Online college is no longer just an option for many students – it has become the norm. Out of necessity, virtual learning has grown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Find a trustworthy and flexible online college learning option that works best for you using U.S. News rankings, data and expert advice.
Even as institutions plan to resume on-campus instruction, experts say colleges are poised to offer more online degree programs and develop new ones to boost enrollment. Advancements in technology, course design, high-speed internet availability and more 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.
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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 86% in 2020. Compare that with the 69% employment rate for those with only a high school diploma.
In the fall 2019, about 7.3 million undergraduate students were enrolled in any distance education courses at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, and more than 3.4 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.
Various 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 careers 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 2018-19, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, were business, health professions and related programs, social sciences and history, engineering, biological and biomedical sciences, and psychology.
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, 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.
|RANK||SCHOOL NAME||TUITION PER CREDIT (OUT OF STATE)||APPLICATION DEADLINE||FINANCIAL AID AVAILABLE|
|#1||University of Florida||$500||Rolling||Yes|
|#2(tie)||Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University–Worldwide||$465||Rolling||Yes|
|#2(tie)||University of Illinois–Chicago||$379||Rolling||Yes|
|#4(tie)||Medical University of South Carolina||$658||Rolling||Yes|
|#4(tie)||Texas A&M University–College Station||$276||Jan. 15||Yes|
|#4(tie)||University of North Carolina–Charlotte||$747||Yes|
|#7||Arizona State University||$552||Rolling||Yes|
|#8(tie)||Oregon State University||$346||Rolling||Yes|
|#8(tie)||University of Central Florida||$716||Rolling||Yes|
|#10||University of Arizona||$533||Rolling||Yes|
|#11(tie)||CUNY School of Professional Studies||$350||Rolling||Yes|
|#11(tie)||Ohio State University–Columbus||$390||Rolling||Yes|
|#11(tie)||Utah State University||$382||Rolling||Yes|
|#14||University of Georgia||$326||May 1||Yes|
|#15||George Washington University||$635||Rolling||Yes|
How to Apply to Online College
The admissions process for online college is usually similar to that of on-campus programs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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 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.