Online vs. Traditional: What to expect from an online bachelor’s degree program

The bachelor’s degree is an academic degree conferred to students who complete accredited undergraduate programs. The average bachelor’s program takes four years to complete, although completion times range from three to seven years, depending on program-specific demands, as well as whether the student is enrolled part- or full-time.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), roughly 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees are projected to be awarded during the 2016-17 academic year. As the table below indicates, bachelor’s degree attainment has steadily risen in the last three decades.

Source: NCES

Total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting colleges and universities reached 17.3 million students in 2014, representing a 31% increase since 2000, when 13.2 million students were enrolled in undergraduate programs. By 2025, undergraduate enrollment is projected to increase to 19.8 million students. The bachelor’s degree is considered the minimum educational attainment level for many career pathways. As more students seek these degrees, job experts also stress that bachelor’s attainment is ideal for competing in a well-educated job market.

The rise of online bachelor’s degree programs has made it easier for millions of men and women to earn the credential needed to succeed in their prospective line of work. Online degree programs enable students to study from home without commuting to a campus, and current technology allows them to access lecture materials, take exams, communicate with their professors, and perform other tasks needed to complete their required coursework.

ONLINE VS. CAMPUS-BASED BACHELOR’S DEGREES

On-Campus Full Time

Benefits

  • Unrestricted access to libraries, computer labs, and other campus resources
  • Courses with labs, practicum training, and other hands-on components
  • The ability to easily meet in-person with fellow students and faculty members
  • A collaborative environment conducive to group studying, social interaction, and extracurricular activities

Drawbacks

  • Synchronous courses can be difficult for students with part-time jobs, family care duties, and other conflicting commitments
  • Larger class sizes may mean less individualized attention from teachers
  • Higher overhead costs related to living accommodations, commuting and parking, and other expenses
Evening/Weekend Classes

Benefits

  • Course calendars built around work schedules
  • Roughly one-fifth of college students are better learners at night
  • Ample time to study and prepare before each class meeting

Drawbacks

  • Synchronous courses can be difficult for students with part-time jobs, family care duties, and other conflicting commitments
  • Class sessions are longer in order to meet curricular requirements
  • Night and weekend meetings can interfere with family time and social activities
Hybrid/Blended

Benefits

  • Blending online and on-campus learning can be the ‘best of both worlds’ for students
  • The format allows students to easily review classroom lectures with online playback tools
  • Fewer campus visits cuts down on parking, commuting, and other overhead costs, and may also eliminate the need to live on campus

Drawbacks

  • The constant need for high-speed Internet access may be an obstacle for some students
  • Students who excel best in the classroom may struggle with online components, and vice versa
  • Many degrees are not available in this format
Online

Benefits

  • Asynchronous schedules allow students to study at their own pace, freeing up more time for employment, family, and social activities
  • Current technology enables students to complete all course assignments at home, or on the go using portable Wi-Fi devices
  • Online learning minimizes or eliminates overhead costs related to living accommodations, meal plans, commuting, and parking

Drawbacks

  • Students who thrive on social interaction and individualized attention from teachers may have a hard time with the exclusively online format
  • While overhead costs are lower, students may incur additional costs for changing majors, taking more than four years to complete their degree, failing courses, or being unable to transfer credits

WHAT IS A DEGREE COMPLETION PROGRAM?

It’s not always possible for students to complete their degree on the standard timeline. All too often life gets in the way, presenting students with unexpected obstacles and complications. Fortunately, degree completion programs are designed to pick up where a learner has left off.

Degree completion programs are specially formatted to allow non-traditional students — students didn’t go the typical four year institution route — to complete their undergraduate degree. For example, degree completion programs are often designed to accept as many transfer credits as possible.

This type of program is particularly useful for learners who have earned an associate degree. Students in degree completion programs find that it’s very easy to build on a foundation of an associate degree.

WHAT IS AN ACCELERATED BACHELOR’S DEGREE PROGRAM?

Want to get your bachelor’s degree online fast? Accelerated online bachelor degree programs allow you to do just that. In fact, some students even get their bachelor degree online in 2 years.

The keyword here is accelerated. In these types of programs, instructors assign students just as much work and the topics covered are the same, yet where accelerated programs differ from their traditional counterparts is in the speed in which the material is covered. As a result, it’s a good idea to set aside other obligations during the period in which you expect to take an accelerated program.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO GET AN ONLINE BACHELOR’S DEGREE?

According to NCES data from 2008, the median completion time for bachelor’s degree recipients was 52 months, or a little over 4 years. Roughly 44% of first-time bachelor’s students who graduated in 2007-08 completed their degree within 48 months of their initial postsecondary enrollment. Roughly 23% earned their degree within 49 to 60 months, while another 9% obtained their degree within 61 to 72 months. Bachelor’s degree programs offered at semester-based schools generally span 120 credits in length, while those on a quarter system tend to span 180 credits in length. However, duration differences between the two calendar systems are minimal, and both are designed for completion in roughly four years. A breakdown of the credits needed to reach each academic level is featured in the table below.


Grade Level Number of Credits in
a Semester-based Program
Number of Credits in
a Quarter-based Program
Freshman 0-30 0-45
Sophomore 31-60 46-90
Junior 61-90 91-135
Senior 91-120+ 136-180+

Many factors can affect how long it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree online. Required coursework is one consideration, since only 13% of online students enter a web-based bachelor’s program with zero transfer credits; the majority begin their studies with at least 16 to 30 credits. Those who enter a bachelor’s program with more credits will require less time to complete their remaining courses. Field of study is another variable, since some subjects require more coursework than others. Many online programs also follow a cohort-based format, in which a group of students will enter the program at the same time and complete courses together. Educational cohorts can build camaraderie among web-based students who are unable to interact in classrooms ― but students who follow an individualized pace may be able to complete their coursework in less time.

An online bachelor’s degree will normally cost thousands of dollars in tuition alone, so cost is a factor that should always be considered when choosing between different undergraduate programs. In addition to tuition prices, students should also expect costs related to textbooks and course supplies, administrative and online learning fees, interest rates, as well as living expenses like rent/mortgage payments, utility and internet bills, and food.

Average Cost for 4-year Undergraduate Degrees


Type of School Yearly Tuition Cost + Fees
Public Four Year (in-state students) $9,410
Public Four Year (out-of-state students) $23,890
Private Four Year $32,410

Source: College Board

Budgeting 101

When calculating the cost of an online bachelor’s degree, it’s important to compare these expenses to the same degree program offered in an on-campus format. A recent survey by WCET found that 75% of online courses are the same price as equivalent modules taught at a brick-and-mortar campus.

However, data from U.S. News & World Report indicates that these cost comparisons depend on two factors: the student’s state residency and the type of brick-and-mortar institution. The average cost of an online course charged at an in-state rate is $277 per credit; by comparison, the average in-state brick-and-mortar course costs $243 per credit. However, online courses are generally cheaper per-credit for out-of-state students at public universities, and also cheaper than courses taught on private college campuses.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD I CONSIDER WHEN PAYING FOR AN ONLINE BACHELOR’S DEGREE?

  • Fees: According to the WCET survey, 53.6% of respondents reported that students enrolled completely online do not pay as much in fees as their on-campus counterparts.
  • Commuting Costs: In addition to saving money on commuting and parking, online students also save more time by remaining at home, rather than traveling back and forth between campus. This allows more time for part-time employment.
  • Textbooks: Course materials for online students are often available in a digital format, which can significantly reduce the price.
  • Living Costs: While on-campus living is not necessary for online students, they should compare the cost of living in a dorm to paying rent for their personal residence. Additionally, they must pay utilities and Internet access fees that are usually available to on-campus students free-of-charge.

HOW MUCH FINANCIAL AID CAN I RECEIVE TO PAY FOR MY ONLINE BACHELOR’S DEGREE?

According to a report by Inceptia, 59% of college students ranked the cost of education as their top source of high stress. College tuition costs have risen significantly in recent years, and millions of U.S. students have come to depend on financial aid in order to afford their bachelor’s degree education. However, a large amount of financial aid goes unclaimed each year. A recent survey by NerdWallet noted that high school graduates missed out on as much as $2.7 billion in free federal grant money in 2015.

For more information on federal student loans, scholarships, grants, and other sources of financial aid for bachelor’s degree-earners, please visit the links below.

Average federal financial aid per full time enrolled student for the 2015-2016 school year


Type of Aid Average Amount per Student
Grants/Scholarships $8,390
Federal Loans $4,720
Education Tax Credits/Deductions $1,290
Federal Work-Study $60
Total per year $14,460

Source: College Board

Scholarships & Financial Aid for Online College Students
The Debt-Free Degree
Understanding the FAFSA

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) notes that at least a bachelor’s degree is required for roughly 35% of job openings in the U.S. workforce. These include occupations in healthcare, education, business, information technology, social sciences, and fine arts. For some careers, a master’s degree ― and possibly a doctorate or Ph.D. ― will also be required. A bachelor’s is typically required to advance to graduate degree programs, and the foundational coursework will provide a good stepping-stone for students as they progress in their education.

Not all careers demand a bachelor’s degree. Some positions are attainable with a two-year associate degree, or even a high school diploma. However, those with a bachelor’s tend to fare better in the job market than those with lower academic credentials. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), bachelor’s degree-holders earn a median weekly salary of $1,156. By comparison, those who complete their education with an associate degree earn $819 per week, while those with a high school diploma earn $692 per week. The BLS also notes a 2.7% unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree recipients, compared to rates of 3.6% for associate degree-holders and 5.2% for those with a high school diploma. The table below looks at expected lifetime earnings for those who complete their education with a high school diploma, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree. As the data shows, bachelor’s degree recipients outearn their counterparts by a considerable margin in both percentile groups.

Lifetime Earnings by Education – 2009 Dollars


  High School Diploma Associate Degree Bachelor’s Degree
25th Percentile $867,500 $1,177,100 $1,490,600
75th Percentile $1,889,500 $2,426,300 $3,388,700

Source: CEW Georgetown

The Best Online Schools

TYPES OF ONLINE STUDENTS

The online bachelor’s degree is a popular educational pathway among many different types of students. The following profiles describe some of the students you’re likely to meet in a bachelor’s degree online program.

Aspiring Academics

These students ― most 18 to 24 years of age ― are driven to explore different academic areas of study, and are generally more focused on earning high grades. They are often traditional students who enter college immediately after finishing high school. According to U.S. News & World Report, 34% of undergraduate online students were under the age of 25 in Spring 2015 ― up 25% in just three years.

Career Starters

Unlike the previous group, Career Starters are more focused on exploring career-centric degree programs than expanding on their academic skill-set ― and as a result, they often choose lower-cost programs that will suit their needs. They typically fall in the 18-24 age bracket, although many are older. These learners represent a smaller number ― 4% ― of online bachelor’s recipients.

Career Accelerators

This student group tends to be older than Aspiring Academics and Career Starters. They arrive in bachelor’s programs with more professional experience than their counterparts, and often earn a degree in order to enjoy a higher salary and more career advancement opportunities. Career Accelerators represent 32% of all online students; according to U.S. News & World Report, 84% of online bachelor’s students are employed during their degree program.

Industry Switchers

Industry switchers are students who are dissatisfied with their current career path and hoping to transition into a different line of work. Many choose online programs because they are more flexible and conducive to students with full-time jobs. Industry switchers represent roughly 36% of online bachelor’s recipients.

Academic Wanderers

Unlike Aspiring Academics ― who enter from high school and have no formal education background ― Academic Wanderers are often adult learners who are returning to the college classroom in order to expand on their previous studies. Also known as ‘lifelong learners’, this group represents 16% of today’s online bachelor’s student population.

Lynne Lander Fleisher Director, Clarion Online

For some personal insight into the opportunities a bachelor’s degree can provide, we spoke with Lynne Lander Fleisher, director of Clarion Online at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.

In your opinion, is earning an online bachelor’s degree easier than earning a traditional, on-campus degree?

No. An online degree format provides a student the opportunity for education where brick-and-mortar is simply not an option. They do not meet at a specific time or place but the challenge for the student is creating a learning space in their own environment that will inspire them to keep up with the course work. Especially for those who have been out of school for a while or just entering school for the first time. These students are not “technology natives” and they need/demand excellent support.

Students who are transferring from a traditional brick-and-mortar learning background after a few years but find themselves needing the flexibility of the online environment. Students may grapple with allowing their minds to think differently and adapt to the new learning style.
Students must possess comprehensive reading skills, great time management skills, and have a self-motivated personality. A student should be their own best advocate and never settle for less. Be proactive and ask lots of questions and don’t apologize for asking them.

Have opinions of fully online programs changed in the recent years?

Absolutely. Students need degree completion options. These options provide access to higher paying jobs. Stackable credentials are a must.

Do employers respect online bachelor’s degrees?

The direct answer is yes. Employers applaud educational institutions who have built online programs to meet the needs of their industry demands and the needs of their employees. The employee benefits from the educational opportunity while being able to continue working.

How much work is it to get an online bachelor’s degree? How much time does it take?

The degree of “work” is dependent upon the prior knowledge of the student. 6-9 hrs. per week per class. May I offer an online readiness quiz to put it into perspective.

Can a student earn an online bachelor’s degree while simultaneously working full-time?

Yes. We have many students at Clarion University of Pennsylvania who work full-time and are enrolled in courses. There is no time limit and it is up to the student to decide with the help of their academic advisor, myself, etc. to define how many classes to take each semester. We want our students to complete their degree in a timely manner but above all else, excel academically! No one knows the students time constraints better than the student.

Who is the ideal student for an online bachelor’s program?

I will state again, those who possess comprehensive reading skills, great time management skills, and have a self-motivated personality. A student who is honest with themselves about what career and family commitments they have and be able to discern how much time they can realistically devote to their academic pursuits. We are here to support them in this critical decision.


An online bachelor’s degree represents a substantial investment of time and money, so choosing the right program requires extensive research and careful scrutiny. Before settling on a program, here are a few important criteria to consider:

Price

Is the program within your predetermined budget? Does the degree-granting institution offer scholarships and/or grants for online students who enroll there? How much do bachelor’s graduates earn after leaving school? Be sure to calculate all student expenses ― not just tuition ― in order to reach an accurate cost estimate.

Flexibility

Asynchronous (or self-paced) courses allow you to advance through the curriculum as quickly or slowly as you prefer. This means you may be able to finish a bachelor’s program in less than four years, or, alternatively, complete courses at a more gradual pace and devote more time to other areas (such as employment or social activities). Some students fare better with the structured learning of synchronous programs.

Proximity

Although you’ll complete the bulk of your online bachelor’s coursework at home, occasional campus visits may be required ― and living far from campus can add to your overhead costs. Certain courses ― such as classes with lab components ― may also require campus trips. Additionally, you may prefer to live closer to campus in order to take advantage of the library, gym, writing centers, and other student resources.

Not-for-profit vs. For-profit

In recent years, a handful of for-profit online colleges and universities have been criticized for providing lackluster academic programs with marginal student outcomes. The result, in many cases, is a higher number of students with sizable debt who are unable to obtain the jobs they want. This is not always the case ― and for many students, a for-profit institution will provide the most suitable degree pathway ― but it is critical to carefully vet each school for past criticisms, controversies, and negative press. Non-profit schools tend to have a better overall reputation for student satisfaction and success, but you should also carefully review these institutions before making a decision.

Private vs. Public

The decision between a private college and a public university will often come down to overall cost. Online courses tend to be cheaper than brick-and-mortar courses for students attending private colleges, as well as out-of-state students attending public universities. Alternatively, in-state students at public universities often pay higher tuition rates than their brick-and-mortar counterparts attending the same school.

TYPES OF BACHELOR’S DEGREES

Bachelor’s of Arts (BA): The Bachelor of Arts pathway is focused on well-rounded liberal arts studies. The curriculum will include studies in social sciences, humanities and fine arts, languages, and other liberal arts areas. Students must also complete course sequences related to their academic major, but these will be less extensive than BS and BFA tracks. BA degrees are typically available in fields like English, communications, writing and journalism, and social sciences like sociology, anthropology, and political science. BAs tend to be shorter than BS and BFA pathways.

Bachelor’s of Science (BS): As the name implies, the Bachelor of Science pathway is primarily concentrated in scientific and technical fields. The courses delve into practical areas, and often involve hands-on training. BS tracks feature longer major course sequences, allowing for limited studies in outside subjects, and tend to be longer than BA pathways in terms of total credit load. BS degrees are widely available in subjects like computer science and information technology, nursing, mathematics, biology, physics, and engineering.

Bachelor’s of Fine Arts (BFA): The Bachelor of Fine Arts pathway is designed for students seeking a degree in visual or performing arts. This includes subjects like poetry, art, photography, music, dance, theatre, and art history. BFA degrees often require studio work and, in some cases, live performances that count toward the student’s final grade. Due to these extensive requirements, BFAs may take more than four years to complete, and are often not offered online.

Some fields of study are widely available in more than one degree pathway. Many colleges and universities offer BA and BS tracks in subjects like psychology, criminal justice and areas of business like accounting, economics, marketing, and human resources. Subjects like art, music, and theatre may be offered as either BA or BFA tracks, but programmatic crossover between BS and BFA degrees is quite rare.

Healthcare: At the bachelor’s degree level, healthcare studies typically involve a large amount of hands-on training at hospitals, clinics, physician’s offices, and other facilities that provide medical care. Popular undergraduate health majors include nursing, healthcare administration, medical billing and coding, and medical technology. A bachelor’s in healthcare can also be a good starting point for doctors, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and other employees who require advanced degrees in order to find work.

Business: Business is a hugely popular area of focus among U.S. college students. Undergraduate business programs introduce foundational areas like management and leadership, finance and accounting, sales and marketing, human resources, supply chain management, and office administration. Many bachelor’s in business recipients go on to pursue the Master of Business Administration, which currently ranks as the most popular graduate degree in the country.

Liberal Arts and Sciences: An undergraduate liberal arts degree is designed for students who would like to explore different academic subjects before deciding on a major. The liberal arts degree may allow students to pursue an interdisciplinary major, such as political science and economics, or sociology and criminal justice. Some colleges and universities allow students to craft their own major using available courses, although these study tracks require pre-approval from academic advisers and faculty members.

The Student’s Guide to Choosing a Major

Want to see which bachelor’s programs are available in your state? Choose from the map below to learn about online degree programs where you live.

Online Colleges by State All states in the U.S. Hawaii HI Alaska AK Florida FL New Hampshire NH Michigan MI Vermont VT Maine ME Rhode Island RI New York NY Pennsylvania PA New Jersey NJ Delaware DE Maryland MD Virginia VA West Virginia WV Ohio OH Indiana IN Illinois IL Connecticut CT Wisconsin WI North Carolina NC Massachusetts MA Tennessee TN Arkansas AR Missouri MO Georgia GA South Carolina SC Kentucky KY Alabama AL Louisiana LA Mississippi MS Iowa IA Minnesota MN Oklahoma OK Texas TX New Mexico NM Kansas KS Nebraska NE South Dakota SD North Dakota ND Wyoming WY Montana MT Colorado CO Idaho ID Utah UT Arizona AZ Nevada NV Oregon OR Washington WA California CA

IS IT BETTER TO ATTEND AN ONLINE BACHELOR’S DEGREE PROGRAM IN MY STATE?

When choosing a college or university, the state where that school is located is an important consideration. Many ― but not all ― degree-granting institutions offer tuition at a lower per-credit rate for students who are residents of the same state, and higher rates for students who are from out-of-state. According to College Data, the average in-state student pays $9,650 in annual tuition at a U.S. public university, while out-of-students pay $24,930 per year to attend the same school. Some schools offer lower out-of-state rates for students from neighboring states; the Midwest Student Exchange Program, for instance, is available to students attending certain institutions who hail from nine different midwestern states. This type of program is known as state authorization reciprocity.

For online students, in-state and out-of-state tuition rates may be an issue as well. Current technology enables schools to track the location of online students in order to prevent fraud and assess the correct tuition rates for all learners. A large number of today’s schools waive the out-of-state rate and charge tuition at the same flat rate for all web-based learners ― but in many cases, the rates are higher than those for in-state students attending brick-and-mortar courses at the same school. Online students should investigate the different tuition rates at each institution they are considering, as well as any available reciprocity programs that will reduce their overall cost of attendance.

Many students decide to attend a school in their home state based on more than just tuition rates. Name recognition is a consideration for many high school students. Other factors may include interesting or unique major opportunities, campus resources, athletic programs, and proximity to the student’s home.

The majority (53%) of students enrolled in exclusively online courses reside in the same state as the institution that they are attending. The next largest group of distance learners (41%) resides in the U.S., but in a different state than the institution they are attending. U.S. colleges and universities continue to serve very few international distance education students, less than 2% in any sector.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS?

For many online students seeking a bachelor’s degree, the choice of which college to attend will come down to an assortment of public universities and private colleges. Public universities receive the bulk of their funding from the federal government. They tend to have higher student populations and larger class sizes. Private colleges are financed through donors and grants, as well as tuition, administrative fees, housing, and other student expenses; this makes them non-profit organizations, and qualifies them for tax breaks. Private colleges tend to have lower student populations, and most classes will not exceed 25 to 30 students in attendance.

These differences leave several factors to consider. Cost is a major concern, since private colleges are generally much more expensive than state universities. According to the NCES, average annual tuition rates during the 2014-15 academic year stood at $16,188 for public institutions and $41,970 for private non-profit institutions. However, private institutions offer a more inclusive atmosphere for students; courses typically emphasize individualized education, and the student-to-faculty ratios are much lower. These institutions tend to offer more specialized degree programs, as well. Public universities may be more appealing for students who value social and extracurricular activities, as well as large class sizes.

Public institutions represent nearly three out of four (73%) distance education enrollments at the undergraduate level. Private, non-profit institutions represent 12% of undergraduate distance enrollments, while private for-profits institutions represent 15%.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FOR-PROFIT AND NON-PROFIT SCHOOLS?

The term ‘for-profit school’ has been the subject of an ongoing debate in recent years. These schools are essentially institutions that are owned and operated by profit-seeking businesses. Like any corporation, their goal is to market and sell a product ― in this case, higher education ― and generate positive returns for the school’s shareholders. This puts for-profit schools in contrast with other private colleges that do not generate returns and instead put all profits back into the institution.

Much of the press surrounding for-profit schools has been negative. Some of these schools have been accused of misleading marketing tactics, subpar academic offerings, and below-average student outcomes. A 2016 Washington Post report noted that 83% of students who received vocational certificates at for-profit schools had student loan debt, compared to 25% of community college students who sought the same credentials. However, there are some perks to attending a for-profit school. The The NCES noted that the average student at a for-profit school paid $23,372 in tuition during the 2014-15 academic year, making them slightly more expensive than public universities ― and much cheaper than private non-profit schools. Students who struggle to gain admission to private non-profit colleges are often accepted to for-profit schools, as well.

Average In-State Tuition

Due diligence is a must when looking at for-profit schools. As long as a for-profit institution has received official accreditation, avoided heavy criticism for its academic offerings, and appears to be in good standing with current students, then it could be a great option for an online program. For more information, please scroll down to the accreditation section below.

IS AN ONLINE BACHELOR’S DEGREE AS GOOD AS AN ON-CAMPUS DEGREE?

Online college education and degree programs have come a long way in the last few years. According to the University of the Potomac, more than 275 accredited colleges and universities currently offer online courses. The latest ‘State of Online Learning’ survey from the Babson Research group found that 5.8 million students ― roughly 28.4% of the national student population ― were enrolled in at least one online course in 2014. This number represents a 1.3% increase in U.S. student online enrollment since 2013, and a 2.5% increase since 2012. As indicated in the graphics below, the vast majority of today’s students and academic leaders believe that online higher learning is on par with ― if not superior to ― traditional brick-and-mortar education.

71.4% of academic leaders view learning outcomes – the skills and knowledge a student is expected to attain – from online classes as comparable or superior to face-to-face courses

Online bachelor’s degrees have historically carried a negative stigma among employers who frequently hire college graduates, but this tide may also be changing. In a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report, the division president of a recruiting service said that 75% of her more than 100,000 clients have ’embraced online credentials’. Earning an online degree from an accredited institution is key for student success, as is selecting a school with strong ‘brand recognition’ in the student’s major field of study. Since many colleges and universities make no delineation between the curriculum and course requirements for online and brick-and-mortar degree programs, the perception among employers will likely continue to improve in the years to come.

Annual Trends in Online Education

Accreditation status is absolutely critical when comparing colleges and universities. In order to be considered a viable educational provider, a school must currently hold accreditation from an official, accreditation-granting agency. Accreditation is essentially quality assurance for degree-granting institutions, and it is awarded after a school’s academic programs, faculty members, and learning resources have been carefully vetted over a period of time ― several months, in most cases.

Accreditation is awarded at three levels. Regional accreditation is typically reserved for academic institutions, and is overseen by six different agencies operating in different areas of the country. National accreditation, on the other hand, is most often awarded to technical and vocational institutions, as well as for-profit schools. The DOE currently recognizes 10 national accreditation agencies. Many critics have noted that the standards for receiving national accreditation are much lower than those used to confer regional accreditation, and most prominent public and private institutions have received the latter. The third accreditation level, programmatic accreditation, is awarded to subdivisions of colleges and universities dedicated to teaching one core discipline, such as nursing, medicine, law, business administration, or public policy. In the U.S., programmatic accreditation is usually given to master’s and Ph.D. programs, although some bachelor’s degree programs in specialized fields also receive accreditation.

In the U.S., accreditation agencies are recognized by two bodies: the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), which is part of the federal government; and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which is a non-governmental organization. Both organizations strive to recognize reputable accreditation agencies, and ensure that they are fairly evaluating schools based on the same standard criteria. Notably, neither of these organizations actually award accreditation on their own. For a full list of officially recognized accreditation agencies, please visit the full lists maintained by the DEA and the CHEA.

The Best Accredited Online Colleges and Universities

Applying for ― and gaining admission to ― the accredited college or university of your choice is a process that requires dedication and effort over the course of several months, if not longer. In this next section, we’ll go over the most important steps and requirements for today’s college applicants.

For high school juniors and seniors

Standardized Tests

In the U.S., two standardized college admissions exams are offered to high school juniors and seniors. The SAT ― used since the 1920s ― features multiple-choice and short-answer questions in mathematics and reading comprehension, as well as one long-form essay. The SAT exam currently holds a possible score of 2400 total points; in 2015, the average score among SAT-takers was 1490. The ACT covers four core areas ― reading, English, mathematics, and science reasoning ― and also includes an optional writing section. Each core section of the ACT is separately graded on a scale of 1 to 36 points, resulting in a composite score; the writing section is graded on a scale of 1 to 12 points, and does not count toward the composite. Both tests are generally considered comparable, but take note: some colleges and universities will accept scores from both exams, while others will only accept scores from one and not the other. Be sure to check the exam score requirements of each school you’re considering before signing up for the SAT or ACT; depending on your choices, it may be in your best interest to sit for both exams.

Application Strategy

Regardless of their grades and academic achievements, high school students should err on the side of caution and apply to more than one school. All schools under consideration will fall into one of three categories. Safety schools are the most likely schools to accept you based on your credentials, but may not be your first choice as an academic destination. Target schools represent institutions who will most likely accept you, and are the institutions you would like to attend. Finally, reach schools, while unlikely to grant you admission, are well-renowned institutions with reputable degree programs in your desired area of study. While the total number of schools will vary by applicant, PrepScholar suggests sending applications to a total of two to three target schools, two to three reach schools, and two safety schools. Keep in mind that submitting a college application can cost anywhere from $30 to $90 a piece.

SAT Guide
ACT Guide

Additional things to consider for career accelerators and industry switchers:

Flexibility

Students who are employed in part- or full-time jobs should explore the time commitments associated with different online bachelor’s programs. Asynchronous degrees tend to offer more flexibility than synchronous tracks, allowing students to keep a broader work schedule. However, finishing a bachelor’s online program at a faster pace means you’ll be able to advance more quickly to higher positions with your new degree.

Transfer Credit Opportunities

Most credits earned at regionally accredited colleges and universities will be transferrable to other institutions; please note that many schools do not accept credits from institutions that have received national accreditation. Depending on the area of study, schools may also offer credit to students with career and/or military experience in lieu of formal coursework. If you have a professional background in your proposed field of study, then be sure to see what sort of credit opportunities are available.

Admissions Deadline

Some colleges and universities only receive and review applications during certain months of the year. In these cases, the deadline for submitting applications typically falls in January to March. However, many schools offer what is known as ‘rolling admissions’, which means they continuously review applications and grant admission to students throughout the year. Applicants to schools with rolling admissions will typically receive a response within four to six weeks after applying.

What you need to apply:

Letters of Recommendation

For a college application, you should never include a letter of recommendation from a family member or friend with whom you do not have a professional background. Suitable choices for these letters include teachers, coaches, employers, and volunteer leaders. Provide ample time for your chosen references to write the letter ― at least six weeks before you plan to mail your application.

Resume

A resume should summarize your professional background and achievements, rather than go into extensive detail. High school juniors and seniors should include past jobs, or ― if they haven’t worked ― descriptions of volunteer projects, school leadership positions, and other experiences that reflect their professionalism and ability to work with others. For those who have been in the workforce for a few years, the last three to four employment positions will usually suffice. Make sure all contact information is correct and up-to-date, as well.

Personal Statement/Essay

Every college application is different when it comes to personal statements and essays. Some will ask applicants to write a general synopsis of their academic and career goals, while others will require a response to a specific writing prompt. Some applications will feature one or two writing requirements, and others may have as many as five or six. Write out everything on paper or in a computer document before transcribing it on the application ― and don’t forget to proofread everything. If you’re unsure about how your writing sounds, try sharing it with a teacher, parent, or trustworthy friend.

Official Transcripts

Official transcripts from high school and college contain a full record of the student’s grades in each course, as well as a cumulative academic score known as their grade point average (GPA). When receiving applications, admissions officers use transcripts to decide whether or not the student meets the academic standards of that particular institution. Although unofficial transcripts are also available, most applications will only review official transcripts. In order to be official, a transcript must be printed on official stationery and sealed in a tamper-proof envelope; applications that arrive with opened transcripts will often be discarded without further review.

Additional Testing for ESL Students

College applicants who are not native English speakers will often be required to sit for an English as a Second Language (ESL) placement test to evaluate their ability to read, write, and communicate in English. The test will typically include listening, speaking, reading, writing, grammar and language comprehension components. These tests are not designed for passing or failing; rather, the exam-takers final score will be used to determine what sort of services they will need during their undergraduate education. One thing to note: non-native English speakers will usually be exempt from the placement exam if they have already received an associate or bachelor’s degree from a predominantly English-speaking institution.

Undergraduate Application Guide

See Methodology
Rank School Name Relative Cost Location Description