What You’ll Learn About Online Colleges
Meet The Experts
With the growth of internet technology over the last couple of decades, students are finding online colleges to be an attractive alternative to a traditional on-campus education. In fact, in 2016, over 6.4 million students (31% of all students) took at least one online course through an online college program. There are also many benefits that online college students enjoy, including more flexibility and the ability to work and fulfill other responsibilities while getting a college education.
This Online Colleges Guide will assist you as you research online degree programs, schools, costs, and application information. We recommend that you use this guide to determine whether or not online colleges are right for you and to answer any questions.
Please note that some online college programs may require prerequisites or in-person requirements. Be sure to consult this guide as well as look at the website of the college you are interested in so you can have all of the materials you need and required tasks completed before applying to colleges.
What Is An Online College and How Does It Work?
An online college is a school that allows you to take classes either entirely or partly online (also known as hybrid courses) to complete a degree. All curriculum, including lectures, readings, and exams are completed in a virtual learning environment.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), online colleges use technology to deliver instruction and support regular interaction between students and the instructor, who are in separate locations. While students are still taught by instructors and interact with classmates, they may never meet face-to-face (unless there is an on-campus requirement).
Who’s Going to Online Colleges?
Demand for online colleges, also known as distance learning, has grown significantly over the past several years. According to the Online Learning Consortium, the number of online college degree programs has outpaced the growth of traditional higher education.
Research by the Babson Survey Research Group shows higher education enrollments dropped by 3.8% from 2012 to 2016. Alternatively, the survey also reveals that the number of students taking at least one distance education course sharply increased by 17.2 percent over the same period.
Take a look at these facts about online colleges and courses from 2012-2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
- Almost 6.4 million college students (31%) took at least one distance education course in 2016. That is a 17.1% increase from 2012 (5.4 million).
- Of those 6.4 million students, 14.6% students took all of their college courses online and 16.4% took at least one online course.
- Graduate students were more than twice as likely to take all of their courses online than undergraduate students (27.4% vs. 12.4%).
- Online colleges are not just for students that live out-of-state from their college. In fact, slightly more than 56% of all students who took all of their classes online live in the same state as their online college.
- Undergraduate students are more likely than graduate students to live in the same state as their online college. About 61% of the undergraduate students who took all of their classes online (1.3 million) live in the same state as their online college. Alternatively, 54% of graduate students who took all of their classes online live in a different state as their online college.
All Students, Online Learning Growth
Undergraduate Students, Online Learning Growth
Graduate Students, Online Learning Growth
The Growth of Online Colleges in the U.S.
Just as there has been a growth in the number of online students, there’s also an increase in the number of colleges offering online courses. Offering classes and programs online has quickly become a priority for many colleges and universities.
The following statistics from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) show just how prevalent online colleges are today:
- 56 U.S. online colleges offer 100% of their classes exclusively online
- 2,512 U.S. colleges offer over 29,000 online degree programs
- There are 1,011 different types of online certificate and degree programs within 38 different study areas
Colleges That Offer The Most Online Certificate and Degree Programs (all degree levels)
The following ranking lists from Classesandcareers.com show the colleges in the United States that offer the most online certificate and degree programs.
Best Colleges for Online Certificates
|COLLEGE||LOCATION||PROGRAMS||TUITION IN-STATE||TUITION OUT-STATE|
|Mitchell Community College||Statesville, NC||42||$2,432||$8,576|
|Georgia Piedmont Technical College||Clarkston, GA||40||$2,136||$4,272|
|Rasmussen College-Florida||Ocala, FL||39||$9,360||$9,360|
|Madison Area Technical College||Madison, WI||42||$3,911||$5,866|
|Rasmussen College-Minnesota||St. Cloud, MN||38||$9,360||$9,360|
Best Colleges for Associate Degrees
|COLLEGE||LOCATION||PROGRAMS||TUITION IN-STATE||TUITION OUT-STATE|
|Holmes Community College||Goodman, MS||70||$2,230||$4,810|
|Allen County Community College||Iola, KS||55||$1,800||$1,800|
|Garden City Community College||Garden City, KS||39||$1,824||$2,432|
|San Joaquin Delta College||Stockton, CA||37||$1,104||$6,168|
|Copiah-Lincoln Community College||Wesson, MS||29||$2,390||$4,390|
Best Colleges for Bachelor’s Degrees
|COLLEGE||LOCATION||PROGRAMS||TUITION IN-STATE||TUITION OUT-STATE|
|Ashford University||San Diego, CA||53||$10,632||$10,632|
|Bellevue University||Bellevue, NE||51||$6,840||$6,840|
|American Public University System||Charles Town, WV||45||$6,480||$6,480|
|Arizona State University-Skysong||Scottsdale, AZ||35||$7,885||$14,946|
|Kaplan University-Davenport Campus||Davenport, IA||34||$13,356||$13,356|
Best Colleges for Master’s Degrees
|COLLEGE||LOCATION||PROGRAMS||TUITION IN-STATE||TUITION OUT-STATE|
|Capella University||Minneapolis, MN||75||$14,526||$14,526|
|Walden University||Minneapolis, MN||40||$12,844||$12,844|
|Nova Southeastern University||Fort Lauderdale, FL||38||$18,373||$18,373|
|University of Florida||Gainesville, FL||36||$10,770||$27,335|
|North Carolina State University at Raleigh||Raleigh, NC||35||$8,088||$22,610|
Most Popular Online Colleges
|COLLEGE||LOCATION||DISTANCE ENROLLMENT||AVG. TUITION COSTS|
|University of Phoenix||Tempe, AZ||162,003||$9,690|
|Liberty University||Lynchburg, VA||72,519||$21,292|
|Western Governors University||Salt Lake City, UT||70,504||$6,070|
|Southern New Hampshire University||Manchester, NH||56,371||$31,136|
|Grand Canyon University||Phoenix, AZ||54,543||$17,050|
|Walden University||Minneapolis, MN||52,799||$12,075|
|American Public University System||Charles Town, WV||52,361||$6,880|
|University of Maryland-University College||Adelphi, MD||48,268||$14,325|
|Kaplan University – Davenport Campus||Omaha, NE||45,268||$14,325|
|Excelsior College||Albany, NY||43,123||—|
Most Popular Online Colleges Source: IPEDS; Estimated Tuition and Fees for Academic Year; National Center for Education Statistics, College Navigator.
Types of Online College Degrees
Online colleges offer degrees at the four main educational levels – associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate. Each degree level is designed to provide you with educational training and particular skills that will prepare you for a job in your field of interest.
In addition, some online colleges also offer continuing education courses, such as certificates and professional development programs. These help you stay updated on changing trends within your industry.
Click on each of the degrees below to learn more.
Online Associate Degree
- 1,279 schools offer 6,146 online associate degree programs.
- As many community colleges have embraced online learning, several are offering two-year academic programs as well as vocational, career-oriented programs to distance learners.
- An online associate degree normally requires at least two years of full-time equivalent college work – the same amount of time as a traditional, on-campus associate degree.
Online Bachelor’s Degree
- An online bachelor’s degree is one of the most common online degrees available – there are 7,300 online bachelor’s degree programs offered by 1,249 schools in the U.S.
- Most online bachelor’s degree programs take students an average of about four years to complete.
- With a variety of majors, an online bachelor’s degree often serves as the minimum education requirement for many professions. In fact, in 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that approximately 21.3% of the jobs listed in their occupation handbook require a bachelor’s degree.
- An online bachelor’s degree focuses on a specific field of study, providing you with the knowledge and skills needed to move forward in your career and increase your earning potential.
Online Master’s Degree
- 1,253 schools offer 7,274 online master’s degree programs.
- An online master’s degree is often key to professional advancement. If you are a busy professional, in the midst of your career, you will need flexibility in course formats and accessibility. Because of this, the online learning format is especially convenient because it allows for coursework to be completed around work schedules (evenings and weekends).
- While some online master’s degrees will still require you to complete a traditional thesis, other graduate programs may opt for alternative final projects, such as comprehensive exams, practicums, presentations, and capstone projects. These final projects, required for graduation, assess what you have learned while enrolled in the online program.
- This high-level degree typically takes about two years of academic work beyond the bachelor’s degree.
Online Doctorate/Ph.D. Degree
- The doctorate degree or Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy), is among the highest academic degrees available.
- 206 schools offer 1,735 online doctorate degree programs.
- An online doctorate degree specializes in a field of study, yet, may vary in requirements or format. Doctorate and PhD degrees can require on average 8.2 years to complete. This includes study, research, and a dissertation. The exact amount of time you may spend on a doctorate or PhD, however, will largely depend on the program you are pursuing as well as your research and professional interests.
- A postgraduate degree is especially critical if you who want an added advantage in your career, or if you are interested in teaching at the postsecondary level or plan to engage in high-level research.
Continuing Education Options
- Certificate Programs allow you to develop specialized career skills. Taking continuing education courses in a specific area of study can help you stay current in your industry and attract new job opportunities. Online certificate programs offer a condensed learning experience and serve as an alternative academic credential to degree programs. Nationally, 719 schools offer 5,058 online certificate programs.
- Professional Development is required in many career fields. Industries such as real estate, insurance, social work, accounting, law, healthcare, etc. require a license or professional certification to do business. To renew a professional license, you must regularly complete continuing education units (or CEUs) to maintain competence and develop further knowledge and skills.
Credits Required To Complete An Online Degree
The number of credit hours required to graduate with an online college degree can vary depending on the school and the degree you plan to take. The following are the average credits required for each online college degree:
Types Of Online Learning Formats
There are several different types of online learning formats offered at colleges and universities. Some of these programs are delivered completely online, while others require some on-campus class attendance and/or live course participation in addition to online learning. These are known as hybrid programs.
The following are five different online learning formats:
In-person requirements vary depending on the online college. It is important to research whether attendance on-campus is required for an online degree program prior to application and enrollment. While many online schools are exclusively online, others require attending some class sessions or professional conferences hosted by the school in order to graduate.
Popular Online College Programs/Majors
Below is a list of the most popular online college programs and majors. These majors can be found at most online colleges.
Pros and Cons of Online Colleges
7 FAQs About Online Colleges
When deciding on an online college, ask yourself the following questions to ensure you make an informed decision:
Are online colleges accredited?
Accreditation is a crucial factor to consider when making a decision on an online college program. Accreditation is when a college undergoes a rigorous evaluation process by a recognized accrediting agency to ensure that their academics meet high-quality standards. It is also a good measure of whether or not a college will adequately prepare you for the career in which you are studying.
Learn more about online college accreditation here.
Do employers accept online degrees?
Most employers will accept online degrees similarly to on-campus college degrees as long as the online degree program meets a couple of expectations: 1) the online school you attended and the program you graduated from are accredited by a legitimate and recognized regional or national accreditation agency, 2) the online school has a positive reputation that speaks to the quality of the degree program and its graduates; can be verified by other alumni, employers, or online research.
In addition to verifying the quality of your online degree program, employers will also be interested to learn more about why you chose to go to school online, how you performed in class projects and assignments (want to know if you can collaborate with and work well in a team), your GPA, your leadership experience, additional certificates or licenses, work experience, and learned skills.
How much does online college cost?
Cost is one of the most important determining factors when choosing a college or degree program. Just like other types of degree programs, an online college degree program can also vary in cost. The cost of your degree will depend on a variety of factors, including:
- Type of online school you choose: For example, the cost of attending a public online college may be less expensive than a private or for-profit online school).
- Degree level and area of study (major): Degree program costs can vary quite dramatically from associate to bachelor’s and even more from undergraduate to graduate; degree costs can also vary slightly according to the area of study you choose.
- Whether you live in-state or out-of-state from the school you choose: Some online colleges have different tuition rates depending on your state of residence.
In order to encourage you to graduate in less time, some online colleges will also give incentives and discounts for taking multiple courses at the same time. They do this by offering a lower tuition cost per credit if you meet a minimum credit amount in a semester.
- Building or campus maintenance fees
- Room and board costs
- Transportation costs
- Parking fees
Waivers on certain fees may vary by institution. Most online colleges, however, require you to pay a technology fee in addition to tuition. The fee, which can range anywhere from $40 to around $200 (based on data from multiple online colleges) covers the costs of information technology such as the college’s online learning management system, technical support, and other tech improvements. This fee may be assessed by credit hour or semester, depending on the institution. According to the program costs from IPEDS, here are the average costs of online college programs by degree level. This list shows tuition for in-state and out-of-state students for full-time and per credit hour:
|AVERAGE TUITION||FULL TIME IN-STATE||PER CREDIT IN-STATE||FULL TIME OUT-STATE||PER CREDIT OUT-STATE|
You can look up the cost and compare the value of online colleges using the College Scorecard from the U.S. Department of Education.
Can you get financial aid for college?
Federal and state financial aid is available for students who enroll in an online college—as long as it is accredited by an approved accreditation agency. Some online colleges also offer scholarships, so be sure to check with your school’s financial aid department to see what options are available.
What do online colleges require to apply?
Many online college degree programs require you to fulfill prerequisites prior to admission. The following are common ones for many online colleges:
|Online Degree Type||Prerequisite or In-Person Requirement|
|Associate||High School Diploma or equivalent|
|Bachelor||High School Diploma or equivalent ACT or SAT test scores GPA|
|Graduate||GRE or GMAT GPA|
How long does it take to get a bachelor’s degree online?
The length of time it takes to earn an online bachelor’s degree or an online degree is often similar to the length of time it takes to earn a traditional degree of the same level. The variance in time to graduation for any degree level may be shortened or lengthened, depending on the number of credits you take each semester and how if you take any time off between semesters.
Below are the possible degrees you can earn along with the average amount of time you will need to invest to earn that specific degree level:
- Online Associate Degree: 2 years
- Online Bachelor’s Degree: 3-4 years
- Online Master’s Degree: 2 years
- Online Doctorate/PhD Degree: 8 years on average
The exact amount of time an online college degree will take you will depend on the types of online classes you are enrolled in, the school you attend, as well as your work ethic. For example, some programs will allow you to earn your degree in less time if you are willing and able to take multiple classes at a time.
How much time should I expect to spend on coursework each week?
Online students should expect to spend approximately three hours per week per credit hour to watch lectures and complete coursework. This will vary based on the difficulty of your chosen field of study, your school, and program. The time required for each online course is comparable to its on-campus counterpart course.
Accreditation for Online Colleges
What is Accreditation and Why Does it Matter?
Accreditation is a system used in the United States to evaluate colleges and universities to ensure you are receiving a quality education that meets standards for faculty, curriculum, and support resources. When choosing an online college, this is one of the most important factors in ensuring the academic integrity and value of your degree.
Accreditation assures that your school is a credible institution that is qualified to grant a degree in your field of study.
Universities and colleges must pass a rigorous review by the accreditation agency that grants the accreditation status. This ensures that you are receiving the level of higher learning that is required to help you qualify to get a job in your field of study after graduation.
Types of Online College Accreditation to Look For
Colleges can be nationally or regionally accredited by a number of accrediting bodies. Any legitimate accrediting agency will be recognized and verified by the United States Department of Education. Click here to find out whether or not your desired online college is accredited.
Most colleges and universities undergo accreditation from regional agencies, which are considered to be more rigorous and also more widely accepted.
Regional Accreditation Agencies
- Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges
- Higher Learning Commission
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Institutions of Higher Education
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Colleges
- WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)
Trade schools offering vocational or technical training primarily receive national accreditation.
National Accreditation Agencies
- Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC)
- Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training (ACCET)
- Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS)
- Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE)
- Council on Occupational Education (COE)
- Distance Education Training Council (DETC)
- National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts and Sciences (NACCAS)
- Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS)
It is important to research to find out if your prospective online college is accredited. Online colleges must publish their accreditation status on their website. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education maintains a Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. To view a full list published by the U.S. Department of Education of nationally recognized accrediting agencies, or to research the accreditation status of an online college, click here.
How to Apply to Online Colleges and What to Expect
The application process for an online college is similar to applying for a traditional college program. Here are the steps to successfully apply to an online college:
- Research schools. Search for programs that fit your education and career goals, match your learning style, and are within your budget.
- Visit the college’s website and read reviews from other students and alumni. Check reviews on Google and the school’s Facebook page too.
- Research application requirements for your online colleges of interest and pay attention to application deadlines.
- Request letters of recommendation from teachers and mentors.
- Gather all other application materials including essays, transcripts, letters of recommendations, and test scores.
- Complete the college application form for the schools you are interested in attending.
- Apply for scholarships and look into your financial aid options.
- Await admission decisions from the schools you applied for. Evaluate and weigh all acceptance letters and submit your reply.
- Once you are accepted, talk with a guidance counselor as you register for online classes and prepare for the next steps.
- Develop a plan on how you will pay for your tuition with financial aid, scholarships, student loans, or paying out of pocket.
Online colleges will provide a web platform for you to log onto from the internet (also called a Learning Management System or LMS for short, such as Blackboard or Canvas). Typically, each week you will be required to review lecture material, read required articles and/or textbook chapters, complete quizzes or other assignments, and/or engage in a class or group discussion (often on a discussion board or group chat). The format and deadlines will vary depending on the school and program.
You will be expected to do the following at an online college:
- Take responsibility for your learning: In online college courses, you will be expected to come prepared to give meaningful contributions to class discussions and teach your peers what you have learned. You will also need to be organized and set a schedule for yourself to complete assignments on time.
- Contribute regularly in the virtual classroom: Online instructors try to create an engaging virtual classroom that invites meaningful and thoughtful study and learning. They will encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity and empower you and the other students to express your ideas and opinions. The instructor will expect contributions from each individual student and will provide feedback.
- Apply what you learn: Online course curriculum enables you to develop practical skills through class discussions and assignments. These course materials are organized to give you the opportunity to practice real-life applications of the concepts you learn.
How to Pay for Online College
Affordability is often a critical factor to consider when selecting a college. It is important to search the online college’s website for annual tuition rates, fees, and to learn about any financial aid options the school offers.
The following federal financial assistance programs are available from the U.S. Department of Education as long as your online college is accredited. Click on each of the options to learn more.
Federal pell grants
If you qualify, Pell Grants can provide up to $6,095 per semester. These funds can be directly applied to online college tuition. Unlike loans, these needs-based grants are provided if you are a low-income undergraduate student to promote access to postsecondary education, and do not need to be repaid. Learn more about the $6,095 college grant.
Federal student loans
These loans are also available, if needed, and do not have to be repaid until after you finish your degree. You’ll be required to participate in loan counseling to understand the terms of repayment and interest rates prior to taking out student loans. Private loans are also available from private lending institutions.
Scholarships are given to qualified students that meet certain criteria and are offered through colleges, private donors, organizations, and federal and state government. To apply for and receive a scholarship, you need to meet a set of criteria that may be academic, athletic, artistic or aspirational.
There are hundreds of scholarships available annually. To learn more about open scholarship opportunities in 2017-18, visit scholarshipamerica.org. You should also consider applying to schools that offer merit-based assistance to students.
State, local, institution financial assistance
These kinds of assistance may also provide you with a way to pay for college. Check with the financial aid office at your state or local institution to learn more about options that may be available to you.
To secure federal grants and student loans, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which determines your eligibility for both federal grants and federal student loans.
Be mindful of student aid deadlines and give yourself plenty of time to submit your application before the start of the academic year. For more information on student financial assistance programs or to apply for aid via the web, visit http://studentaid.ed.gov. Learn more about financial aid for online colleges, here.
Expert Advice On Online Colleges
Online College Resources
The following list of resources will be helpful as you prepare for an online college program:
- Online Degrees and Classes – College Atlas. View over 3,500 online degrees, online classes, and certificates. Search online programs from accredited colleges, universities, and vocational schools.
- Online Degree Programs: Add Flexibility to Your Education – College Atlas: Explore online degree programs and see how they can help you complete school on your schedule.
- U.S. Department of Education – College Scorecard. Compare colleges using this tool from the U.S. Department of Education based on program/degree, location, school size, etc.
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. Get data for accredited online colleges. Research the accreditation status of your online college of choice.
- Federal Student Grant Programs. Learn more about available federal student grant funds for students attending online college.
- Federal Student Aid – Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Apply online for financial aid through the federal government.
- Federal Student Aid. Prepare for college by exploring careers and learn more about applying for various types of aid and repaying your loans.