Best Online Degrees & Programs

Explore Study.com's free, comprehensive guide to online degrees. Get information about online colleges, the types of online degrees you can earn, financial aid and cost, the value of an online degree, and more.

Meet our Expert Contributors

Christiane Warren, MA, PhD
Christiane has provided academic and career advising for online students, served as admissions administrator for Empire State College, and worked on accreditation committees to develop fully accredited online degrees.
Glenn Conley, MBA, PhD
Glenn has earned two online master's degrees and taught online college courses for nearly 10 years. As a career development manager, he's advised and hired numerous employees with online degrees.
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Online Colleges and Schools

Most colleges have online courses or distance learning opportunities. Over 70% of 4-year colleges in the U.S. have undergraduate courses online, and almost 60% of these schools offer graduate-level distance education. Altogether, over 2000 public and private colleges offer online courses and over 1600 offer online degree programs.

If you're interested in online colleges, your best bet is to find accredited online colleges to ensure that you get a quality education. If you're worried about the cost of online education, rest assured, there are many popular affordable online colleges.

Online College Degree Levels

Online college degrees are available at the associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctorate level. Click a link to learn about top schools for each program level.

List of Degrees You Can Get Online

Online degrees are available in many industries, and online science, business, engineering, health, teaching, and law degrees are not uncommon.

Are Online Degrees Worth It?

Online degrees are worth it for students who need flexibility in their learning environment due to personal situations or career goals. If you have family obligations, a job, or other important personal commitments, an online degree may be the right choice for you.

Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility

One of the biggest advantages I've seen for students is the flexibility offered by online degrees. Most students are able to work a full time job while pursuing their degree online. The flexibility of not meeting at a specific time has also been helpful for students to balance their family life.

Glenn Conley, MBA, PhD
Expert Contributor

Because of their continuous growth in popularity, online degree programs are much more accessible as programs have sprouted up significantly in popular degree areas such as computer science, nursing, and business. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2018 that about 30% of all college students were enrolled in online courses. Employers have taken notice and view online degrees from accredited schools as valuable.

There are some important points to consider when determining whether an online degree is worth it for you:

  • Flexibility offered by online degrees. Students taking an online degree may be able to study from locations of their choice or on their own schedules. This allows time for work, family, or other personal obligations.
  • Potential cost savings due to lack of room and board fees and transportation costs. Tuition costs for online degrees vary, but the majority of online degrees cost the same or less than on-campus degrees.
  • Variety of programs available. Schools now offer a wide range of online offerings, so you should check whether your degree program of choice is available online.
  • School accreditation. Online degrees from accredited schools are taken seriously. Many online programs are offered by regionally or nationally accredited schools. Some have program-specific accreditation, which may be important depending on your field of study.

Online degrees can be a great option for many students, as long as the student is careful and informed before making a commitment.

What does a student have to say?

Taking courses online was pivotal to me earning my degree. I was able to study in small windows of time throughout the day and week, without interrupting my career. Working at my own pace, while still having time for my family, meant the world to me. I wouldn't have completed this degree if it wasn't so convenient.

Jeff Calareso, BS in Business Administration
Online student

Online Degrees vs Traditional Degrees

There are several differences between online degrees and on-campus degrees, but the most obvious is that online degrees allow you the flexibility of learning at home or on your own schedule. This flexibility allows students to take time for family or work commitments that they have outside of school. It should be noted that for some programs, you may need participate in lab work, hands-on projects, scheduled participation, or take exams on campus.

Most colleges today (over 70%!) offer some form of online coursework. Due to the growing popularity, you can earn an online degree in almost any field that you can earn a traditional degree in. Some examples include an online business degree, nursing degree, or education degree.

Are Online Degrees Respected?

Employers are respecting online degrees more and more as the popularity of these programs continues to grow. Over 1600 colleges offer online degree programs, and this number continues to grow! A 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Education's NCES found that even as college enrollment dropped, the number of students taking online courses rose by more than 5 percent.

Employers have reported that it's less important whether an applicant earned a degree online or through traditional education. Instead, it's more important to look at the student's area of study and whether the school has accreditation. Online degrees awarded by non-profit, regionally accredited online schools provide a high level of confidence. This includes both bachelor's and master's degrees from accredited online schools!

Overall, online degrees are well-respected, but students looking for online education should still carefully consider the degree's usefulness and the importance of the degree's origin.

Equal in educational value

Online degrees that stem from universities and colleges that offer also traditional degrees are usually equal in educational value as they undergo a rigorous internal and external approval process and the institution has to be regionally accredited... I had many occasions to review and assess the value of a candidates' qualifications. Increasingly, we [hire] more candidates with online credentials and impressive career achievements.

Christiane Warren, MA, PhD
Expert contributor

No difference in quality

As a supervisor working in international logistics, I've hired people who have completed their degree online. I've seen no difference in quality of education between someone who completed an accredited degree in a traditional versus an online format.

Glenn Conley, MBA, PhD
Expert contributor

Student perspective - "Just as respected"

Earning my degree wouldn't have been possible without the flexibility an online setting provided. I feel the degree I earned is just as respected as one from a traditional institution. Earning your degree online shows future employers that you are self-disciplined, goal-oriented and have good time-management skills.

Stephanie Thomas, BS in Business Administration
Online student

Which Online Colleges Are Accredited?

There are, in fact, over 2,000 accredited colleges offering online courses. When searching for online colleges, focus your attention on schools that have institutional accreditation. Accreditation proves that the school and its programs have met certain standards of quality .There are regionally and nationally accredited online schools; both forms of accreditation are trustworthy, though regional accreditation is typically more rigorous and, therefore, more prestigious. Transfer credits from a regionally accredited college are more widely accepted.

Typically, public, not-for-profit online schools have regional accreditation, while vocational and for-profit institutions often have national accreditation. Both non-profit and for-profit schools can offer valuable education to students, so both are valid options for those seeking online education.

In addition to national and regional accreditation, schools may have different types of program accreditation for specific degree programs. Program-specific accreditation is given out by accrediting bodies that specialize in a particular field. Similar to online schools with institutional accreditation, accredited online degree programs are recognized as having met a higher standard. Some fields, such as the healthcare, legal, and teaching fields, commonly have program-specific accreditation. For example, nursing programs will often be additionally accredited by the Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). When considering a degree program, it is worth looking into whether the field has a prominent accrediting body and determining whether your school choice has obtained program accreditation.

It is always important to look at a school's accreditation and respectability, and you should weigh these against other school factors, such as cost, convenience, and program availability, before making a schooling decision.


How to Get a Degree Online

Online degrees work very similarly to on-campus degrees in terms of degree requirements.

  • Select a school
    Choose a credible, accredited school that offers your chosen degree online
  • Apply
    Submit your application and if applicable, the program you want to enroll in
  • Complete course requirements
    Take all required courses for the online program, which are usually similar to the on-campus program
  • Earn your online degree
    Congratulations, you've completed your degree!

Online degree formats

"Online courses... are highly diverse in their course delivery methodology, their quality and their difficulty. Many students... think that online study is easier because they do not have to attend class at set intervals... However, online studies come with often a heavy work load of discussion posts and journaling, which substitutes for the in-class interaction."

Christiane Warren, MA, PhD
Expert contributor

Online bachelor's degree programs may include virtual classrooms to stream lectures and incorporate email, instant messaging, message boards, or video conferencing for communication and assignments. Online certificate programs work similarly, though certificate programs have fewer classes and take less time to complete.

How to Choose an Online College or University

There are many things to consider when you are deciding on your education. Some important factors to look for when choosing an online college include:

Accreditation - Is the school regionally or nationally accredited?

School quality - Is the school reputable or highly ranked? Will employers respect the school? Will other institutions accept credits from the school?

Program diversity and availability - Does the school have the program you are interested in?

Learning environment - What format and learning tools do the online courses and assignments use? Are the programs hybrid programs or fully online?

Cost - Are the school's tuition, fees, and financial aid packages a fit for your budget?

Student and career support - Does the school offer services that help their students, both academically and otherwise?

Select a school that adequately meets all your criteria and that you're confident will suit your needs. If you're not sure about what programs are the best fit for you, you might want to check out colleges that offer free courses online. Taking free online courses can help you determine your learning needs, and give you a sense of what you want out of an online college program.

How to Enroll in an Online College Degree Program

The enrollment process for online schools is similar to that of a traditional college. Steps to enrollment include:

  • Research. Decide on the degree program and find accredited online colleges from that offer your program of interest.
  • Apply for financial aid. Research aide, grants, and scholarships that you can take advantage of to better judge your overall degree cost.
  • Sit for standardized tests. Common required tests include the SAT, ACT, and the GED (if you did not yet earn your high school diploma). You should also sit for AP and CLEP exams that you are prepared for.
  • Gather application materials. Most schools will require you to provide your high school transcripts and proof of graduation, as well as recommendation letters and standardized test scores.
  • Apply. Complete the application process with the online school of your choice. You may need to answer questions related to your prior educational experiences and what you intend to study in college.
  • Enroll. Once accepted into a school and program, you'll need to choose classes to enroll in. An academic advisor can help you with these decisions.

If you're looking for something a bit simpler, some online schools also offer open enrollment, which only requires your high school diploma or GED. If you need help, you should be able to contact the school for help with enrollment, even if they don't have a formal admissions office.

Cost of an Online Degree

The cost of an online degree depends on several factors, including the degree level, the number of credits in the degree, whether the school is public or private, online course fees, and the student services offerings, just to name a few. That said, there are several affordable online degree options available that provide a quality online education at an affordable price.

Though some schools have similar or slightly lower tuition for online program credits, they might add fees for distance education. According to a report from WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, about 75% of schools have comparable tuition for online and on-campus courses, however, only 54% were comparable when added fees for online education were added in. That said, you might spend less overall due to housing and transportation saving. The flexibility of online degree programs may also make them a good choice, regardless of savings.

Consider your career goals as you evaluate whether you want to choose one of the cheaper online accredited college degree options.

Can You Get Financial Aid for an Online College?

Yes! Financial aid is available for online colleges.

You'll want to first look for federal financial aid, which comes from the government. Many online schools accept the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), Pell Grants, and federal loans. You can also apply to privately funded grants or scholarships, which are paid for by charitable and non-profit organizations, as well as by companies with philanthropic arms, like Pepsi or Amazon. Lastly, you should check if your school of interest offers work-study programs, alternate payment plans, or credit for previous education.

Even if your tuition costs are within your budget, it's still in your best interest to check for available financial aid. Information related to financial aid for online college courses may be available through the school's financial aid office or on the school's financial aid webpages.

Seek all possible funding sources

Students should always begin with filing their FAFSA and seeking all possible funding sources. Colleges have financial aid counselors who are experienced in providing the best possible package for each individual student... As an advisor I would urge students to maximize their eligibility... there are many workshops, both online and in person, free webinars and blogs, that offer excellent information on financial aid.

Christiane Warren, MA, PhD
Expert contributor

What Are the Best Online Degrees to Get?

You have many options when it comes to online certificate programs and online degree programs - the best online program for you will depend on your career goals, as well as your preferences with relation to academic rigor, program length, and cost.

At the associate's and bachelor's level, there are many programs in the areas of career and technical education (CTE), as well as criminal justice, computer science, and business, to name a few.

For those interested in management, there are flexible MBA programs available, many of which have internships built-in.

If you're interested in social work, you can consider online BSW-MSW programs, which are often offered as 5-year programs with a professional focus, rather than a research focus.

Consider programs with alternative credit options

The best online degrees are those that incorporate work and life experience for college credit.

Christiane Warren, MA, PhD
Expert contributor

What Are the Highest Paying Online Degrees?

If you're interested in getting an getting a high paying job with your online degree, you have a wide variety of degree types and career industries to choose from. Top paying online degrees exist in almost every job sector, so it's a matter of deciding which degrees suit your interests and goals. One popular online degree option that can open many doors in the business sector is an MBA, and several schools offer online MBA degrees.

Optimize your learning and growth

I encourage my employees who want to continue their education to consider pursuing an online MBA. Gaining practical experience through work while at the same time learning management and business concepts in an MBA program optimizes learning and growth

Glenn Conley, MBA, PhD
Expert contributor

Looking for additional lucrative career options with an online degree? Below, we've listed some high paying occupations, as identified by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and US News & World Report, and their related online degrees.


High Paying Occupation Related Online Degree Median Annual Salary (2018)*
Registered Nurse RN degree $71,730
Computer Systems Analyst Computer science degree $88,740
Financial Advisor Finance degree $88,890
Electrical Engineer Electrical engineering degree $96,640
Marketing Manager Marketing degree $132,230

*Source: www.bls.gov

If you're considering online education, you may want to read more about the best careers for an online degree.

Top Online Degree Programs

Schools with Best Paying Online Degree Programs

1
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide & Online

Computer science and engineering careers come to life through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's top-notch online programs. Offering distance programs since the early 70's, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has fine-tuned their associate to master's program offerings to an online platform ready to prepare students for $130,000 plus incomes as computer systems managers, engineering managers and chief executive officers. Students can connect directly with top employers through Embry-Riddle COIN program, which connects students with worldwide employers through co-op/internship opportunities, along with profile building and job fairs to connect students with industry leaders like Boeing.

Online learning and medicine typically do not mix, but the University of Southern California (USC) Online is working to bridge the gap. USC Online offers a robust offering of master's degrees in orofacial pain medicine and dentistry along with a master's in nursing, which offer potential earnings well into three figures. To ensure a robust online experience and future job potential, USC connects you to a network of faculty with industry experience with leaders like Proctor & Gamble and career services to connect you with employers via webinars and mentorships. In addition to offering opportunities to collaborate with leading researchers' in business and computer science fields, USC features an online program for petroleum engineers that can lead to wages over $130,000.

When it comes to earning potential and online programs, Arizona State University (ASU) is hard to beat. ASU online offers over 200 online including a dozen must have degrees for high wage careers like bachelor's and master's programs in business administration, management and marketing. In addition to preparation for management and executive positions, ASU provides 4-year online programs for computer and information systems managers, which brings in over 140k. Connect with industry leaders throughout the program and beyond through the mentorship network and Signature Employer Sponsorship program.


Fastest Online Degree Programs

1
Purdue University Global

When looking for speed, look no further than Purdue University Global. The online extension of Purdue, Purdue Global offers more than 175 associate to doctoral degree programs including ten bachelor's and master's degrees in business, nursing, information technology and healthcare through their ExcelTrack. This allows students to accelerate through the program using their existing knowledge. With ExcelTrack, the MBA can be completed in as little as a year or sooner. Beyond ExcelTrack, Purdue offers 6- and 10-week course terms. Complete more courses in a shorter timeframe.

Colorado State University Global offers a diverse online selection with the speed modern learners crave. At CSU Global, students have access to monthly class start schedules and accelerated courses available for their fully online bachelor's and master's programs in management, information technology and healthcare. Alternative credit options mean that students can get their degree faster through self-study assessments, transfer credits and credit by exam. CSU Global also allows up to 90 credits transferred toward a bachelor's degree. Additionally, fast paced learners can take advantage of the stackable credentials, meaning credits from a certificate in IT operations can be applied to your bachelor's degree in information technology.

Completing a bachelor's degree in less than two years can become a reality at Northeastern University. Using prior credits and experience, students can complete a bachelor's degree in as little as 18 months in management, information technology and finance with Northeastern only requiring 60 credits completed at their college. In addition to dozens of online accelerated bachelor's programs, Northeastern University offers fully online accelerated master's programs in communication, criminal justice and instructional design that can be completed in as little as 18 months. Two plus programs are available where bachelor's and master's programs can be complete simultaneously online. Professional students can also take advantage of experiential learning at their place of employment or work virtually with a sponsoring organization.


Most Flexible Online Degree Programs for Working Adults

1
Northern Arizona University

Working professionals can take learning to their level at Northern Arizona University. In addition to traditional online degree programs at both the bachelor's and graduate levels in computing, education and criminal justice, NAU offers the competency completion program for business administration and nursing programs. Designed for flexibility, this completely self-paced, subscription-based learning model let's students earn as many credits as they can in 6 months. The quicker students demonstrate mastery, the quicker the program is complete. There is no penalty for taking additional time to complete a course either, since the school offers a year.

Flexibility is the name of the game when it comes to working adults and the University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill has it to offer. In addition to offering fully online graduate programs in accounting, business administration, public health and physical therapy, working professionals can take advantage of the Friday Center, which offers continuing education and online courses to non-traditional students. Students have access to online courses, personal enrichment and professional degrees and programs. Professional students looking for flexibility can also take advantage of the UNC Online Exchange, which allows working professionals access to hundreds of online courses that are offered at other schools like UNC Charlotte and UNC Greensboro.

With an expansive online offering and flexible scheduling for non-traditional students, University of Florida offers a well-rounded online experience. Online students have access to 21 of the top online flexible bachelor's programs in communications, education, criminology and nursing. The University of Florida lets working professionals set the pace through flexible part- and full-time course loads for all programs, along with the option to take a semester off penalty-free. Classes are asynchronous in format with all deadlines established at the beginning of the course, allowing working professionals to set their pace.


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