Best Online Colleges and Top Online Universities of 2022

Our higher education experts at BestColleges have ranked the top online colleges and universities for 2022. Read on to compare schools based on affordability, flexibility, and academic quality. Find your path forward today.

portrait of Staff Writers
by Staff Writers
Published on December 20, 2021

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to start your journey?

It's safe to say that digital learning is easily the most dramatic change to sweep higher education in more than a century. Online learners are able to attend school from any WiFi-connected location and more effectively balance life demands, like work and childcare, while completing their education.

In recent years, online learning has seen dramatic growth. As students rushed to adapt to the benefits and challenges of online learning mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges rapidly expanded their online degree offerings to meet the demand. The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) reported a 93% jump in online college enrollment at SARA-participating schools from fall 2019 to fall 2020, increasing from roughly 3.0 million students in 2019 to more than 5.8 million students in 2020.

A wider availability of online colleges has made higher education more accessible than ever before and increased the number of online graduates entering the workforce. This is great news for anyone looking to obtain their college degree and advance their career.

With proper research and planning, some of the world's best academic and professional programs are now just a few clicks away. Use this guide to learn about some of the best online schools, how to choose which is right for you, and what to expect from online learning.

Why Choose an Online College?

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 options. Thanks to technology, you can earn a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree while balancing academic commitments with other responsibilities, such as a full-time job or caring for your family.

Reasons for Choosing Online Learning Options
Reason 2019 2020 2021
Existing commitments don't allow for on-campus courses 47% 52% 23%
Only way to pursue field of interest 21% 22% 18%
Employer incentive 21% 17% 12%
Reputation of a school 8% 5% 7%
Due to COVID-19 n/a n/a 37%
Other 4% 5% 3%

Source: 2021 Online Education Trends Report

In the 2021 Online Education Trends Report conducted by BestColleges — which surveyed over 1,800 students — COVID-19-related restrictions, flexibility, and convenience were listed as top motivators for choosing online learning.

However, the advantages of online degree programs are more than just an increased sense of flexibility and freedom. Online college courses eliminate the need to commute to a campus, which can save students money. There are several costs associated with commuting to campus, including the cost of gas and parking. Affordability is a key concern for many students — 32% of survey respondents reported a household income of less than $50,000 a year.

Online Learning Vs. In-Person Learning

Learning fully online may not be well-suited to everyone, especially if you get distracted easily at home and struggle to stay motivated. However, in-person learning can't compete with the flexibility provided by an online school. Whether you decide to attend school online or on campus, there are many high-quality, accredited colleges and universities to choose from.

Online Learning


Pros of Online Learning
Flexibility in scheduling, attend from the comfort of home Save money on commuting costs and on-campus services Tuition may be less expensive Often includes options to graduate faster Many online school programs offer online student support services and discussion boards
Cons of Online Learning
Lack of in-person support, feelings of isolation Lack of access to on-campus resources May be harder to network and make friends Not all areas of study are available Can be harder to stay engaged and motivated; must have strong self-discipline

In-Person Learning


Pros of In-Person Learning
In-person interaction and community Full access to campus resources May be easier to network and make friends More options for areas of study May be easier to concentrate
Cons of In-Person Learning
Less control over scheduling More time and/or money spent commuting to class or living on campus Higher tuition costs, especially for out-of-state students at public schools May not have as many accelerated program options Potential increased exposure to illness

Online Degree Programs That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

How Do I Choose an Online College?

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 your situation:

By understanding what you want out of a particular degree, you can make educated choices about which online universities and colleges have the best chance to give you an acceptable return on investment.

To help get you started on researching your degree options, check out these popular degree program rankings:

Choose an Area of Study

The first step is to think about what area of study you'd like to pursue in order to meet your career goals. Different college majors teach different skills and have different points of emphasis.

Examine the different majors offered by a variety of top online colleges that relate to the field of study you're 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.

Popular Areas of Study by Degree
Rank Associate Bachelor's Master's
1 Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities Business, management, marketing, and related support services Business
2 Health professions and related programs Health professions and related programs Education
3 Business, management, marketing, and support services Social sciences and history Health professions and related programs

Source: National Center of Education Statistics (undergraduate and graduate degree fields)

Explore Our Guides to Online Schools By Degree Level

Once you've determined what area you're interested in studying, determine which degree (or degrees) you'll need to meet your professional goals. Also be sure to double-check for required prerequisites.

Associate

Ideal For: Those who have a high school diploma and want to quickly gain practical career skills

Typical Length: 2 Years

Median Annual Salary*: $40,000

Bachelor's

Ideal For: Those who have a high school diploma or some college credits and want to start a new career path or increase their earning potential

Typical Length: 4 Years

Median Annual Salary*: $55,700

Master's

Ideal For: Those who already have a bachelor's degree but want to switch careers, qualify for more advanced leadership roles, or increase their earning potential

Typical Length: 2-3 Years

Median Annual Salary*: $70,000 (for workers with a master's or higher)

Doctorate

Ideal For: Those who already have a bachelor's or master's who want to be an expert in their field or pursue positions in research and academia

Typical Length: 3-6 Years

Median Annual Salary*: $70,000 (for workers with a master's or higher)

*For full-time, year-round workers ages 25-34

Evaluate Online Colleges

There are many factors to consider when judging the quality of an online program and determining whether it's the right fit for your educational goals. Take time to consider each of the aspects mentioned below.

Type of Institution

The degree you decide to pursue will help determine the type of institution you need to attend. The most common types of colleges and universities fall under the following categories.

Accreditation

Always verify that an online university or college is accredited. Accreditation matters because it sets quality standards meant to ensure that online degrees are legitimate and hold value. The accreditation status of your college can also impact your ability to apply for financial aid or transfer credits.

A school's accreditation status should be mentioned on its official website. Students can also verify a school's status through the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education. Both maintain lists of recognized regional, national, and programmatic accrediting agencies.

National vs. Regional Accreditation
Regionally Accredited Schools Nationally Accredited Schools
Type of Institution Commonly nonprofit, public schools More common among for-profit, religious, or vocational schools
Academic Standards Typically follow a rigorous admissions process Admissions process may be more relaxed
Transfer Credits Transfer credits from regionally accredited schools are typically accepted by both regionally and nationally accredited schools Transfer credits from nationally accredited schools may only be accepted at other nationally accredited schools
Corporate Tuition Reimbursement Typically eligible Not always eligible
Cost May be more expensive May be less expensive

Colleges can be accredited by regional or national agencies.

Many of the best online schools are regionally accredited as regional accreditation is considered the most prestigious. 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 that are independent of regional agencies. You can learn more about each individual agency, as well as its jurisdiction, through the Office of Postsecondary Education.

National accreditation is more commonly found in trade and vocational schools. Students considering a nationally accredited online college should research the school's reputation and understand how its academic standards might 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.

Programmatic Accreditation

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. Independent agencies assess the competence and rigor of both on-campus and online degree programs, giving students peace of mind that their school's department offers a reputable program.

Some state-level professional credentials require that students graduate from a program with specific programmatic accreditation.

Flexibility

Online college courses come in a variety of formats, such as synchronous and asynchronous options, allowing students to choose a structure that works best for their learning style and lifestyle. Determine what kind of flexibility you'll need in an online program by considering the common online course formats below.

Online Course Formats
Synchronous Students attend classes, view lectures, participate in group chats and conversations, and complete assignments according to a pre-set schedule or syllabus.
Asynchronous Students are given regular deadlines for completing assignments, viewing or listening to lectures, and participating in group discussions, but they can complete these tasks at any time before the due date.
Open Schedule Students can begin courses at any time, independent of traditional quarter or semester schedules. Students must complete assignments at set points during the class based on their start date and discussion. Interaction with other students is usually minimal or lacking entirely.
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 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.

Cost

The true cost of a program can be one of the most important factors when deciding on the best online university or college for you. When comparing the costs of online vs. on-campus programs, many students assume attending college online will always be cheaper with fewer fees.

In some ways, that may be true — online learners who don't plan on using campus-based services can typically skip costs associated with in-person attendance, including activity, parking, and health fees. Additionally, at some schools, all online students pay in-state tuition, and other online student discounts and fee waivers may be available.

However, many who opt for online college courses encounter fees specific to distance learning, such as certain technology fees. These may be flat fees or charged by the credit hour.

Location

Although a significant advantage of a fully online college or university is the fact that you can take courses anywhere with an internet connection, most online students actually take classes from a school located 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 additional advantages.

If you enroll in an online degree program close to home, you may be able to save money by paying in-state tuition. You could also more easily access campus resources (e.g., libraries, gyms, or in-person office hours with professors and academic advisors) or explore hybrid programs, which require you to spend some time on campus in addition to taking classes online.

Interested in learning about the best online degrees available in your state? Explore the map below to find the best online school in each state.

Top Online Schools By State

State

Student Support

Each online program differs in the support it offers to students, so make sure you'll be getting the resources you need to feel comfortable and confident in your studies. For some, that might mean resources for student parents, students of color, or undocumented students. Student services can also come in the form of writing assistance, coaching and counseling from an academic advisor, and career services for online graduates.

Online Universities That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

How Can I Pay for an Online Degree?

Earning an online college degree typically requires a substantial investment. While some students choose to pay for college out-of-pocket using savings or family contributions, many need to seek financial aid to help make college more affordable.

Some 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 may 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 a student attends. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is required to qualify for federal student loans, as well as many private scholarships and grants.

Submitting the FAFSA is recommended for undergraduate and graduate students who qualify, and students should complete this process each year they're in school. The FAFSA form may be completed and submitted online. It includes questions about the applicant's financial background — including their family's income, tax history, and current assets — to determine how much financial aid a student may qualify for.

Loans

Students may seek college 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. Federal loans do not need to be repaid until the student graduates or leaves school. Online graduates 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% or higher in some cases — and the interest is rarely tax-deductible. Students are often required to begin repaying these loans while still in school. Private lenders may also place restrictions on how the aid money is spent. However, if you cannot afford your monthly payment for your private student loan, refinance and consolidation options may be available.

Work-Study Programs

The Federal Work-Study Program is designed for students who demonstrate financial need. The program allows them to work part time while enrolled in college courses. Students attending a college online that participates in the Federal Work-Study Program are eligible to join. This includes those seeking undergraduate, graduate, or professional degrees. Part-time and full-time students may be eligible.

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, depending on availability. Those who work on campus usually work for the school, while off-campus employees often work for nonprofit organizations or public agencies.

Tuition Reimbursement Programs

According to a 2020 Society of Human Resource Management report, about half of private organizations offer tuition assistance to employees who wish to earn a postsecondary degree. 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 may not cover all of a student's expenses. It is not uncommon for organizations to reimburse $4,000-$9,000 in tuition per year, depending on the circumstances. Additionally, the employee may be required to work for the organization for a certain length of time after earning their degree or certificate.

Grants, Fellowships, and Scholarships

A grant is a form of financial aid delivered to students in a lump sum. For example, the federal government provides Pell Grants to low-income students, and many colleges and universities also offer similar grants. Fellowships are essentially a type of grant for students who conduct independent research. Scholarships are similar to grants, but these are normally available through private organizations. Additionally, while grants are typically need-based awards, scholarships may be awarded based on variables like academic merit, field of study, or demographic factors.

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 by online graduates.

Learn more about scholarships and financial aid options for online college students.

What Do I Need 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

Application

Over 900 schools accept the Common Application. 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.

College Essay

Many applications require a long-form essay that addresses a general topic or creative prompt. Be sure to write multiple drafts of your essay to ensure it is free of grammatical errors, typos, and ambiguities. If the prompt is general, make sure to emphasize your academic, professional, and extracurricular experiences to demonstrate your value as a student.

Letters of Recommendation

You'll likely need to submit at least one letter of recommendation with your application packet, so try and come up with a few good references who you can ask. Teachers, school counselors, and employers are all good resources to reach out to.

Official Transcripts and Test Scores

Undergraduate students are often asked to submit high school transcripts and SAT or ACT scores. Alternatively, graduate students may be asked to submit their undergraduate transcripts, as well as GMAT or GRE results, depending on their school and area of study.

What Can I Expect From Online College Courses?

While online learning courses have their own unique expectations, they share many of the same components and objectives as traditional in-person learning courses. Here's what you can expect from online college courses.

Lectures

Specific requirements vary by program, but most online students log into their school's learning management system (LMS) to participate in online class lectures. Asynchronous learning 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 coursework often features discussion boards where students can communicate through written posts. Videoconferencing may also be 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 can coordinate in-person study groups with their classmates.

Instructor Interaction

Individual online classes frequently feature a discussion board where students can leave faculty questions. Many professors will also provide their personal contact information — including email, phone, and social media — to ensure their students can contact them if they have questions or concerns.

Assignments and Homework

The assignments and homework requirements for online college courses usually mirror on-campus classes. Depending on the subject, these assignments may include group projects, presentations, and research papers. Many online classes also require students to participate in group discussions on LMS boards. The LMS will feature specific drop boxes for individual classes and assignments.

Synchronous courses often follow a tight schedule. In contrast, asynchronous courses may allow more flexibility for assignments, though most still have weekly deadlines. Online college courses may use online platforms, such as Pearson MyLab, which organize course content into quizzes, tutorials, and other interactive materials.

Presentations

Online coursework may include presentation assignments. In most cases, group members communicate and work on their projects through discussion boards, email, or phone. The presentations are usually delivered remotely, using web conferencing tools like Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom. Videos may also be posted on websites like YouTube.

Tests and Exams

Quizzes for most online college courses are completed using the LMS. Tests and exams in online classes may be proctored or monitored remotely. Proctored exams usually require students to visit local testing centers, where onsite proctors monitor test-takers. 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 taking the exam.

Expert Advice on Choosing an Online Program

Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D.

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 an online student.

2022 Best Accredited Online Colleges and Top Online Universities

Rankings compiled by the BestColleges Ranking Team

How We Rank the Best Online Colleges

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 a fully accredited, nonprofit institution. Our methodology uses qualitative measures and data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics and proprietary school surveys. Read our ranking methodology.

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. We hope our resource helps you find the school that is best for you.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Degree Programs

How long does it take to get an online bachelor's degree? true

An online bachelor's degree typically includes 120 credits, which full-time students can complete in approximately four years. Program length can vary considerably, however, depending on the training schedules available. For example, schools may offer part-time schedules to accommodate working professionals and accelerated options for learners interested in expediting graduation.

Online colleges tend to offer more flexibility than traditional schools. Many online programs deliver courses asynchronously, which learners can complete during the most suitable hours for them. Since asynchronous programs do not rely on live instruction, students may be able to take heavier course loads and graduate more quickly.

Degree-seekers may shorten their study times in other ways, as well. Online schools may offer transfer credits for learners with previous undergraduate training, and some even provide credit for students with certain types of professional experience. Transfer credits can cut study times down by as much as 75%, in certain cases.

Do employers like online degrees? true

Employers typically view online degrees as equal to on-campus degrees. Online and on-campus programs contain the same material, only differing in the methods and time of instruction. The best online colleges rarely label their online degrees as such, making them indistinguishable from their on-campus counterparts.

Online education can also make it easier for students to access some of the most recognizable and reputable schools in the country. This may lead to even better employment opportunities. As long as the online school and/or program holds proper accreditation, students and potential employers needn't worry about a degree being illegitimate.

Regional accreditation demonstrates that the online college meets robust educational standards. Programmatic accreditation identifies programs that meet industry standards and expectations for the field. Prospective students and employers can check the status of programs and online schools through the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs (DAPIP).

Is an online degree as good as a traditional degree? true

An online degree provides the same level of instruction as a traditional degree, so the two degree types should be considered equal. Online and on-campus students take the same courses and read the same materials. They often share the same instructors and complete the same assignments, as well.

The main difference comes from the format, with online learners watching virtual lectures and communicating with teachers and peers online. While online programs may mirror in-class schedules, some feature asynchronous options. This allows students to access recorded lectures, which adds flexibility but may reduce classroom interaction.

Students may need to demonstrate different characteristics and study habits to find success in online programs. Online courses, particularly asynchronous courses, require more independence and proactivity. Self-motivated and self-disciplined students are likely best suited for online universities.

Are online colleges worth it?

Online colleges are worth it for many students. Online degrees can provide great value for students, leading to many different continuing education and employment opportunities. According to Best Colleges' 2021 Online Education Trends Report, 93% of online students had or expected to receive a positive education investment return.

The top online colleges provide increased schedule flexibility to students, which can help them maintain a healthier work and study balance. With reduced travel and campus requirements, online schools can be more accessible than traditional schools. Online students can also expand their search parameters, giving them more choices and a chance to be accepted at some of the best universities in the U.S.

Online colleges can also provide cost-saving opportunities for students. In addition to lower travel, room, and board costs, some online schools even provide tuition discounts for online learners, such as in-state tuition rates for out-of-state learners. With a greater selection of online schools and programs, degree-seekers may find study options with a lower price tag.

What can I do with an online degree?

Online graduates have access to the same postgraduate opportunities as traditional graduates. Not only can they pursue the same job opportunities after completing their programs, but online learners may have an easier time maintaining employment during their studies.

For this reason, online colleges are often effective options for continuing education. An organization can have its employees upgrade their training and skills outside of traditional work hours. For these professionals, online degrees can lead to pay increases, more responsibility, and promotions.

As with traditional graduates, those with an online degree can also pursue further training. Already experienced in online learning, bachelor's graduates may be able to tackle an online graduate degree with more confidence. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), close to 33% of graduate students took online courses exclusively in 2019, compared to 15% of undergraduates.

Is it harder to get a job with an online degree?

Online school graduates shouldn't have a harder time finding employment than traditional graduates. According to a 2018 Northeastern University survey of human resources professionals, 61% of leaders believed online degrees were generally equal to or or better than traditional degrees. Furthermore, 33% of HR leaders believed online learning will surpass on-campus training in quality.

Degree-seekers can improve their employment odds by selecting a top online college and program with proper regional and programmatic accreditation. Employers can be assured that online graduates from accredited online colleges have received an adequate level of training. DAPIP provides a searchable list of recognized schools and programs.

Prospective students should also look for online schools that offer quality career services and programs. Having access to mentorship programs, job boards, resume-building workshops, and interview assistance can make a big difference in outcomes.

Are online college degrees legitimate?

The degrees awarded by accredited online colleges are every bit as legitimate as traditional degrees. Online programs follow the same curricula and cover the same material. In many cases, online students watch the same lectures as on-campus students, either through recorded videos or live webcasts.

According to NCES, more than 7 million students took at least one online course in 2019. And nearly 3.5 million took fully online programs — close to 18% of the total student body. Global Market Insights projects 21% growth in the e-learning market between 2021 and 2027.

In response to the COVID-19 situation, colleges and universities moved classes online. This caused many institutions to accelerate the development of their e-learning infrastructures, which could bode well for the future of online learning. Not only should a greater investment in online learning make education more accessible, but it is likely to improve the technology and effectiveness of the training.

Featured Student Planning Resources

Featured Image: Prostock-Studio / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

We've ranked the most affordable online colleges in the U.S. Begin earning a high-quality degree with low annual tuition. We've ranked the best online community colleges & trade Schools for programs, financial aid, and more. Compare and search for the school that matches your goals. Adult students face unique challenges in college. We've listed the best online colleges for working adults that offer supportive services for their needs.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare your school options.

View the most relevant school for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to find your college home.