Online college is no longer just an option for many students – it has become the norm. Experts say colleges are poised to offer even more online degree programs and develop new ones as well. Advancements in technology, course design and high-speed internet availability are moving online learning forward.
One reason students enroll in online degree programs is for the flexibility to study from anywhere. Students with family responsibilities or full-time jobs may also be able to work around their own schedules. Online students need to have good time management skills and be able to overcome distractions in their environment.
Though online formats still present students with unique challenges, accredited institutions usually offer tailored support for students to adjust to online courses and plan their academic futures however they learn.
Online College Degree Programs
Earning a bachelor’s degree – in person or online – can open doors to employment opportunities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the employment rate among 25- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree or higher was at 87% in 2022. Compare that with the 73% employment rate for those with only a high school diploma.In fall 2020, about 11.8 million of all undergraduate students were enrolled in at least one distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, and 7 million were enrolled exclusively in online classes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students in online programs usually earn the same degree as on-campus students. The curriculum for an online bachelor’s degree typically matches the on-campus curriculum at the same school, and the diploma usually doesn’t state whether that specific degree was earned online or in person. This can help ease fears that employers won’t accept applicants with online undergraduate degrees.Many online bachelor’s programs require students to complete general education requirements in the arts, humanities and sciences if they haven’t already done so at another college or university. Prospective students will likely need to decide between a liberal arts major and one that is more career-focused, with the latter being the route many take to change career fields or advance professionally. Still, experts say it may make sense for some online students to major in a liberal arts discipline if it’s a subject they are truly passionate about. Academic advisers can offer guidance on which route is best for you.
Pros and Cons of Online Degrees
Students can take classes virtually, allowing them to learn anywhere.
Students can pursue the best program for their field of study, even if the school is far from home.
Students can plan around busy schedules to complete their coursework.
Students need greater self-motivation, time management skills and discipline to complete coursework.
There’s no face-to-face interaction with an instructor.
Networking with classmates may be difficult.
An online degree can be a great choice for students who want to continue their education and have either an associate degree or no postsecondary education.A variety of online bachelor’s programs exist, so prospective students should explore all options before enrolling. Those who want to earn their online degree as quickly as possible may wish to pursue a competency-based program or one with an accelerated schedule. The majority of incoming online undergraduates have previously earned some college credits. Individuals in this group should check early in the process whether the prospective online program will accept those credits.Students with an undergraduate degree also can earn a master’s degree completely online. This path is a great choice for working professionals who want to advance in their career or change fields completely. You can find out more through U.S. News’ best online master’s degrees rankings and resources.
How to Choose the Best Online College for You
The best online college is the one that fits your needs. As you’re evaluating programs, consider how each school’s research, resources and reputation line up with your career interests and goals. An online program’s accreditation, tuition and flexibility are other factors that come into play. A good place to start your research is the U.S. News rankings of accredited online bachelor’s programs.Once you narrow down what colleges you’re interested in, make sure the programs are in your ideal format – whether that’s fully online or a hybrid model. Review admission requirements and application fees and compare the availability of financial aid. Look into the school’s costs beyond tuition, including book, course material and online delivery fees, and research its student services and faculty.
Check the Accreditation Status of the School or Program
When choosing an online degree program, prospective students should ensure the school is accredited by an organization recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the nonprofit Council for Higher Education Accreditation. These organizations monitor programs and schools and renew their accreditation every few years.The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs contains information from recognized accrediting agencies and state approval agencies that reported to the U.S. Department of Education. Information regarding whether an online degree program is accredited is often available on a school’s website.Accreditation is a process that an outside authority conducts to ensure a school or degree program – either on campus, online or a combination of both – meets certain standards of quality and rigor. Accreditation is a voluntary process, though it has several benefits and essentially validates a program to employers and other institutions.There are a few types of accreditation, but the main two are regional and national. Designated regional agencies determine whether a school is regionally accredited. This is a widely recognized type of accreditation. Credits transfer easily between regionally accredited schools. National accreditation is usually less rigorous and awarded to schools of a similar type, like vocational or technical institutions. For-profit online programs are more likely to have national accreditation. Credits from a nationally accredited college are not transferable to a regionally accredited college. Students can speak with their academic adviser to learn more about what types of accreditation are expected from employers in a given career field.Employers may verify that a job candidate’s degree comes from an accredited program, especially if the school name is unfamiliar to them. Should a student decide to change programs, a transfer-friendly school is more likely to accept course credits that come from an accredited institution.
Choose a College Major
Choosing an undergraduate major can seem daunting. As you research options, think about what subjects you enjoy and what majors might prepare you for careers you’d want to pursue. Make sure you understand how salary may vary by field over the course of a career. The right major can set you up for success in college and beyond.The six most common bachelor’s degrees earned in 2020-21, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, were business, health professions and related programs, social sciences and history, biological and biomedical sciences, psychology, and engineering.Students who receive bachelor’s degrees in certain engineering fields have some of the highest starting salaries. According to U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard data on students who received federal financial aid, computer engineering, petroleum engineering and industrial engineering majors make a median starting salary of more than $65,000 per year.Students shouldn’t pick an area of study solely because it is popular or high earning. The same goes for online graduate students – they should weigh the professional benefits of an advanced degree. Those with job experience should consider their professional goals when deciding what to study.
Determine Which Online Learning Option Works for You
The structure of online degree programs varies. That’s why prospective students must research a program thoroughly to ensure it meets their needs. In general, however, online courses require students to regularly log in to a learning management system, or LMS. This is a virtual portal that serves as a classroom, where students can access relevant course materials and monitor their progress on lessons.Different formats require different levels of communication with fellow students. Online students may interact with each other through a variety of channels, including discussion forums, social media, videoconferencing, by phone and through email.Students should not expect an online class to be easier than an on-campus one just because of the format. Programs may require students to attend what are often referred to as synchronous class sessions. These sessions are held in real time through videoconferencing, which can help students interact and build relationships with their classmates and the instructor. This type of program’s activities adhere to a preset schedule of classes, lectures, conversations and assignments.
Most online courses have an asynchronous, or self-paced, component. Students complete readings, listen to lectures and participate in discussions with classmates whenever they wish but must follow weekly deadlines.Open-schedule courses give students the freedom to begin courses whenever they want and complete assignments based on their start date. Students don’t adhere to regular semester dates. In this format, communication with other students can be sparse. Students working full time might find the convenience and flexibility of open-schedule courses the most desirable.Then there’s fixed-time courses where students attend all classes virtually, with no in-person meetings required, but must log on to attend class at specific times. This format is the best for those who want the structure of a set schedule but need the class to be entirely online.Lastly, hybrid online courses allow students to do coursework remotely but require a few in-person meetings.
Top Online Colleges
U.S. News evaluated several factors to rank the best online bachelor’s degree programs, including graduation rates, faculty credentials and support services available remotely.
TUITION PER CREDIT (OUT OF STATE)
FINANCIAL AID AVAILABLE
|University of Florida
|Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University–Worldwide
|University of Illinois–Chicago
|Medical University of South Carolina
|Texas A&M University–College Station
|University of North Carolina–Charlotte
|Arizona State University
|Oregon State University
|University of Central Florida
|University of Arizona
|CUNY School of Professional Studies
|Ohio State University–Columbus
|Utah State University
|University of Georgia
|George Washington University
Find an Online College
Use the filters below to search ranked online degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
1. Submit the FAFSA. To receive financial aid, the first and most important step is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This is available online on Oct. 1 each year. To receive the most financial aid possible, prospective students should check school and state grant deadlines and apply early.The FAFSA requires applicants to fill in basic information, such as their contact information and Social Security number, as well as provide their latest federal income tax returns and bank statements. Undergraduate students who are younger than 24 years old – and not married, veterans or active military members – will need to file as a dependent and provide their parents’ financial information.Nearly all students who apply for financial aid qualify for some form of it.2. Fill out other financial aid forms and apply for scholarships. Many colleges offer their own source of financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships and loans. You may need to fill out additional forms to receive this aid. This information – including deadlines – is generally available on a school’s website.Applicants can also search online for scholarships available at specific schools or from organizations tied to their discipline. Online learners may be eligible for the same scholarships available to on-campus students, and there may even be additional scholarships for online or adult learners.3. Review and correct the FAFSA Student Aid Report. A few days after submitting the FAFSA online, applicants will receive a Student Aid Report from the Federal Student Aid office. This report restates answers that applicants provided as well as other relevant information, and it’s an opportunity for applicants to correct any errors on the FAFSA, including adding or removing colleges.4. Compare awards. Each school will calculate applicants’ financial need, which determines their financial aid eligibility. Students will receive an award letter stating what financial aid they are being offered. They can compare their award packages based on the aid they are eligible to receive, the school’s tuition and other costs.5. Reapply for financial aid each year. To continue receiving financial aid each year, applicants need to fill out the FAFSA annually for as long as they plan to be a student. A degree can be a major investment, and financial aid can help ease the burden of costly tuition. Much like financial aid for on-campus students, aid for online students is available in the form of grants, scholarships, loans and even federal work-study jobs. That said, some online degree programs may not offer work-study opportunities, as many online students are already working full time.The online degree financial aid process is often identical to that of students earning a degree in person. Online students also need to meet similar – if not the same – requirements to be eligible for financial aid at a given school. Additionally, whether a student is full- or part-time can affect that person’s ability to qualify for financial aid. To receive certain amounts or types of aid, many online programs require students to meet specific credit-hour requirements.Applying for financial aid is a complex process. In a 2022 survey of online students by Wiley University Services, 36% of online students indicated that determining how to pay for school was the most difficult part of the application process, while 27% said completing financial aid forms was the hardest. Luckily, accredited online colleges often have financial aid advisers to answer questions and help applicants through the process.To learn more, read U.S. News’ paying for college coverage. There you’ll find expert advice and resources to help you through the process.
How to Apply to Online College
The admissions process for online college is usually similar to that of on-campus programs.
Step 1: Fill out the Common App.
To start, you’ll need to fill out the application. At the bachelor’s level, the Common Application is accepted by more than 900 schools, including some colleges outside the U.S. It’s likely that an online degree-seeking student will also need to complete this application. Because master’s degree applications are usually tied to a specific program in a school, what application students need to complete may vary.
Step 2: Write essays.
Applicants at both levels will likely have to submit an essay of some kind. Because many online students already have some work experience, experts recommend that they emphasize their professional skills as part of their application and explain how their experience has prepared them for online college.
Step 3: Collect letters of recommendation.
Undergraduate and graduate online programs often require letters of recommendation. These may come not only from teachers and school counselors but also current or previous employers who can speak to a student’s work ethic. At the graduate level, a recommendation letter will more likely come from an employer.
Step 4: Submit test scores.
Applicants may need to submit standardized test scores as part of their application. Many undergraduate online students already have some previously earned college credits and therefore may be able to forgo submitting an SAT or ACT entrance exam score if enough of their credits transfer.At the graduate level, whether the GMAT or GRE graduate school entry exam is required depends on the school and area of study. Some may not require any test scores. This information is typically available on a program’s website. Consult an admissions officer at schools of interest to determine the exact requirements.
Step 5: Submit transcripts.
Students also may need to submit school transcripts and, depending on the program’s requirements, their prior work experience and previously earned credit hours. Note that just because a program is offered online doesn’t guarantee that getting admitted will be easier.
Step 6: Keep track of deadlines.
Make sure you follow directions carefully and keep track of deadlines for the school’s admissions application, financial aid and test score submission.Prospective students can find deadline information on each school’s website. Because online program academic calendars may be structured differently from on-campus offerings, deadlines may differ for these applicants.
How to Avoid Online College Scams
Beware of diploma mills, which award illegitimate degrees or certificates to students on the internet. Among the most important steps a prospective student can take is to ensure an online degree program is accredited by an organization recognized by either the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.It’s also essential to look for red flags on a program’s website. Anything that seems too good to be true – earning a degree in a very short time period, for instance, or at an extremely low cost – is a warning sign. The opposite is also true: If a program seems abnormally expensive, conduct further research. Other red flags include a program not listing a campus or business address online, the website having a lot of grammatical or spelling errors or lacking a “.edu” URL, and the school failing to post information about student support services.
For-Profit Online Colleges
When exploring programs, a prospective student may encounter for-profit and nonprofit schools. Students may perceive for-profit online colleges as a more financially risky option, but experts recommend taking what they hear in the media and through word-of-mouth with a grain of salt.For-profit online schools became more prevalent in the late 1990s. At the time, these schools accepted most applicants, including those who weren’t prepared for college. This contributed to low graduation rates and higher debt, as well as a negative reputation toward for-profit schools. That’s changed in recent years, however, as these schools began placing a greater emphasis on student support services and started requiring some students to take entrance exams to gauge their college readiness.Experts say for-profit and nonprofit schools are becoming increasingly similar, but a few primary differences remain. For one, experts say, admissions are typically less selective at for-profit schools. These online colleges are more likely than nonprofits to have rolling admissions, along with academic calendars that don’t operate around the traditional semester schedule. For-profit institutions tend to have national rather than regional accreditation.Experts recommend looking beyond the nonprofit and for-profit classification when choosing an online degree program. Instead, they say, focus on accreditation, tuition, faculty and support services. Prospective students can also look at reviews of different for-profit programs to get a sense of other students’ experiences.
- Historically had a negative reputation due to lower graduation rates and high student debt.
- More likely to have national versus regional accreditation, which is preferred by employers.
- Less competitive in the application process than nonprofit schools.
- Have historically prioritized student support.
- Are more likely to be regionally accredited compared with nonprofit programs.
- Require students to demonstrate readiness through a more competitive application process.
Online Colleges Near Me
While online education offers students the opportunity to study from anywhere in the world, many students still choose a program with a campus close to home. Cost is a big factor in staying local. Online programs at public universities and colleges often charge different tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students. For example, the University of Florida charges in-state residents $112 per credit hour for enrollment of its online programs, while residents of other states pay $500 per credit hour. That’s a significant savings for Florida residents.Additionally, this in-state tuition is much lower than what Florida residents might pay to attend an online public school based in another state like Ohio or Texas. Sticking with a public school in your state can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your degree.You might also choose a nearby online college so you can easily visit the campus to meet with professors or advisers. Visiting the school can help you better connect with the school community and join on-campus student clubs or attend events.Some students enroll in a local online degree program because they are already familiar with its culture and traditions, or they have family or friends with ties to the institution. The school may also be more recognizable to local employers.
Certain online degrees have in-person residency or orientation requirements where students have to visit campus a few times each term or throughout the course of the program. In this case, a local program makes sense.
Online Colleges by State Near Me
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
Frequently Asked Questions About Online College
How Much Does An Online Bachelor’s Cost?
The cost of an online bachelor’s degree varies based on what school you choose, whether it’s a private school or a public school, and by your state of residence, among many other factors. An online bachelor’s degree cost can differ from that of an in-person bachelor’s when accounting for fees and how tuition is calculated. While on-campus programs may charge fees for housing, transportation, recreational activities and meals, online programs tend to lack these costs. That said, online programs may charge a distance education or technology fee. Online programs may charge tuition by the credit hour instead of by the semester, which may save online students some money.Most schools post information online about tuition and required fees for online programs, just as they do for campus-based bachelor’s programs. You can also request info from the bursar’s office, which is responsible for handling college tuition payments.There are also several ways students can reduce the cost of an online degree. For instance, they can transfer previously earned college credits or enroll in an accelerated program. If they’re in a competency-based program, students demonstrate mastery of specific skills to progress faster through what they already know, spending more time on the new information and paying a set price per billing period. Employer tuition reimbursement – where an employer pays for some or all tuition – and scholarships for online students can also help reduce the price of getting a degree.Prospective students can contact a financial aid adviser to ensure they are on track with paying each term. Generally, online programs accept payments online by credit card, debit card or electronic check; by mail via a check or money order; or by wire transfer. Most online degree programs also permit students to pay tuition for a given term in several sums rather than all at once.
How Long Does an Online Bachelor’s Take?
An online bachelor’s degree can take the same amount of time as an in-person bachelor’s, which is four years, since the coursework is the same. Most bachelor’s degrees require around 120 credits, though the number varies by program and degree type. But an online degree can be completed in less time depending on whether you choose a full- or part-time program, for example. Full-time students can take more classes per term, but a part-time program may be easier to manage on top of other obligations.Bear in mind that most online undergraduates do not start their bachelor’s degree from scratch. Many have previously earned college credits that can be applied toward their new degree, which can save them time and money. Students generally need to submit transcripts from their previous college so that the new school can evaluate which credits will transfer.Academic term length is another important factor. While some programs have a traditional monthslong semester system for online courses, others have an accelerated time frame.
How to Talk to Prospective Employers About Your Online Degree?
You can talk about your online degree openly with a potential employer – it’s a good opportunity to showcase the rigor of the program you attended, your time-management and collaboration skills, and your work ethic. In the interview process, let them know how the skills you learned from the degree apply to the role you want.Several years ago, employers were more hesitant to accept online degrees as legitimate, with concerns that online students didn’t gain the same vital skills as they would in a traditional campus environment. But in recent years, that perception has changed dramatically, as even the top-tier schools have embraced online education and launched high-quality degree programs. And now, experts say it usually isn’t necessary to indicate on a resume that a degree was earned online, as the school’s reputation and accreditation will be significantly more important.
While some employers may still be hesitant about online degrees, many have come to recognize the value of having their employees further their education while working, in part because students can apply what they learn directly to their careers. In fact, roughly one-third of online college students have access to tuition reimbursement benefits from their employer, according to the Wiley University Services survey.
What Are Some High Paying Online Degrees?
An online degree can help prepare you for a range of lucrative careers. On the list of U.S. News’ 25 Best Paying Jobs, petroleum engineers, who design equipment that extracts oil from reservoirs, are at No. 17 with an average salary of $142,800 in 2022, according to the BLS. This career path requires a bachelor’s degree in engineering, which is available online. In front of petroleum engineers on the list are information technology managers at No. 12, with an average salary of $173,670 in 2022. Online degrees in the IT field are prevalent at both the undergraduate and graduate level.Business and management degrees, also offered online, can help an employee climb the ladder at a company and earn a higher salary. In May 2022, the average wage for chief executives was $246,440, according to the BLS, and the average annual salary for general and operations managers was $122,860.Also on U.S. News’ Best Paying Jobs list, marketing manager ranks No. 15, with an average salary of $158,280 in 2022; financial manager is at No. 14, with an average annual salary of $166,050; and sales manager ranks at No. 19, with an average salary of $150,530.
What Online Degrees Are In Demand?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobs projected to have the fastest growth from 2020 to 2030 that require a bachelor’s degree include agents and business managers of artists, performers, and athletes, at 46% growth; and film and video editors and camera operators, at 33% growth. Suitable degrees for these jobs include a bachelor’s degree in a field related to business and management or film and broadcasting, respectively.In addition, some of the projected fastest-growing occupations for 2020 to 2030 were in health care and related industries. That’s good news for online students, as programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels are prevalent in this discipline. This increasing demand is due, in part, to an aging population and a rise in individuals living with chronic illnesses. Health care jobs in high demand include nurse practitioners and occupational therapy assistants. Online degrees exist that can prepare students for these roles.According to the statistics bureau, computer and mathematical occupations – for which an online degree in engineering or information technology may be relevant – account for some of the fastest-growing occupations. Demand for statisticians, for example, is expected to rise 35% between 2020 and 2030. Concerns over online security are also leading to a greater demand for employees with cybersecurity experience and knowledge. For positions such as information security analysts, employment is expected to grow by 33% through 2030.
U.S. News has been publishing school rankings in the education sector since 1983 and has done so specifically for online degree programs since 2013. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, U.S. News calculates rankings based on a variety of factors, which hold different weights depending on the ranking category. A program’s score for each factor, or ranking indicator, is calculated using data that online programs report to U.S. News in an annual survey. The rankings methodologies for online programs are separate from those for U.S. News’ Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools rankings. Ranking methodologies are typically updated on an annual basis.In developing the Best Online Bachelor’s Programs rankings, U.S. News assessed online colleges based on four general categories. Engagement constitutes 35% of each school’s rank, referring to the extent to which a degree program enables students to effectively interact with instructors and classmates as they would in an on-campus environment. Services and technologies made up 25% of each school’s rank, focusing on how programs incorporate diverse technologies to allow students more flexibility to complete their coursework at a distance. This category also takes into account the quality of student support services, career guidance and financial aid resources. Accounting for 20% of each school’s rank was faculty credentials and training, measuring the degree to which online instructors’ credentials mirror those of on-campus faculty. This category also measures the effectiveness of the resources used to train instructors to teach distance learners. Finally, expert opinions from surveys of high-ranking academic officials make up another 20% of each school’s rank. These insights help account for factors affecting program quality that hard data can’t capture.U.S. News calculates rankings for online graduate programs using similar methodologies, with an additional category taken into consideration. Student excellence is also considered – a category that measures the extent to which students who enter an online program have proven aptitudes, ambitions and accomplishments that enable them to handle the rigors of online learning.