Information & Data
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.
Types of Online Colleges Available
- Community colleges: At a community college, you can pursue your associate degree online, either to qualify for introductory positions in your chosen field or as preparation for a four-year program down the line. Tuition at two-year schools is lower than at most colleges, and for students just starting college, it might make sense for you to begin here.
- Professional and career colleges: If you want to attend school and prepare for a specific career, you can develop industry-specific skills in a career college. Whether you’re interested in nursing, secretarial work, or anything else, a professional college can help you take the next step in your career.
- Public colleges: These are the traditional four-year state schools. As a general matter, public colleges are usually cheaper than private schools. Some online schools offer reduced tuition rates to in-state students, while others are able to offer in-state tuition to students throughout the country.
- Private not-for-profit colleges: Many, though not all, of the private schools offering online programs are religious schools. Some of these schools incorporate scripture into their online program, though others do not, and have no religious requirements for distance learners. Private non-profit schools are often more expensive than other four-year options, so be sure to do your research and find a school that fits with your budget.
- Private for-profit colleges: There are a number of reputable private for-profit colleges as well. When researching for-profit schools, it is vital that you research their accreditation and reputation, as there are a number of diploma mills in this category.
What Defines the Best Online Colleges?
Just like with campus-based colleges, the best online schools offer rigorous coursework. When evaluating an online college, there are a couple of indicators of quality that you should pay attention to. The first is accreditation. Any school that isn’t accredited by either a reputable national or regional accrediting body should be avoided. It should be noted that all schools featured in our list of the best online universities are accredited. If you choose to complete coursework somewhere other than at one of the top online schools listed here, you will also want to make sure that your school is not certified by a bogus or phony agency.
Beyond accreditation, you should evaluate the curriculum at each school under consideration. Be sure to look around at a few colleges to get an idea of what to expect from a general curriculum in a particular subject. All schools will have their differences, of course, but you should be wary of any curriculum that looks easy, or one expressly designed to be completed quickly. Strong student support services are important as well: if you can’t reliably gather information about a program of interest, you should not feel comfortable attending that school. Finally, if you have some college experience, you ought to make sure you find a school that will accept an acceptable number of your transfer credits.
How the Best Online Colleges of 2016 Stack Up
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
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.
Finding the Best Online College For You
As with a residential college, finding the right school is a difficult and perhaps ultimately subjective exercise. Even among students interested in non-traditional subjects, it is easy to find a variety of colleges that can accommodate your academic interests and professional ambitions. For many, that means that finding a school with a quality curriculum and a flexible schedule at the right price is paramount.
If you already know what you want to study, you can hone in on specific programs by looking at our lists of the best online colleges by degree type. Whether you’re interested in studying nursing, engineering, or computer science, our rankings have identified the best online schools in more than 60 subjects. If you haven’t chosen a major, you can also use our state guides to search for schools in your region.
We also have resources to help students who are looking at programs outside of a traditional four-year degree structure. If you want to earn an associate degree, or are looking to begin at a two-year school, you can check our list of the top community colleges across the country. Similarly, if you have your associate or have knocked out most of a bachelor’s degree, we also have compiled a list of top degree completion programs. Finally, for students considering graduate study, we have rankings and reviews for the top graduate degree programs in a variety of fields. From engineering to theology, our ranked lists will help you find the top online schools that match best with your academic interests.
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 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 top online schools compare to rates of all four-year colleges and universities nationwide.
Growing Popularity of Online Programs
One in three U.S. college students is 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 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
Source: Sloan Consortium Annual Survey of Online Education
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.
Recent declines in online enrollment can be attributed to an overall, post-recession decline in college enrollment as well as a significant decline in enrollment at online for-profit colleges. Overall, enrollment in online degree programs is growing at a faster pace than general college enrollment.
Growth of Available Online Degree Programs
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 2012 and 2014. Over the last three academic years, we’ve seen a 45% increase in the number of online programs offered across the United States, for a total of 13,092 in 2014-2015. You can choose from over 550 individual degree programs alone that are offered by the 4-year colleges featured within our list of the best online universities.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
Financing Your Online Degree
Despite the relative affordability of online programs, the need for financial aid is still a reality for most students. But rest assured, loans aren’t your only option. Explore our collection of financial aid resources or dig into one of the following guides to read more about financing your education.
Approximately two-thirds of today’s college students rely on loans to fund their education, but there are plenty of overlooked financing options savvy students can use to reduce the total costs of their education.
Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first and most crucial step for any student seeking financial aid. Follow our step-by-step guide for answers to frequently asked questions.
Financial aid for online learning is equivalent to what you’ll find for campus-based learning, but that hasn’t always been the case. Learn about the changes that have taken place and funding opportunities for online students.
Online programs can provide an affordable and flexible option for single parents looking for a more secure financial future for their children. We’ve compiled a list of scholarships for these hard-working parents.
Military spouses and children are often faced with uncertainty, making online education a good option for those on the move. We’ve compiled a list of scholarships specifically for military dependents.
Resources to Help You Succeed
Are you considering a return to school? Do you feel uncertain about your ability to pick up where you left off? Browse our collection of student resources for a little peace of mind. Our guides are designed to help students at any level enter the classroom with confidence. Whether at home or on campus, find the help you need to get the most out of your education. Below you’ll find some of our more popular resources.
There’s a lot of misinformation circulating online for inexperienced researchers. With the help of our online research guide, you can learn how to find reputable sources and discern fact from fiction.
For those returning to school, the thought of academic writing can feel intimidating. From research papers to essay exams, our guide provides a high-level overview of how to tackle the usual suspects.
Choosing a major can feel overwhelming, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Let us walk you through the process of narrowing your choice and take the next step with confidence.
Returning to college? Know that stress comes with the territory, especially if you’re trying to also balance the demands of work and family. Let us help you better understand stress and how to manage it.
Whether it’s your first time away from home or you’re returning to school, paying for college means living on a tighter budget. Our guide walks you through tracking expenses, establishing a budget, and saving money.