally have highly qualified professors with field experience. For instance, the University of Cincinnati Online offers ABA-approved online paralegal programs that licensed paralegals and attorneys teach.

Prepares Students for the Field

Students who graduate from an ABA-approved program will usually have the confidence and skills required to excel in the legal field. That is why employers are more likely to hire these students, especially since they are usually well-versed in various areas of law, making them a valuable asset to the team. The International Paralegal Management Association members have even reported they look more favorably on job candidates who have graduated from ABA-approved paralegal schools.

Reviewing Program Curriculum

Paralegal degrees are designed to prepare students with the skills and knowledge to pursue a career in law. The program's coursework is specifically tailored to cover a broad range of legal issues, including legal research, legal writing, litigation, paralegal skills, and the use of legal practice technology. This curriculum provides a solid foundation for students looking to develop their abilities to succeed as professional paralegals.

Additionally, students who want to specialize in a specific legal field can select coursework that aligns with their career interests or goals. Some popular specializations in paralegal programs include:

  • Civil litigation

  • Estate planning

  • Corporate law and business litigation

  • Immigration

  • Family law

  • Real estate

  • Tax law

  • Criminal law

  • Personal injury

The Quality of the Faculty

The faculty of a paralegal education program has a significant role in the institution's reputation, primarily since they are responsible for imparting high-quality knowledge and training, which forms the foundation of the school's reputation. The faculty's passion, hard work, and genuine interactions also help maintain the high standards that these schools are known for.

Schools that offer paralegal degrees typically hire legal professionals such as judges, lawyers, paralegals, or other similarly qualified individuals in good standing to teach the programs and classes. However, it is always advisable to research and evaluate the qualifications and backgrounds of faculty members before enrolling in a paralegal degree program.

Real-World Training and Resources

Finding a paralegal program that provides practical experience in the legal field can also be beneficial. Many of these programs offer externships or internships where students can work in legal departments or law firms to gain hands-on experience. This experience can help students apply what they have learned in the classroom, making them more appealing to potential employers. For instance, at Madonna University, students pursuing a degree in paralegal studies are required to complete an internship course, which has resulted in sound full-time graduate placement rates in top law firms, courts, and corporations in the area.

However, it is also equally important to enroll in institutions that help students get ahead and allow them to have access to various legal resources. At Hofstra University, for example, paralegal students not only have access to the school’s Law Library, but those who take the Legal Research and Writing course also learn how to use Westlaw, a research tool used in most legal firms.

Flexible Learning Options and Certificate Programs

Thanks to online learning, paralegal programs have become even more accessible. Schools nationwide offer various options to obtain a paralegal degree, including online courses, evening classes, and part-time schedules to accommodate working students.


It is important for students to understand that completing a certificate program does not equate to earning a degree. Certification shows that an individual has taken additional training outside of school and passed an exam, such as NALA’s Certified Paralegal examination. In contrast, a paralegal degree refers to an accredited credential usually given by colleges or universities, such as a bachelor’s degree.

A Post- Baccalaureate Certificate

A post-baccalaureate certificate is another excellent option for individuals who want to switch careers to become a full-fledged paralegal. When programs offer a post-baccalaureate paralegal certificate, it is usually for students who have already obtained a bachelor’s degree in an area other than paralegal studies.  The courses taught in these programs cover a broad range of topics, including legal research and writing and legal office technology. Moreover, depending on the program, students can tailor their studies by selecting electives that suit their interests and career goals, allowing them to hone their expertise in a particular area relevant to them. 

At Purdue Global, students wanting to obtain a paralegal post-baccalaureate certificate can enroll in various specialized courses that cover a range of legal topics, such as:

  • Civil litigation

  • Legal writing

  • Criminal law

  • Estate planning

  • Family law

  • Wills and trusts

  • Real estate law

Financial Considerations

Another significant factor students have to consider when pursuing a paralegal degree is the financial considerations involved. Many students may also need to inquire about financial aid to make their studies more affordable. Fortunately, numerous options are available to paralegal students to help them with the expenses of pursuing a paralegal program. 

Federal and State Financial Aid Options

Students enrolled at an accredited United States institution approved for Title IV funding may be eligible for state and federal financial aid options to help cut down on their tuition costs. In addition, paralegal students may also qualify for certain types of loans, including Direct Subsidized loans and Unsubsidized Loans, as well as Federal Pell Grants. However, it is important to note that while these programs can help students with the costs, upon graduation, students will have to repay this financial aid with interest. 

School Financial Aid

Depending on the school, students interested in pursuing a paralegal degree may also be able to obtain university financial aid. Though larger schools usually offer more attractive financial aid packages, most colleges offer some form of tuition assistance to their students. However, to qualify for this aid, students must typically be admitted into a degree program and be enrolled at least part-time. To learn more about available aid packages and to determine your eligibility, reach out to the school's financial aid office and speak with an admission advisor. It is also best to start the school’s financial aid application process as soon as possible. 

Scholarships, Grants and Merit Aid

Students may receive scholarships and grants in addition to financial aid to reduce the economic burden of tuition costs. More importantly, unlike the other options, there is generally no need to repay the money earned through a scholarship. It is also important to point out that these scholarships can be issued not only by schools but also by professional organizations. For example, The American Association for Paralegal Education. (AAfPE) awards scholarships annually to part-time or full-time paralegal students in an institution with a Lambda Epsilon Chi (LEX) Chapter.

However, while paralegal students have various financial aid options, students must verify which programs they qualify for. Funding for these programs will also depend on several factors, such as credit history, income, employment, and the program’s accreditation. That is why, as you explore these financial options, consider consulting with school counselors or the financial office to explain your funding opportunities better.

Don’t Forget Career Services and Professional Development

To explore future job opportunities and career paths, engaging with a career services department can be highly beneficial for students. These departments provide guidance when it comes to evaluating a person's skills and interests and matching them with relevant positions based on their career aspirations. Additionally, career services can offer valuable advice on what additional qualifications are necessary and what activities students can participate in to become more competitive candidates in the job market. Ultimately, these services help students clarify their career objectives and provide a roadmap to achieve them.

Paralegal associations such as The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc. (NFPA), NALA, The Paralegal Association, and the National Association for Legal Support Professionals (NALS)  can also play a significant role in professional development. These organizations provide members with career advancement and networking opportunities, which is a great way to make strong connections in the legal industry. They also offer their members training, education, and certification opportunities, which can be vital for career growth.

The Student Experience and Community

It is difficult to completely understand a college, university, or institution just by looking at its website or brochures. The best way to get a sense of the academic and social atmosphere is to spend time on campus, speak with admissions officers and students in person, read student testimonials, and attend program information sessions. This way, when it comes time to decide which program best fits you and your goals, you will be better prepared to make an informed decision. 

In addition, while the quality and rigor of a paralegal program are usually more important than a school’s location, this, too, can play a role in the types of opportunities students may be exposed to. Typically, students tend to find legal internships and positions within the area where they attend school. As a result, their opportunities can be more varied and extensive in larger cities than in rural locations.

Factoring Admission Requirements and Application Process

Admission requirements for a paralegal program vary depending on the school or organization offering the program. Some programs may require applicants to have a high school diploma or its equivalent, while others, such as post-baccalaureate certificate programs, may require a bachelor's degree. That is why checking a program's requirements before applying is essential.

More importantly, once you begin applying to these programs, you will want to verify what documents are required, the appropriate deadlines, and the contact information of program coordinators if you have any questions. At Eastern Florida State College, students looking to apply for their paralegal studies program must participate in a specialized application process that includes an application, interview, essay, and background check. Students can also work with the school’s program advisor to review their goals and ask questions as they apply.

Putting the Pieces Together: Our Recommendations to Evaluate Your Options

Deciding to become a paralegal is a significant step. However, selecting the most appropriate paralegal program for your goals is equally important, especially with many options. To make an informed decision, students should compare each program thoroughly and consider other factors that could influence their choice, including:

  • #1) The School’s Reputation Amongst the Legal Community

    Consider each program's accreditation status as you compare different paralegal programs. A program’s accreditation verifies that programs meet industry standards and offers a comprehensive curriculum that prepares you for a career as a paralegal. It is also a good idea to research the program's reputation within the legal community and gather feedback from alumni, paralegals, and other professionals about the program's strengths.

  • #2) The Flexibility of the Programs Involved

    Students need to consider the flexibility and format of each option, especially if they have other commitments to balance when choosing a program. For example, some programs offer online courses and evening classes, which can be more convenient for those with busy schedules or those who prefer this learning style.

  • #3) The Costs of the Program

    Students often review the cost of each academic program to determine if it fits within their budget. They also consider financial aid options or scholarships to help cover the costs and additional expenses such as textbooks, materials, and commuting fees to calculate the financial investment required to complete a paralegal program.

  • #4) The Program’s Curriculum

    Many students also examine each paralegal program’s curriculum to verify that it covers the skills required for their paralegal role. A solid curriculum should have courses related to legal research and writing, using computer-based research and office management software, and an overview of other legal aspects of the position. It is also important to consider whether the program provides specific specializations or elective courses that align with a person’s goals within law.

  • #5) Your Goals

    Students will also need to deliberate on the type of program they want to apply for—an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a certificate. There are numerous reasons tied to these decisions; however, the decision generally rests on their personal and professional objectives. If one wants to get into work quickly, an associate’s degree may be better than a baccalaureate. On the other hand, a bachelor's degree may be more advantageous for students who desire flexible career paths and higher earning potential.

The Bottom Line

There are plenty of alternatives if you aspire to become a paralegal and want to continue your education. However, choosing the best paralegal program could be one of the most challenging decisions due to several factors, such as the curriculum offered by a particular school, the training opportunities available, the flexibility of a program, and the costs. 

That is why, as you complete your research, contact schools, schedule tours, and talk to program coordinators to better understand what these programs can offer you and how they can shape your goals and opportunities.

About the Authors

Written by:

Kasia Nelson, Esq.

Kasia Nelson is a licensed attorney and skilled legal content writer with years of experience. With a background in corporate immigration law, she is well-versed in the intricacies of producing legally accurate and well-researched work. 


  • Michigan State University, B.S.

  • Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Law Licensures

  • Michigan

Kasia Nelson

Kasia Nelson, Esq.


Education: Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School, J.D.

Knowledge: Corporate Immigration Law

Reviewed by:

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Ryan P. Duffy is an attorney licensed to practice law in New Jersey, North Carolina, and South Carolina. His practice focuses primarily on Estate Planning, Personal Injury, and Business law. 

Law Licensures

  • New Jersey

  • Pennsylvania (inactive)

  • South Carolina

  • North Carolina

Ryan Duffy

Ryan P. Duffy, Esq.

Editorial Lead

Education: Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, J.D.

Knowledge: Estate Planning