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Online colleges have made higher education more accessible than ever before. This is great news for you because earning a college degree is one of the best ways to advance your career.
Some of the world's best academic and professional programs are now available at your fingertips. You can balance life's competing demands, like work and childcare, while finishing your education in an online degree program.
Use the following guide to learn more about online degrees and how to students can choose the best online universities and online degree programs. Find information about cost, the application process, and what it takes to succeed at learning from home.
What Are the Best Online Colleges and Top Online Universities of 2021? Here Are Our Top 10:
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|Rank||School||Cost per Credit|
|3||California State University||
|4||University of Florida||
|5||University of Central Florida||
|7||Texas Tech University||
|8||Arizona State University||
|9||Colorado State University||
- How We Rank Schools
At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you will make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering school rankings that are transparent, inclusive, and relevant for online students.
Our rankings are grounded in a few guiding principles and use the latest statistical data available from trusted sources. Read our Ranking Methodology. We hope our approach helps you find the school that is best for you.
2021 Best Accredited Online Colleges and Top Online Universities
We review hundreds of online college programs each year to help students find the best online universities and colleges to meet their needs. Each ranked school is fully accredited and nonprofit. Our methodology uses qualitative measures and data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics and proprietary school surveys.
Use our ranked list of the best online colleges and universities to begin your search for a program that works with your budget, schedule, and learning style. Each school profile includes information about available subjects and majors, as well as notable student outcomes.
|Boston, MA||Graduation Rate: 88%||
Since opening in 1898, Northeastern University has become a leader in experiential learning, earning a place among the top online universities. Northeastern offers roughly 140 degree and certificate programs across its nine schools and colleges. Distance learners can access a network of partner organizations to gain experience in the field while they study online.
At Northeastern, distance learners can study largely at their own pace. The university offers an array of fully online degrees with no on-campus components. Degree-seekers can also access Northeastern's writing and tutoring center for academic support and career services for professional guidance.
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Indiana University - Bloomington
|Bloomington, IN||Graduation Rate: 78%||
The flagship school in the Indiana University System, Indiana University Bloomington serves about 6,000 students through more than 100 online degrees and certificates. Online learners can also access success coaching, tutoring and academic support, and the university's extensive libraries and resources.
IU students can complete their programs on a convenient schedule, and many learners may study asynchronously from anywhere in the world. Some programs require applicants to be employed in a relevant field while studying. Most courses run throughout 16-week sessions, but some six-week, eight-week, and 12-week courses are available.
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California State University - Los Angeles
|Los Angeles, CA||Graduation Rate: 48%||
Founded in 1947, California State University, Los Angeles, offers students access to the Cal State Online network. The network serves more than 8,000 students through thousands of online classes and over 100 online programs, including public administration and agricultural education.
Cal State LA offers fully online degrees, certificates, and completion programs. Additionally, students can take online courses outside of their degree as long as the schedules align with their main program. Some programs offer accelerated study, although these options may include synchronous or on-campus components.
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University of Florida
|Gainesville, FL||Graduation Rate: 88%||
The oldest and largest higher education institution in the Sunshine State, the University of Florida significantly increased the accessibility of its programs in 2014 by establishing UF Online. The university offers more than 20 online bachelor's degrees, including options in nursing, computer science, and psychology. Graduate students and certificate-seekers can also choose from a wealth of programs.
UF Online's classes run in the fall, spring, and summer. Online learners get full access to academic and student support services, including tutoring, wellness programs, career services, and UF's libraries. Furthermore, UF's online programs cost significantly less than on-campus options.
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University of Central Florida
|Orlando, FL||Graduation Rate: 73%||
Founded in 1963 to give the U.S. space program a boost, the University of Central Florida began offering online courses in 1999. The university launched UCF Online in 2016, which currently hosts more than 2,100 online courses and over 100 online degrees and certificates.
UCF serves more than 5,500 online students, providing access to success coaches, skills training, career support services, and library services. Through the Center for Distributed Learning, UCF develops stronger online programs, advances learning technology, and trains instructors more effectively. The center has won over 100 awards in areas like online teaching and digital learning innovation.
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|Longview, TX||Graduation Rate: 59%||
Despite enrolling just over 3,100 students, LeTourneau University is among the top online universities in the country, offering more than 35 degree plans and hundreds of courses to distance learners. While degree-seekers can complete most programs entirely online, some classes feature interactive assignments or in-person practicum requirements.
At LETU, online students can access a student success center for academic and professional support services. Classes typically run asynchronously in eight-week time slots throughout the spring, fall, and summer semesters, although some graduate programs may offer shorter sessions.
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Texas Tech University
|Lubbock, TX||Graduation Rate: 59%||
Since introducing a revolutionary distance learning program in 1966, Texas Tech University has now expanded its catalog to include online offerings. The university currently hosts about 80 online degree and certificate programs.
At TTU, online learners can enroll in programs like a bachelor's in human services, a master's in agribusiness, and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. Distance students can also access extensive student support resources like career services and academic advising.
Degree-seekers can complete many programs entirely online and asynchronously, although some programs may require occasional on-campus components. Most online courses run throughout the fall, spring, and summer semesters, and certain programs provide accelerated sessions.
TTU also offers hybrid programs, where students take some in-person classes at one of eight regional locations. Out-of-state students who take all of their classes online pay comparable tuition rates to Texas residents.
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Arizona State University - Tempe
|Tempe, AZ||Graduation Rate: 69%||
The Grand Canyon State's flagship school, Arizona State University also earns a place among the top online universities. ASU offers over 200 online programs, including degrees in sports business, food and nutrition entrepreneurship, and biomedical diagnostics. The university also hosts many online student groups to help distance learners feel like part of the academic community.
Students can choose from six start dates each year, typically taking classes one at a time during 7.5-week sessions. In addition to traditional student support services, ASU offers online students access to wellness services and time management coaching. At the graduate level, all online learners pay the same tuition rate, regardless of their location.
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Colorado State University - Fort Collins
|Fort Collins, CO||Graduation Rate: 69%||
Established in 1870, Colorado State University has offered distance learning for more than 50 years. Students at CSU can choose from more than 50 online degrees, including programs in natural resource economics, applied statistics, and systems engineering.
Online classes run asynchronously, although some programs feature synchronous sessions. Courses run throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Online courses may last for four, eight, or 12 weeks. The university does not charge distance learners out-of-state tuition rates.
Online students can access a variety of resources, including the school's writing center, libraries, career center, and IT helpdesk.
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|Angola, IN||Graduation Rate: 65%||
Founded in 1884, Trine University currently offers more than 20 online programs at various levels, including degrees in business analytics, manufacturing technology, and organizational leadership. First-time distance learners take a four-week online learning orientation at the beginning of their program to get used to the online format.
Full-time students typically complete two courses in each eight-week session in the spring and fall. Six-week sessions are also available in the summer. Learners may be able to move at a slower or faster pace, depending on the program. Trine offers six enrollment dates each year, and degree-seekers can access career services, tutoring, counseling, and academic advising online. Online students all pay the same rate, even if they live out of state.
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The University of West Florida
|Pensacola, FL||Graduation Rate: 44%||
Originally founded in 1963, the University of West Florida holds a place among the best online colleges, offering more than 40 online degrees and certificates. Degree options include clinical lab sciences, exceptional student education, and instructional design and technology. Online students can also pursue shorter certificate programs to boost their professional credentials.
UWF offers at least six start dates each year for distance learners, with courses typically running through eight-week or 16-week sessions. In addition to tech support, online learners can access tutoring, a writing center, and career services. Florida residents pay the lowest tuition for online courses.
UWF holds regional accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
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Pennsylvania State University
|University Park, PA||Graduation Rate: 71%||
Founded in 1998, Penn State's World Campus delivers coursework through the Canvas learning management system. The school offers more than 150 online programs and certificates, including degrees in fields like biobehavioral health, digital multimedia design, and additive manufacturing. To prepare for the distance learning environment, learners complete an online student orientation course.
Penn State's online courses begin in the fall, spring, and summer, with classes typically running asynchronously throughout the full semester, although condensed sessions may be available. Degree-seekers can find many opportunities for interaction and community-building with their peers, along with an extensive list of online resources, like academic, professional, and wellness support services.
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|Chicago, IL||Graduation Rate: 71%||
DePaul University offers more than 30 online degrees, plus various certificates and endorsements that can help boost your resume. The university offers programs in fields like leadership studies, nursing, and human-computer interaction. Online learners at DePaul do not pay out-of-state tuition rates, no matter where they live.
Most of DePaul's online classes run asynchronously throughout each quarter. Summers feature either two five-week mini-terms or a full 10-week term. Depending on their program, many students can complete their entire degree online without campus visits. They can also access a full suite of student support services and join various student and community organizations online.
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New Mexico State University
|Las Cruces, NM||Graduation Rate: 46%||
Founded in 1888, New Mexico State University now offers over 500 online courses and more than 60 online degrees in fields like gender and sexuality studies, geomatics, and industrial engineering. Along with entirely online degrees, NMSU offers hybrid and interactive television programs with classes and viewings held at regional locations.
Online students can start classes in the fall, spring, and summer, and most courses run for the full semester or eight-week sessions. NMSU features a fixed-rate online tuition, which means out-of-state distance learners pay the same rate as residents. Once enrolled, online learners can access school libraries, academic support, and career services.
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Maryville University of Saint Louis
|Saint Louis, MO||Graduation Rate: 72%||
Maryville University offers more than 30 programs that students can complete entirely online. Program options include a bachelor's in forensic psychology, a master's in software development, and a doctorate in higher education leadership. The university also offers an early-access bridge program that allows undergraduates to earn 12 graduate-level credits, fast-tracking a master's degree and saving money.
At Maryville, learners can begin their studies on any of six annual start dates. Online courses run through eight-week sessions. Most programs have no on-campus requirements, although doctoral students may need to participate in some on-campus residencies.
Online programs with internships allow students to choose a location near their home. Furthermore, all students pay the same tuition for online programs, regardless of where they live.
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|Athens, OH||Graduation Rate: 64%||
Founded in 1804, Ohio University now enrolls nearly 8,000 students in over 60 online programs. OHIO Online offers a diverse selection of programs, including degrees in applied management, interior architecture, and athletic administration. The university offers accelerated degrees, degree completion programs, and hybrid study options.
Online students can choose from eight start dates each year, and classes last 7-8 weeks. Out-of-state distance learners only pay slightly higher tuition than in-state participants, and all students benefit from a locked-in tuition rate for 12 consecutive semesters once they start. Additionally, most online programs deliver all coursework asynchronously and eliminate on-campus requirements.
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Florida Atlantic University
|Boca Raton, FL||Graduation Rate: 52%||
Since opening in 1964, Florida Atlantic University has developed more than 35 online programs. Distance learners can enroll in programs like an RN-to-BSN pathway and a master's in geoscience, along with minors, standalone courses, and certificate tracks.
FAU provides distance learners with access to various tutorials, financial and career counselors, and academic advisors. Classes start multiple times each year, and courses typically run asynchronously for five or eight weeks, as well as for full or half semesters. Some programs offer three-week intersessions during winter break.
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Oklahoma State University
|Stillwater, OK||Graduation Rate: 61%||
Founded in 1890, Oklahoma State University now features more than 50 online programs at various levels, including degrees in university studies, nutritional sciences, and family financial planning. Most programs deliver coursework asynchronously, and many students can graduate without ever visiting the school's campus in Stillwater.
Many online classes run through the full fall and spring semesters, with summer semesters offering four-week and eight-week terms. Distance learners can access an online success center, writing center, and career services, along with free tutoring and success coaching.
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|Center Valley, PA||Graduation Rate: 70%||
Despite enrolling only about 3,500 students, DeSales University maintains a significant online presence, offering various online courses and more than a dozen online bachelor's degrees. Students can take classes online during six-week or eight-week sessions. They can also choose a blended option and study in person during the evenings.
Programs include bachelor's tracks in human resource management, pharmaceutical marketing, and supply chain management. Programs start up to nine times each year, and accelerated formats allow learners to graduate more quickly than traditional programs. DeSales also offers online learners the same tuition rate no matter where they live, along with tuition discounts during the summer semester.
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|Livonia, MI||Graduation Rate: 70%||
Established in 1937, Madonna University is among the largest Franciscan schools and one of the top online universities in the country. MU offers more than 20 online programs, including a bachelor's in family and consumer sciences, a master's in criminal justice leadership and intelligence, and a doctorate in nursing practice.
MU's online programs provide extensive support for learners, including peer tutoring, collaborative learning, and uninterrupted library access. Classes often run asynchronously and entirely online without any on-campus requirements. Students can begin in the spring, fall, or summer.
At MU, both in-state and out-of-state online students pay the same tuition rate, and close to 85% of students receive scholarships or financial aid in some form.
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University of Cincinnati
|Cincinnati, OH||Graduation Rate: 68%||
Founded in 1819, the University of Cincinnati now offers more than 50 online degrees at various levels, including programs in radiation science technology, respiratory therapy, and behavior analysis. UC delivers most online coursework asynchronously.
UC offers distance learners flexibility in their studies, allowing them to complete many degrees on full-time or part-time schedules. The university offers six annual start dates, online tutorials, and many helpful academic resources, along with peer support services and career services. UC only charges a small per-credit surcharge to out-of-state learners.
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Appalachian State University
|Boone, NC||Graduation Rate: 72%||
Founded in 1899, Appalachian State University now offers nearly 30 online degrees and almost 20 online certificates. Program options include a bachelor's in workforce leadership and development, a master's in educational media, and a doctorate in educational leadership.
At Appalachian, online classes typically start in the fall, spring, and summer semesters and run for half-semester or full-semester sessions. Many programs deliver all coursework asynchronously, although synchronous sessions and in-person internships may be required depending on the program. The university also offers academic and professional support, wellness services, and opportunities to join and connect with the online and campus community.
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|Lakeland, FL||Graduation Rate: 42%||
Founded in 1935, Southeastern University currently offers nearly 40 online programs, including a bachelor's in humanitarian compassion, a master of art in design management, and a doctorate in strategic leadership. Online learners can also access SEU's libraries, extensive student services, and many community organizations.
Online classes at SEU typically run asynchronously throughout eight-week sessions and feature no on-campus visits, although some graduate programs require internships or residencies. Students can choose between full-time and part-time enrollment options, and all distance learners pay the same tuition rate no matter where they live.
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|Winfield, KS||Graduation Rate: 41%||
Founded in 1885 and located in Winfield, Kansas, Southwestern College offers accessible and flexible educational options for online students. SC offers more than 30 online programs and certificates, including bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in fields like operations management, security administration, and education.
Most online courses at SC run throughout six-week sessions in the spring, fall, and summer, and students can enroll during any of the eight start dates throughout the year. Degree-seekers can expedite graduation with heavier course loads or by taking advantage of a generous transfer credit policy. Online learners all pay the same tuition rate at SC, regardless of where they live.
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Texas State University
|San Marcos, TX||Graduation Rate: 55%||
Founded in 1899, Texas State University now offers a variety of online learning options, including continuing education courses, certificates, and degrees in areas like health information management, advanced practice leadership, and developmental education.
Texas State delivers online coursework both synchronously and asynchronously, with some programs running entirely online and others featuring some on-campus components. Students can start in the fall, spring, and summer, and classes run for five, eight, 10, or 16 weeks, depending on the program and semester. In addition to its mostly online programs, Texas State offers dozens of undergraduate programs that can be completed 24-49% online through a hybrid format.
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How to Choose an Online College
Step 1: Check the Accreditation Status
Verifying a school's accreditation should be a top priority for any student applying to college. Accreditation status can impact your ability to apply for financial aid or transfer credits.
Accreditation status should be available on each school's official website. Students can also verify a school's status through the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education (CHEA). Both maintain lists of recognized regional, national, and programmatic accrediting agencies.
Why Does Accreditation Matter?
Accreditation matters because it sets quality standards meant to ensure that online degrees hold value. Employers and graduate schools know that if you hold a degree from an accredited online college, then you graduated from a program that meets the rigorous requirements for accreditation.
In contrast, an unaccredited degree can cost you more than job offers. Graduates of diploma mills risk leaving school with debt and nothing to show for it but a degree that isn't recognized by employers, graduate schools, or professional certifying agencies.
Always verify that an online college or online university is accredited.
National vs. Regional Accreditation
Colleges are accredited by either regional or national agencies.
Regionally accredited online colleges are typically nonprofit and state-operated. In the U.S., there are seven regional accrediting agencies that evaluate two-year and four-year colleges. Some states also have their own accrediting bodies independent of the regional agencies. You can learn more about each individual agency, and its jurisdiction, through the Office of Postsecondary Education.
Most nationally accredited online colleges are for-profit and meet lower academic standards than their regional counterparts. Students considering a nationally accredited online college should research the school's reputation and understand how academic standards differ from regionally accredited schools. It's important to note that most nationally accredited schools will accept transfer credits from regionally accredited colleges and universities, but the opposite is not always true.
Students should also be wary of accreditation mills that offer genuine-looking but ultimately phony endorsements to schools.
In some cases, individual programs may also be accredited by an independent board. One example is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, which evaluates academic programs in applied science, computing, engineering, and technology. These agencies assess the competence of both on-campus and online degree programs giving students the peace of mind that their school's department offers a reputable program.
Some state-level professional certifications require that students graduate from a program with programmatic accreditation.
After confirming accreditation, it can still be difficult to weigh the value and quality of one online university over another. Keep in mind that regardless of whether a program is offered online or on campus, all regionally 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 schools hire.
Any online school that fails to meet program and faculty quality requirements risks losing accreditation.
Due to the rapid evolution of online coursework, online degrees are quickly becoming some of the most high-quality degree options available. To date, well over 2,000 colleges offer accredited online degrees. While our list of the best online colleges and universities is a good starting point for researching programs, we've outlined additional steps you can take to narrow your list of potential accredited online colleges.
How Do You Choose the Best Online College for You?
In the world of online education, there is no overall best online college or best online degree program. But there is a best option for you. Ask yourself these five questions to begin the search for the best online colleges and universities for you:
- What do you want to do with your degree?
- What degree level do you want to earn?
- What majors will help you achieve your career goals?
- How much flexibility do you need?
- How much can you afford to spend on an online degree program?
By understanding what you want out of a particular degree, you can make educated choices about which online universities and colleges will give you an acceptable return on investment.
To help get you started on researching career options, check out these guides:
Step 2: Pick a Degree Level
There are a couple considerations to make before choosing a degree level to pursue. One, what level of education have you achieved already? Two, what are your career goals? There are many online bachelor's degrees out there, but depending on your career aspirations you may also want to consider online associate degrees and online master's degrees. The following list can help you better understand these options:
- Online Associate Degree
Full-time students can typically earn an associate degree in two years. An online associate degree is ideal for those who have a high school diploma and who want to quickly gain practical career skills.
Associate degrees are less expensive than a bachelor's degree, and many online community colleges offer programs that open the door to vocational and administrative support positions such as legal assistant, medical assistant, and medical biller and coder. An online associate degree program is also a cost-effective way to complete general education requirements before transferring to a four-year program.
Learn more about how to choose an online associate degree.
- Online Bachelor's Degree
Most full-time students can earn a online bachelor's degree in four years. If you have a high school diploma or some college credits to your name, an online bachelor's program may be the right choice for you. Some colleges even offer degree completion programs specifically for students who have earned an associate degree and would like to finish a bachelor's program.
A bachelor's degree is perhaps the single best way to increase your earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees with a bachelor's degree earn about $461 more dollars per week than those with a high school diploma. Most entry-level positions at professional organizations require at least a four-year degree.
Business, healthcare, tech and other sectors prefer to hire candidates who are well-rounded and have good critical thinking and communication skills. An online bachelor's degree provides students with all of these skills, making them desirable to employers.
Learn more about how to choose an online bachelor's degree.
- Online Master's Degree
Most online master's programs can be completed in less than three years of full-time study. Many schools offer accelerated online degree programs, allowing you to complete your graduate degree in just 12 months. You should consider pursuing a graduate degree if you already have a bachelor's degree but want to switch careers, qualify for more advanced leadership roles, or increase your earning potential.
Some fields require a master's degree and the completion of professional licensure and certification. Example careers include licensed counselors, social workers, and certified public health employees.
Learn more about how to choose an online master's degree.
Median Annual Earnings by Level of Education
- Median annual earnings of an individual with a High School Diploma: $34,900
- Median annual earnings of an individual with an Associate Degree: $40,000
- Median annual earnings of an individual with a Bachelor's Degree: $54,700
- Median annual earnings of an individual with a Master's Degree: $65,000
Learn More About Choosing an Online Degree
Step 3: Choose a Major
Once you know what degree level you want to pursue, think carefully about what majors will have the biggest impact on your current career or future job prospects. Different majors teach different skills and have different points of emphasis. Multiple studies have shown that what you study has a bigger impact on future earning potential than where you go to school.
Examine the different majors offered by a variety of top online colleges that relate to the field of study you are interested in. Research what specific courses are required in each major. Also consider what specific hard and soft skills will be most valuable to the work you want to be doing. You can explore our collection of academic program rankings to learn more about the best online degrees in various fields of study.
|Major||Percentage of Degrees Conferred|
|Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities||39%|
|Health Professions and Related Programs||18%|
|Business, Management, Marketing, and Support Services||12%|
|Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, and Firefighting||3%|
|Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services||3%|
|Major||Percentage of Degrees Conferred|
|Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services||19%|
|Health Professions and Related Programs||12%|
|Social Sciences and History||8%|
|Engineering and Engineering Technologies||6%|
|Biological and Biomedical Sciences||6%|
|Major||Percentage of Degrees Conferred|
|Health Professions and Related Programs||15%|
|Engineering and Engineering Technologies||6%|
|Public Administration and Social Services||6%|
Step 4: Decide How Much Flexibility You Need
Different online degree programs offer different amounts of flexibility. Here are some common types of online degree programs and online college classes you'll find. Each offers a different level of flexibility and different program format.
Students are expected to attend classes, view lectures, participate in group chats and conversations and complete assignments at the same time according to a pre-set schedule or syllabus.
Students are given regular deadlines for completing assignments, reading, viewing or listening to lectures and participating in group discussions (often using an online message board), but can complete these tasks at any time before the due date.
- Open Schedule
A type of asynchronous class, Open Schedule courses allow students to begin courses at any time, independent of traditional quarter or semester systems. Students complete assignments at set points during the class based on their start date. Discussion and interaction with other students is usually minimal.
- Fixed-Time Online Courses
Students access all academic materials from a computer (no in-person meetings are required), but must log in to virtually attend and participate in class at specific times.
- Hybrid Online Courses
The majority of course materials and instruction are provided online and can be done remotely, but students are required to meet in person one or more times during the course.
Expert Advice on How to Choose an Online Degree Program
According to Online Education Advisor, Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D.
Every year when we conduct our annual survey of online students, respondents say they wish they had compared more programs before enrolling. Deciding between online programs can be challenging — especially since there are more choices now than ever before — but there are a few things you can do to find the best option for your needs.
Beyond ensuring the online programs you're considering are accredited by a reputable organization and within your reach financially, the best place to start is with your own goals. From career advancement to lifelong learning, students choose their online degree programs with a variety of objectives in mind. Take some time to identify why you want to pursue an online degree and the kinds of support you'll need to succeed. Look for support services and resources that are important to you, such as tutoring, career counseling, internship coordination, social clubs, and health and wellness classes.
Look for support services and resources that are important to you, such as tutoring, career counseling, internship coordination, social clubs, and health and wellness classes.
Can't find what you're looking for while searching for online degree programs? Don't be afraid to reach out and ask a school directly! Some schools offer sample classes or course tours online to show you what the experience will be like once you become a student.
How Much Does Online College Cost?
There is no doubt that a college education pays off - on average, a male college graduate with a bachelor's degree earns about $900,000 more than a high-school only graduate over the course of their lifetime, according to the Social Security Administration, and women with a bachelor's degree will earn about $630,000 more. Individual earnings vary greatly from person to person based on what level of degree you earn, gender, what you study, and what kind of career you choose to pursue.
The true cost of an online college degree can vary wildly as well. It's no secret that tuition prices have skyrocketed in the last few decades. Online degrees aren't necessarily cheaper than traditional on-campus degree programs; the average online bachelor's degree ranges from $38,496 to $60,593 in total program tuition cost. However, choosing an online degree program can save you money in commuting costs and materials, and most importantly, give you the flexibility to work while you earn your degree more easily than if you had to take classes in-person.
In-State vs. Out-of-State Online Colleges
One of the main reasons that you might be considering an online vs. on campus college is because it frees you up from having to visit a campus, meaning you could attend college anywhere, regardless of where you live or work. This is absolutely true, and it means that you can consider colleges and online degree programs that wouldn't be available to you if you had to attend traditional in-person classes.
Many students enroll at public colleges in their own state to qualify for lower in-state tuition rates. Tuition for public online bachelor's degrees costs an average of $38,496 for in-state students vs. $54,183 for out-of-state students.
However, several public colleges now offer in-state tuition rates to all online students, even if you don't live in the same state as the school. This can mean savings of thousands of dollars a year, which means you pay less out-of-pocket and take out fewer loans to pay for online degree programs. If you are looking for a degree with a high return on investment, or are entering a field that doesn't pay a six-figure salary, do your research to find out if the program you are interested in can be found somewhere where you qualify for in-state tuition.
Consider Your Options
- 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.
- Trade Schools 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 or trade school. Trade schools offer a variety of career paths, such as dental hygiene, office adminstration, and electrical installation. Career colleges can help you gain skills to work in accounting, nursing, criminal justice, and more.
- 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 and Universities
Many, though not all, of the private schools offering online degree 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 an online school that fits with your budget.
- Private, For-Profit Colleges and Universities
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.
How to Pay for Your Online Degree
Earning an online college degree requires a substantial investment. While some students choose to pay for college out-of-pocket using savings or loans from their parents, many must seek financial aid to help make college more affordable. Many online schools also allow students to pay for tuition and housing in monthly installments, rather than paying one lump sum for each semester or quarter term. These deferred payment plans carry little to no interest, but the balance must be paid off by the end of each term.
- Financial Aid
Financial aid opportunities are available through various sources, including the federal government, nonprofit organizations, and private companies, as well as the online college or university the student attends.
- A Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required to qualify for federal student loans, as well as many scholarships and grants. The FAFSA form may be completed and submitted online.
- The FAFSA includes questions about the applicant's financial background, including their family's income, tax history, and current assets. All undergraduate and graduate students must complete the FAFSA form.
- The student's online college will evaluate the information in the FAFSA form and send them a financial aid offer, including federal loans. The college will also guide them through the process of accepting part or all of the offer.
- Students who complete FAFSA forms are paid in disbursements from the school they attend. The money is generally disbursed twice per academic year.
- Some schools automatically deduct tuition and housing payments from the disbursements, and provide students with the remaining balance. Other colleges disburse all of the financial aid, requiring students to make tuition and housing payments themselves. The aid money that is left over may be used for books, food, transportation, and personal expenses.
- Students may seek loans from the federal government or private lending institutions, such as banks or credit unions. Federal loans carry a fixed interest rate and the interest may be tax-deductible. These loans do not need to be repaid until the student graduates or leaves school, and those who struggle to repay their loans may be able to postpone or reduce their monthly payments.
- Loans from private lenders, on the other hand, typically carry a variable interest rate — up to 14% in some cases — and the interest is rarely tax-deductible. Students are often required to begin repaying the loans while they are still in school. Private lenders may place restrictions on how the aid money is spent, as well. However, if you cannot afford your monthly payment for your private student loan, there are refinance and consolidation options available.
- The federal government offers Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized Loans. Direct Subsidized Loans are available to undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need. The federal government will pay the student's interest as long as they are enrolled in college courses, and during the six-month period after they graduate.
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available to any undergraduate or graduate student, regardless of their financial need. However, students will be responsible for paying the entire interest.
- Loan repayments are due each month. The federal government offers several loan repayment options, including structured plans that allow students to pay off the entire balance in 10 to 30 years.
- Work-Study Programs
- Federal Work-Study is designed for students who demonstrate financial need. The program allows them to work part-time while enrolled in courses.
- Any student attending a school that participates in Federal Work-Study is eligible for the program. This includes those seeking undergraduate, graduate, or professional degrees, as well as those enrolled part-time or full-time.
- Federal Work-Study jobs are often related to the student's field of study. On- and off-campus positions may be available through the program. Those who work on-campus usually work for the school, while off-campus employees often work for nonprofit organizations or public agencies.
- The college's financial aid office will review the student's academic record and class schedule to determine the number of hours he or she may work per week.
- All students participating in Federal Work-Study earn at least the federal minimum wage. Skilled positions may offer more compensation. Additionally, earnings depend on the college's amount of available funding and the student's financial need.
- Tuition Reimbursement Programs
According to a report from the Society of Human Resource Management, more than half of private organizations offer tuition reimbursement plans to employees who wish to earn a postsecondary degree or certificate. These plans are mutually beneficial. Employees who receive assistance can offset some of the out-of-pocket costs for their education, and employers strengthen their workforce with workers who have advanced training in their field. However, tuition reimbursement will not cover all of the student's expenses. The average organization reimburses roughly $4,600 in tuition expenses per year. Additionally, the employee may be required to work for the organization for a certain length of time after they have received their degree or certificate.
- Grants, Fellowships, and Scholarships
- A grant is a form of financial aid delivered to students in a lump sum. The federal government provides grants to low-income students, and many colleges and universities also offer similar grants.
- Fellowships are a type of grant for students who conduct independent research studies. Scholarships are similar to grants, but these are normally available through private organizations.
- Some grants, fellowships, and scholarships impose restrictions on how the money may be spent. Recipients who do not follow these guidelines may need to pay back some or all of the award. Otherwise, these forms of financial aid — unlike loans — do not need to be repaid.
- Some grants, fellowships, and scholarships are delivered to students in a single payment. Other 'renewable' awards are available for two or more years of study. Students may need to reapply for renewable awards in order to receive successive payments.
- Some of these awards require students to attend national conferences, or work or volunteer in their community while attending school.
- Learn more about scholarships and financial aid options for online college students.
Online Colleges by State
Even though one big advantage of an online college or university is the fact that you can take courses anywhere in the world, most online students take classes from a school within 100 miles of where they live. Online degree programs offer a great deal of flexibility, but enrolling in an online degree program close to your home can offer some big advantages.
If you enroll in an online degree program close to home, you can save money with in-state tuition, easily access campus resources like libraries, gyms or in-person office hours with professors, and you can access hybrid programs, which require you to spend some time on campus in addition to online curriculum.
Ready to learn about the best online degrees available in your state? Select from the map below to learn about online degree programs where you live.
Why Choose Online Education?
A big reason for the growth in online education and online universities is demand. Online degree programs make college more accessible to a much larger population than traditional on-campus learning. Thanks to technology, you can earn an online associate degree, online bachelor's degree or online master's degree without having to sacrifice your job or time caring for your family.
In the 2021 Online Education Trends Report conducted by BestColleges, over 1,800 students, both remote learners (60%) and online students (30%) cited COVID-19 as the top motivator for choosing an online format, whereas online program graduates (27%) and prospective online students (34%) cited flexibility and convenience as the top motivator.
These respondents were also less concerned about employer's perception of online education or access to campus support services. While traditional factors such as affordability, flexibility, and academic excellence remain major determining factors, our survey results suggest that a majority of students chose to take courses online because online education was the only option available to them due to COVID-19.
Many students choose online classes due to flexibility surrounding their family's scheduling demands.
The advantages of online degree programs are more than just a sense of freedom. Online courses eliminate the need to commute to a campus, which saves money as well. There are several costs associated with this type of long-term campus commute, and as 32% of respondents report a household income of less than $50,000 a year, affordability matters.
About 65% 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.
Many students choose online classes due to flexibility surrounding their family's scheduling demands. In fact, 65% of those surveyed had children, offering some insight into what types of external factors students may have to consider when selecting a learning format, such as childcare arrangements.
Our rankings of the best online colleges and universities are a jumping off point to help you build your own list of the best online degrees 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.
How Does Online College Work?
While online learning has its own unique benefits and challenges, it shares many of the same componenets and objectives as traditional in-person learning.
Specific requirements vary by program, but most online students log into their school's learning management system (LMS) to participate in online course lectures. Asynchronous programs allow students to view lecture recordings on their own time. Alternatively, synchronous programs may require students to watch live-streaming lectures. In some cases, synchronous courses feature video conferencing components that allow students to ask questions and interact with their professors and fellow students.
- Peer to Peer Interaction
Online courses often feature discussion boards where students can communicate through written posts. Videoconferencing may be also available, and students may contact one another by phone, email, or social media to coordinate study sessions or work on group projects. Additionally, students who live close to campus may be able to coordinate in-person study groups with their classmates.
- Instructor Interaction
Online courses frequently feature a discussion board dedicated to faculty questions. Many professors will also provide their personal contact information — including email, phone, and social media — to ensure their students can easily contact them if they have questions or concerns.
- Assignments and Homework
- The assignments and homework requirements for online courses will usually mirror those of on-campus classes. Depending on the subject, these assignments may include group projects, presentations, and research papers.
- Many online courses also require students to participate in group discussions on LMS boards. The LMS will feature specific drop boxes for each individual assignment.
- Synchronous courses often follow a tight schedule. Asynchronous courses allow more flexibility for assignments, though most still have weekly deadlines.
- Online courses may use online platforms like Pearson MyLab, which organize course content into quizzes, tutorials, and other interactive materials.
- Online courses may include presentation assignments. In most cases, group members communicate and work on their project through discussion boards, email, or phone.
- The presentations are usually delivered remotely, either through Blackboard Collaborate and other live web conferencing tools, such as Zoom, or videos posted on websites like YouTube.
- Tests and Exams
- Quizzes for most online courses are completed using the LMS.
- Tests and exams in online courses may be proctored or monitored remotely. Proctored exams usually require students to visit local testing centers, where onsite proctors can monitor them.
- For virtually monitored exams, the proctor may observe the student using a webcam. Some courses also use cheating detection software to monitor the student's web activity while they are taking the exam.
- Online proctoring requires a high-speed internet connection, since the exams are delivered entirely online. The online proctor may also carry certain technical requirements related to a student's computer.
- Online proctors charge a small fee, which must be paid when the student schedules their exam. Most online proctors will record exam sessions.
For many online students, their graduation date marks the first time they set foot on their school's campus. Online students are often invited to participate in cap-and-gown ceremonies with on-campus graduates, where they receive their official diploma. Smaller ceremonies may be held to honor online graduates in specific programs. Some online colleges hold live-streamed commencement ceremonies and will mail diplomas to each graduate at a later date.
How to Apply to Online College
Once you've decided on the best online school for you, you'll need to take many of the same steps required to apply to an on-campus program. Make note of important deadlines and submission dates before starting the process so you'll have time to prepare and collect the proper materials.
What You'll Need:
- Test Scores
- Letters of Recommendation
- Personal Statement/Essay
- Official Transcripts
The Common Application is accepted by over 900 schools. Students who fill in some basic information and answer a few school-specific questions can apply to multiple schools or universities at a time. Check to see if the online school you're applying to accepts this type of application. If not, you can find the admissions application on your target school's official website.
Perfect Your Essay
Many applications require a long-form essay that addresses a general topic or creative prompt. Write multiple drafts of your essay to be sure it is free of grammatical errors, typos, and ambiguities. If the prompt is general, make sure to emphasize your academic, professional, and recreational experiences to demonstrate your value as a student.
Ask for Recommendations
It's likely that you'll need to submit at least one letter of recommendation with your application packet, so try and come up with a few potential references who you can ask. Teachers, school counselors, and employers are all good resources to reach out to.
Submit Official Transcripts and Test Scores
Undergraduate students may need to submit high school transcripts and SAT or ACT scores, depending on program requirements. Alternatively, graduate-level students may be asked to submit their undergraduate transcripts, as well as GMAT or GRE results, depending on their school and area of study.
Growing Popularity of Online Degree 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. NCES reported that in 2018, 16.6% of students were enrolled exclusively online.
Digital learning is easily the most dramatic change to sweep higher education in more than a century.
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 degree program offerings to meet the rising demand for distance learning options across the country, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.
Frequently Asked Questions About Online Degree Programs
- How long does it take to get an online bachelor's degree?
The time it takes to earn an online bachelor's degree depends on several factors, including your course load, the number of previously earned credits you have, and your enrollment status (i.e., full time vs. part time). Traditional bachelor's programs are designed to take four years. However, online students may be able to enroll in accelerated programs, taking classes throughout the year and finishing in less time.
- Do employers like online degrees?
Generally, employers value online and in-person degrees similarly, as long as credentials are earned through an accredited school or program. Skepticism surrounding online learning has declined sharply over the past decade. However, views may vary by employer.
- Is an online degree as good as a traditional degree?
Online degree programs are considered by many employers to be comparable to in-person options. Employers are more likely to care about your previous experience, the reputation of your school/program, and the type of degree you earned.
- Are online colleges worth it?
Online degree programs are often worth it for students interested in the increased convenience and flexibility provided by online schooling, and many online learners see a positive return on their investment.
- What can I do with an online degree?
The job prospects provided by an online degree vary based on the type of degree you earn. Many adult learners find that obtaining an online degree allows them to further their current career or switch into an exciting new field, without disrupting their day-to-day life.
- Is it harder to get a job with an online degree?
Employment opportunities vary based on an individual's experience, education, and location, but an online degree is unlikely to serve as a stumbling block. Many occupational fields are filled with professionals who earned their degree online, such as nursing — many online colleges offer an RN-to-BSN.
- Are online college degrees legitimate?
Accredited online college degrees are just as legitimate as traditional on-campus degrees. However, students should confirm that their school and/or program hold accreditation from an organization recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the United States Department of Education.
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Explore the BestColleges Blog
Check out the BestColleges Blog for more resources and tips for earning your degree online.