Best Online Colleges for Working Adults

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On the road to completing a college degree, there's more than one path to success. Rather than going directly into college after high school graduation or completing a degree without a break, an increasing number of bright minds choose to delay receiving their college diploma. The reasons for this decision are numerous: some choose to travel the world, some decide to start families early in life or to pursue a career in the military, while for others life simply gets in the way, often due to commitments outside of their control, such as a family illness.

Whatever the reason, not everyone wants to, needs to, or can complete a college degree directly out of high school. Schools acknowledge these circumstances and make resources available for what they often refer to as nontraditional students, usually defined as undergraduate students over the age of 25. Nontraditional student enrollment is more common in some schools than others, and many institutions offer resources, host organizations, or even provide courses tailored to the needs of nontraditional students.

Nontraditional students face unique challenges. They often juggle a variety of important responsibilities, such as paying bills and meeting other obligations, while at the same time meeting the demands and deadlines of college courses. And when it comes to providing environments where nontraditional students can flourish, not all colleges are equal. In an effort to identify institutions that go the extra mile in helping nontraditional students, we've compiled the list below.

See Methodology
Rank School Name Location Description
1 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill LOCATION Chapel Hill, NC

Chartered in 1789, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the oldest public universities in the United States. In recent years, the school has also become a leading destination for non-traditional college students seeking an online education. Undergraduates may pursue a degree or professional certificate through the William and Ida Friday Center of Distance Education. These pathways may be entirely self-paced or synchronous, and are available for both full- and part-time students. Graduate and professional certificates are also offered for distance learners through various subdivisions of UNC-Chapel Hill, including the Kenan-Flagler Business School, the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and the UNC School of Nursing.

Opportunities at UNC-Chapel Hill are not limited to enrolled students. Carolina Courses Online allows web-based students to take courses during the fall, spring, and summer terms; a full course list is available online. Admission to UNC-Chapel Hill will not be required for enrollment in these courses; students must be high school seniors or older. The UNC Online Exchange also enables students to participate in courses at other UNC campuses for no additional fee.

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2 Arizona State University-Tempe LOCATION Tempe, AZ

With a total enrollment of more than 51,000 students during the 2016-17 academic year, Tempe's Arizona State University is considered the sixth-largest public university in the country. In addition to the brick-and-mortar campus, roughly 30,000 students are enrolled through ASU Online, the school's web-based academic wing. A Spring 2017 survey found that 55% of students taking courses through ASU Online fall between the ages of 21 and 30; an additional 41% are aged 31 or older. The most popular degree pathways for ASU Online undergraduates during that term were psychology, electrical engineering, information technology, and organizational leadership; for web-based graduate students, the most common fields of study were curriculum and instruction, social work, and emergency management and homeland security.

In all, more than 140 degree programs are offered through ASU Online. All incoming students are connected with an 'enrollment coach' to help walk them through the processes for applying, seeking financial aid, and choosing an academic track. Success coaches are also available to assist students with staying on track and balancing schoolwork with other important obligations, such as employment or childcare.

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3 University of Minnesota-Twin Cities LOCATION Minneapolis, MN

The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities is the flagship institution of the UMN school system, with main campuses located in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. UMN Online offers an extensive selection of degrees, certificates, and continuing education programs. These pathways are offered in three different formats: entirely online, primarily online (with 80% web-based instruction), and partially online or hybrid (with 50% to 80% web-based instruction). The vast majority of UMN Online students pay in-state tuition; the exceptions are out-of-state students enrolled in at least one classroom-based course in a given semester, who will pay out-of-state tuition.

The university offers a total of 17 degree and certificate programs approved by the Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act, a federal program designed to ease tuition costs for underemployed and unemployed individuals. WIOA-recognized pathways for undergrads include bachelor's degrees in accounting, business management, health management, and three tracks dedicated to manufacturing management. Other opportunities include three bachelor's certificates, a hybrid master's degree in occupational therapy, and a professional development track in human resource test prep. Interested candidates may contact their nearest Minnesota Workforce Center for information about WIOA financial support.

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4 Northeastern University Global Network LOCATION Boston, MA

Founded in 1898, Boston's Northeastern University has a long history of cooperative education programs that combine classroom learning with hands-on practicum training. This tradition is a cornerstone of the Northeastern University Global Network, a web-based alliance of educators and employers in more than 150 countries across the globe. The network's degree programs are designed to meet current industrial standards, and to integrate experiential learning into the curricula. These pathways are also geared toward working and non-traditional students, allowing them to choose the course delivery, schedule, and location that best meets their needs.

The network's online offerings include an accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, which follows a blended format in order to prepare students for their post-degree licensure requirements; this pathway may be completed in as little as 16 months of full-time enrollment, and is offered through Northeastern's Boston and Charlotte campuses. More than a dozen master's degree programs are also available through the Global Network, including pathways in criminal justice, digital media, project management, and teaching at the elementary and secondary levels.

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5 Michigan State University LOCATION East Lansing, MI

Located in East Lansing, Michigan State University has a current enrollment of roughly 50,000 students, making it the ninth-largest public university in the United States. In addition to the brick-and-mortar campus, MSU offers a wide selection of academic options for nontraditional college students and distance learners. A total 45 bachelor's and master's degree pathways are delivered in either a fully-online or hybrid (50% online or more) format. These include 16 tracks in education, four in nursing, and three in social work. MSU Online also features a wide selection of online and hybrid certificate programs, many of which do not require enrollment at the university.

As an official member of the National Council of State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), MSU is authorized to deliver distance education programs (including online and hybrid tracks) to students in 47 states and the District of Columbia; as of 2017, only Florida and Massachusetts are exempt. This reciprocity agreement ensures nationwide participation in traditional and accelerated online degree programs for working adults.

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6 North Dakota State University LOCATION Fargo, ND

Headquartered in Fargo, North Dakota State University was originally founded as an agricultural college in 1890; the school today offers more than 300 degree and certificate programs for undergraduate and graduate students. The current lineup includes 35 online pathways for distance learners. At the bachelor's level, web-based students can choose from fully-online degrees in sociology, pre-communication, or human development and family science with concentrations in adult, child and adolescent, or family studies. Blended RN to BSN and LPN to BSN tracks are also offered for aspiring nurses.

NDSU also offers fully-online master's degrees in 11 fields, such as construction management, software engineering, and transportation and urban systems; blended master's degrees in education, music education, and public health are also available. NDSU delivers some of its online degree pathways as part of the Great Plains IDEA, a regional consortium that enables students to take courses from 11 leading degree-granting institutions. A flat tuition rate is assessed for Great Plains IDEA enrollees. This program enables non-traditional college students to draw on a large pool of course offerings in order to complete a degree track that is most relevant to their professional needs and goals.

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7 The University of Alabama LOCATION Tuscaloosa, AL

Home of the beloved Crimson Tide athletic program, Tuscaloosa's University of Alabama enables students to enroll in online courses and degree pathways as part of the Bama by Distance program. In addition to fully-online and blended options, Bama by Distance students may also draw from courses that utilize online video streaming and/or Intercampus Interactive Telecommunication System (IITS) videoconferencing. The tuition rates for online undergraduates ($355 per credit) and graduate students ($375 per credit) are on par with the tuition rates for brick-and-mortar in-state students, allowing non-traditional distance learners to complete their degree program without breaking the bank.

Degree programs for online undergrads include eight pathways in human environmental sciences (such as food science and early childhood education), RN to BSN and RN to BSN/MSN nursing tracks, and degrees in commerce and business administration, engineering, and interdisciplinary studies. A total of 42 online master's programs are also offered, including 19 different pathways concentrated in the field of education.

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8 Pennsylvania State University LOCATION University Park, PA

Penn State World Campus, the online learning arm of Penn State University, was officially launched in 1998. The campus has expanded its offerings to more than 120 online degree and certificate programs, and currently enrolls roughly 18,000 students ― making it the second-largest institution in the Pennsylvania State University school system. Online courses delivered through Penn State World Campus may vary in subject matter, but they are all linked by four common traits: a fully-online format; a curriculum that is 'academically equal' to brick-and-mortar counterparts; 'interactive and dynamic' coursework; and an experience that is conducive to adults and nontraditional students. Most online courses at the campus are asynchronous.

Degree options for online students encompass both popular subjects and niche areas of study. Undergrads can choose from web-based bachelor's programs in accounting, criminal justice, finance, and nursing, as well as digital and multimedia design, energy and sustainability policy, international politics, and turfgrass science. Master's degree options for online grad students are equally eclectic, with a strong emphasis on engineering and environment-oriented studies.

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9 University of Utah LOCATION Salt Lake City, UT

'Respected, Engaging, Convenient' is the motto of UOnline, the distance learning branch of the University of Utah. One of the school's newest opportunities for online students is BlockU, a year-long intensive program framed around the common theme of global citizenship; students take part in community-building projects and learn about major contemporary issues while also completing core credit requirements. UOnline also offers traditional degree programs, most of which are self-paced to provide flexibility for parents and working students. Undergraduates can choose from online bachelor's tracks in economics, RN to BS nursing, sustainable tourism and hospitality management, psychology, and social work. Additionally, online graduate students may pursue master's degrees in electrical and computer engineering, gerontology, information systems, teaching, or business administration.

Online students pay the same tuition rates as their on-campus counterparts, as well as an additional $60 fee per course; most online students pay less than $9,000 in annual tuition, though rates are program-specific. The University of Utah allows online students to transfer credits from other degree-granting institutions in Utah, as well as BYU-Idaho.

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10 University of South Florida LOCATION Tampa, FL

Located in the heart of Tampa, the University of South Florida offers a wide selection of online learning options for non-traditional college students. Undergraduates can pursue fully- or partially-online bachelor's degrees in information studies, public health, information technology, nursing (RN to BSN), criminal justice/criminology, and women's studies. For graduate students, a total of 27 master's degrees and two doctoral programs are offered in an online or blended format; these include 11 pathways in education, seven in public health, and three in medicine. The school offers hundreds of individual online courses each semester, as well.

USF's Innovation Education (InEd) program oversees the university's online degree and certificate offerings, and has joined forces with the USF Strategic Plan to positive student outcomes for distance learners. In addition to online academics, InEd offers professional development programs in fields like human resources, project management, and organizational development. Other InEd programs include certification and licensure testing, graduate-level certification, and programs aimed at adults 50 and older.

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Are you an older student considering pursuing a new degree or completing a degree that you started? If so, there's never been a time to go after that dream diploma. The reasons for this are plentiful but primarily stem from advances in technology that allow passionate students to go after a degree in ways that were once impossible. After considering the points below, you'll find that by completing a degree online, you don't have to forego your commitments to take your career to the next level.

Definition of Nontraditional Students

Traditional students are generally defined as learners who attend college soon after completing a high school degree. These undergraduates are often enrolled full-time at their institution and are usually between 18 to 24. While definitions may greatly vary, non-traditional students frequently meet the following characteristics:

  • Over the age of 24 (or, in some cases, as young as 23)
  • Several years out of high school
  • May be a parent or have dependents
  • May be married
  • May hold a GED rather than a high school diploma
  • May have completed military service
  • Financially independent

Depending on the institution, any of these characteristics may meet an institution's parameters of a nontraditional student. Nontraditional students wait to complete degrees for an array of reasons. In some cases these reasons stem from choices made by students, whereas in other situations circumstances delaying degree completion are outside of a learner's control.

Why Online Programs are a Good Option for Working Adults

Working adults who decide to pursue a college degree face a variety of challenges. Earning a college degree is difficult on its own, and it's only made more difficult by combining college's relentless onslaught of deadlines, projects, and tests with a work schedule. It can all become overwhelming.

Fortunately, options tailored to the needs of nontraditional students are increasingly available throughout the higher education system. One excellent option for working adults to consider is online programs. Online programs provide the flexibility that working adults need, allowing them to complete their degree while maintaining their job schedule.

Online programs often offer accelerated degree programs, allowing motivated learners to complete their degree much faster than the traditional degree completion route allows.

Sheneka Balogun Former HBX Participant

How did HBX accommodate you as a non-traditional/working student?

When I told a friend that I was considering applying to HBX, she tried to talk me out of it, only because I am a working mom of two young children-ages 5 & 7. She was concerned how I would fit a tripod of courses from an elite school like Harvard into my already full schedule. I'm so glad that I took a chance because HBX was one of the best educational experiences of my life! I relied heavily on the HBX calendar that provided me an overview of the weeks, and peer-to-peer learning. The calendar kept me grounded because it showed me that the coursework was manageable. The community of learners across the globe on the journey with me kept me connected and engaged in course discussion.

What are the common traits you see in a non-traditional/working students?

We want to learn things that are applicable to both our professional and personal lives. We are looking for non-traditional ways to advance our knowledge and understanding of the world around us. We are value-driven and that simply is a way of saying that everything has to be meaningful and relevant, and worth investing our time because we juggle many responsibilities.

Can students be successful at an online program while working full-time?

Without a doubt! As I completed the coursework each week at HBX it was really apparent that they had me in mind when they developed the curriculum. There was a variety of learning resources and each week I looked forward to logging in because it was a challenging, fun, and rewarding experience all bundled into one. Even with other priorities that compete for our time as full-time working students, if colleges and universities design it with us in mind we will be successful.

How can universities better equip non-traditional students, like working mothers, veteran, and students exclusively enrolled in distance programs?

Universities can equip us by identifying what is important to us and then developing programs that suit our professional needs. Higher education has to continue re-inventing itself and evolve with a diverse, student population like me. We want to be equipped with 21st century skills so that we are competitive applicants for jobs and promotion in a global economy. We just want it packaged in a way that takes it from theory to practice, and fits into our busy lives.

What services should a non-traditional/working student look for when choosing a university or program?

Support and connection in real time. Students should determine if the program has resources to help manage and organize their time, and also academic support for coursework. HBX developed a platform that helped to facilitate learning student to student. They also embedded opportunities within the course to practice the concepts learned each week. It was a different model of academic support I had not experienced before and it worked! Often times, support and connection comes in novel ways. Students should look for what is different about the program, and what kind of unique services have been engineered with them in mind so that if they need support, it is at their fingertips.

What benefits are there to working while attending school?

There are so many benefits to working while attending school. You get to put into practice what you learn in school and that helps to retain what you are learning in coursework. It also helps to see the immediate value that education offers to you and motivates you to continue until you finish!

Nontraditional Student Enrollment Expected to Rise

Nontraditional students are common at colleges throughout the country, particularly their digital wings. In an article titled "27 is the new 18: Adult students on the rise" nonprofit, nonpartisan Education Commission of the States discusses how the ratio of non-traditional students attending higher education is only expected to increase. While enrollment totals are higher for students younger than 25, the NCES projects total enrollment growth rates for older students will outpace growth rates of traditional, younger students through 2024.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Gary Alan Miller Director University Career Services
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

How does your school accommodate non-traditional students?

We provide the opportunity for students to request appointments via video chat or phone call, to accommodate difficulties coming to traditional office hours. We offer networking programs in evening hours to accommodate the schedules of individuals who are working. Non-traditional students can, of course, also access our online resources around the clock. We strive to support all of our students, regardless of their needs.

What are the common traits you see in a non-traditional student?

I don't know that non-traditional students can be stereotyped. Each individual has their own strengths and their own situation. A place like UNC-Chapel Hill is probably known more for traditional college students. But, we want all students to both feel welcome and be successful on our campus.

What services should a non-traditional student look for when choosing a university?

It depends on their individual needs and how much those needs require unique services, of course. My advice is for students to be truly reflective of their needs so that they know what questions to ask with regard to services. For example, if the individual knows that they are not going to be able to be on campus during traditional work hours, they should ask how they will be able to benefit from those services.

What benefits are there to working while attending school?

From a career perspective, adding that practical experience to your story can be invaluable. Employers appreciate the work ethic and dedication it takes for someone to be successful in college while maintaining employment. Of course, a concern may develop if the person loses the ability to take on other experiences that would benefit their career plans (such as an internship in a new area into which they are trying to transition). But, we work with students to make sure they can convey all the positive aspects of their work in parallel to what they are learning in the classroom.