Students looking to earn their degree while balancing the demands of work and family should explore our list of the best online colleges. This list is a good place to start for those trying to make sense of the over 10,000 individual online degrees available across the United States. Assessing quality programs can feel daunting. To help you find and weigh your program options, we compiled the following two lists of the best online colleges in the country using qualitative measures and data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics and schools themselves. The first list assesses four-year schools based on key performance indicators such as admissions, enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. The second list uses the same criteria to rank two-year schools. Each school included in our rankings of the best online colleges is a not-for-profit institution that offers at least three accredited, 100% online, degree programs. Read more about online education.
Information & Data
Why Accreditation is Key
For any list featuring the best online colleges, accreditation status should be the first and most important criteria used to evaluate prospective schools. An unaccredited degree can cost graduates more than job offers — graduates of diploma mills risk leaving school tens of thousands of dollars in debt with nothing to show for it but a degree that isn’t recognized by employers, graduate schools or professional certifying agencies of any kind.
Of course, after confirming accreditation, it can still be difficult to weigh the value and quality of one online degree over another. It’s good to keep in mind that whether a program is offered online or on campus, all accredited online college programs in the U.S. are held to the same academic and professional standards. These standards also extend to the full-time faculty and adjunct professors that these schools hire. Schools that fail to meet program and faculty quality requirements risk losing accreditation.
Due to the rapid evolution and development of online coursework, online programs are quickly becoming some of the most high-quality degree options available. Consider how the average admissions, enrollment, retention and graduation rates of the 25 four-year schools on our list of the best online colleges compare to rates of all four-year colleges and universities nationwide:
Why Online Education?
In a recent survey conducted by BestColleges.com, 1,055 online learners nationwide share their reasons for taking courses online. An overwhelming 65% of respondents cite flexibility as the top reason for pursuing a digital classroom experience, and report less concern about curriculum specifics or access to on-campus activities. While traditional factors such as affordability, academic excellence and delivery format remain major determining factors, survey results suggest a majority of students choose to take courses online because they are more convenient.
Online courses eliminate the need to commute to a campus and tend to offer more flexible class schedules than comparable on-campus courses. There are several costs associated with this type of long-term campus commute, and as 29% of respondents report a household income of less than $50,000 a year, affordability matters. In addition, 46% of online students cite choosing the convenience of an online course due to a lack of a local campus or an inability to regularly commute to one.
About 81% of online students are also employed, so the convenience of distance education works in their favor, allowing them to complete classes around their employment schedule. While almost 63% of students say that the courses they took were to further their career, only 17% claim that taking courses was due to a desire to change careers. These responses may suggest that many online students are looking to expand their current professional skills, including the skills needed for a job promotion, rather than shift career paths entirely.
But full- or part-time employment is not the only hurdle to completing higher education; nearly 34% of respondents say they chose online classes due to flexibility surrounding their family’s scheduling demands. In fact, 33% of those surveyed had dependent children living with them when they took courses, offering some insight into what types of external factors students may have to consider when selecting a learning format, such as childcare arrangements.
Growing Popularity of Online Education
One in three U.S. college students are now taking at least one class online, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Many leaders in education predict digital learning will become even more of an everyday experience for college students and recommend that high schools require students to take one online course before graduation, a requirement many high schools have already adopted.
In terms of total enrollments nationwide, growth rates of online college program and course enrollment have exceeded traditional enrollments since 2002, when fewer than 10% of new students were enrolled in at least one online class.
Growth of Online College Enrollment
Digital learning is easily the most dramatic change to sweep higher education in more than a century. Colleges are under pressure to expand their online program offerings to meet the rising demand for distance learning options across the country. Learners can choose to take individual courses online, or to pursue a formal certificate or degree program. In fact, 63% of the students responding to our survey were working towards a degree, with the majority of them working towards a four-year bachelor’s degree. The rest were enrolled in online classes for personal learning and growth rather than college credit.
Online Learners’ Degree Goals
This is great news for prospective students. Academia, once synonymous with tradition and the slow and careful adoption of all things new, is changing more quickly than ever and for the better. There have never been more opportunities for a more diverse group of degree-seekers.
Consider the rapid growth in the number of online degree programs available between 2013 and 2014:
Growth of Available Online Degree Programs
How the Best Online Colleges Stack Up
Our rankings of the best online colleges are a jumping off point to help you build your own list of prospective programs that meet your needs. Remember, many factors that contribute to the quality of a degree program are intangible. You won’t find data points here or elsewhere that fully capture the level of faculty support, peer networking or academic and professional stimulation found in one program versus another. Please contact your schools directly for more information. Learn more about the methodology of our rankings.