Deciding which college to attend is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make — and one of the most difficult. With over 7,000 colleges and universities recognized by the Department of Education, you could spend hours sifting through college rankings and perhaps still not find the program that’s right for you. If you’re applying to online degree programs, the challenge becomes even trickier. Even though a program may look good on the surface, not all colleges offer the same quality, value, and student support with their online degrees.
This guide can help you narrow your choices and find an accredited online college degree program that meets your unique education goals and fits your schedule. Get started with our rankings list below, then keep reading to learn more about the benefits of attending college online, the different types of online degree programs you can enroll in, what to look for in an online college, and much more.
2023 Rankings: The Best Accredited Online Colleges
The college search can be overwhelming and time consuming, but help is here: Our team researched the best accredited online colleges from across the U.S. to compile the rankings list below. These schools stood out because of their dedication to putting their student’s success first. This included having strong online student support services, flexible scheduling, plentiful financial aid opportunities, low student-teacher ratios, a wide range of online degree options, and other student-centric attributes. See which schools ranked highest for 2023.
College rankings coming soon!
Top 7 Reasons to Go to College Online
The word college conjures up images of a traditional, on-campus experience, but each year online college becomes more common. In fact, 44% of undergraduate students were enrolled in distance learning in 2022. Let’s look at seven reasons more students are choosing to go to school online — and what benefits you might experience if you choose one of the best accredited online colleges.
Study when and where you want.
One of the biggest benefits of the best online colleges is that you can take your courses anywhere and often at any time. With a traditional college experience, you have to drive to campus and attend classes at set times. Online students take their classes from the comfort of their own home — or anywhere with a fast internet connection — and choose class times that work for their schedule. This makes balancing classes, a full-time work schedule, and your personal life a whole lot easier.
Get lower tuition rates and fees.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly college experience, online programs are the way to go. Because colleges don’t have to find classroom space and more students can enroll in an online class, running online classes costs the school less. Usually, this means colleges charge lower fees and tuition with their online degree programs. Check out our list of the most affordable online colleges to see quality options with lower-than-average costs.
Keep working as you earn your degree.
The best accredited online colleges offer more flexibility and control over your academic schedule, making it easier to work as you earn your degree. For example, if you’re a nurse who works full-time and wants to get your BSN, finding the time to drive to a nearby campus each day and attend classes decreases the likelihood that you’ll be able to pursue your degree. With an online program, you don’t have to drive to campus and you can do classwork at the time and place that suits you best. So that means you can take courses from the comfort of your own home between shifts — or even at your workplace on breaks.
Attend the college you want no matter how far away it is.
Tuition is already expensive enough; the cost of moving across the country and coming home for holidays puts some schools out of reach. Let’s say the best program for what you want to do is in California, but you live in Pennsylvania. If the program is one with an online option, you can enroll without actually moving to the West Coast. With online colleges, you don’t have to move away from friends and family or rack up moving costs and airline fees to attend your dream program.
Save time and money on commuting and housing.
Anyone who’s been to a gas station or talked to a friend about rent prices recently knows that both are skyrocketing. With online college, you can save time and money because you don’t have to commute or find housing near your campus. Instead, the best online colleges allow you to take your courses from the comfort of your own home — and fill up your gas tank less often.
Take advantage of greater opportunities to expand your professional and personal network.
Online learning brings together students from all around the country and world. Through these connections, you’ll expand your professional and personal network faster than if you were in a traditional program with people mainly from just a few geographic regions. While growing your network might not be your first concern when applying to college, it can be a useful tool when looking for jobs, seeking career advice, or finding people to study with.
Earn your degree on a timeline that works for you.
Online learning also gives you more flexibility in how long it will take to earn your degree. Many colleges offer their online degree programs in an accelerated or self-paced format. Accelerated programs pack more coursework into fewer months, significantly reducing the time it takes to finish your degree (sometimes by more than a year).
Meanwhile, self-paced programs let you take as long as you want to earn your degree (or within a reasonable timeframe). This is great both for students who want to earn their degree as quickly as possible and those who need extra time due to professional and personal obligations.
Online College Checklist: Key Things to Look For
Before you start your college search, make a list of must-haves and nice-to-haves. This list will act as a guide when comparing the best accredited online colleges. By knowing what you’re looking for, you’ll be able to weed out schools faster, find your top schools more quickly, and not feel as overwhelmed by the process. While every student will have different criteria on their list, here are some key things to look for.
Proper accreditation is a must-have for all students. If your online education isn’t accredited, your degree won’t be considered legitimate by most employers and other academic institutions. When looking at accreditation, make sure the institution is accredited by an agency that’s recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Regional accreditation is the best type of institutional accreditation, though many consider universities with national accreditation to be acceptable as well.
Depending on your program, you might also want to look for programmatic accreditation. Degrees that lead to career fields with strict licensing requirements are often reviewed by programmatic accreditors to make sure the curriculum meets quality standards and covers the right material. Examples of degrees where programmatic accreditation matters include nursing, social work, accounting, engineering, and teaching/education.
Just because a college offers courses online doesn’t automatically mean the school is affordable. When looking at the best online college programs, check to make sure that the tuition is within your price range and similar to other online programs with similar features. You’ll also want to watch out for miscellaneous or hidden fees that can add up such as technology fees. To check for fees, look at the pricing page on a college’s website or set up a meeting with an admissions representative.
Scheduling and Study Flexibility
While most online programs are more flexible than traditional ones, not all online programs offer the same level of control over your academic schedule. Some programs only offer synchronous classes, which means you have to attend class at a specific time. If you want increased flexibility, check out an asynchronous or self-paced program. In these programs, classes are recorded so you can watch them anytime that works for you.
Online Education Experience & Technology
Since 2020, the number of institutions offering online programs has increased dramatically. While that means you have more options, it also means some schools are new to online course delivery and might not offer the same quality as the best online colleges with seasoned programs. Make sure to choose a school that has been offering online courses for several years and can explain its approach to the online learning experience.
Strong Online Student Support
Your education is about more than your experience in the classroom. You also need easy access to support services that will help you thrive outside the classroom and in your future career. Look for colleges that offer professional, academic, and mental health resources specifically for online students. Leaders in providing online student support include the University of Maryland Global Campus, which provides 24-hour tech and writing support to online students.
Customizable Degree Plans
The best online colleges offer programs that are customizable to your goals. Look for programs with specializations and concentrations that are of interest to you or ones that have a lot of elective choices. Degree level plays a role in customizability, too. Master’s and doctoral programs often have more customizability than undergrad programs. But no matter the degree level, you should be able to personalize your academic plan to a certain extent.
Different Ways You Can Earn Your College Degree Online
Not all online college programs are equal, so it’s important to know all of the options and understand your own online learning preferences and scheduling needs. You’ll have various options to consider, such as fully online programs, hybrid degrees, asynchronous courses, and self-paced vs structured programs. Let’s compare the six most popular online degree types so you can see which best suits your learning style and lifestyle.
Fully Online vs. Hybrid/Blended Programs
Some programs are fully online while others are a hybrid (also sometimes called blended). A hybrid program usually includes some classes, lab work, and meetings that you must attend in person. In some cases clinicals or fieldwork must be completed at a specific partner site, not on campus. If a program says that it’s hybrid or blended, check out how often you must be on campus. It could mean that over half your coursework is in-person or it could mean that you just have an annual in-person orientation.
Usually, a hybrid/blended program is better for students who are looking for some social interaction. It’s also a great option if you want to forge in-person connections with your professors. Fully online programs are better for students with a busier schedule or those who aren’t looking for an in-person learning community.
Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Courses
Asynchronous coursework is prerecorded so you can watch it whenever it’s convenient for you. On the other hand, synchronous courses are offered live, online, at a specific time. For example, you might have to log onto Zoom at 1 pm every Tuesday and Thursday for your class. Some colleges offer one type and others offer a mix of both, so make sure to look at the course delivery format.
Asynchronous coursework is perfect for those with a varying schedule, such as someone whose shifts change at work every week, or for extremely independent learners. Synchronous classes offer more accountability, a more stable learning routine, and in-class participation.
Self-Paced vs. Structured Timeline
A self-paced course is one that allows you to complete your degree on your own schedule, while a program with a structured timeline has set semesters when you will take courses. For example, Arizona State University’s online marketing degree is on a structured timeline; students take their courses on a 7 1/2-week-long term schedule and have specific start dates for the program. The Capella FlexPath, on the other hand, offers students the ability to start their coursework whenever they’re ready. The latter program also doesn’t have a standard term length.
Self-paced programs are great for students who want to finish their degree as fast as possible, while structured timelines are great for students who struggle with time management or want more accountability.
Frequently Asked Questions About Attending College Online
Do online programs have the same accreditation as on-campus programs?
The best online colleges and programs usually have the same accreditation as their on-campus counterparts. In fact, that’s a sign of a reputable online program! When looking for an online or on-campus degree, check to see if the institution is regionally or nationally accredited by one of the accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Are online degrees the same quality as on-campus degrees?
Online and on-campus degrees each offer their own unique benefits, so it’s hard to compare the two. With that being said, the best online and on-campus degrees offer solid student resources, a good learning experience, and an academic plan you can customize. At the best online colleges, the same faculty teaches both online and on campus, leading to programs of equivalent quality.
Will my online degree be respected by employers?
If your program is accredited, there’s no reason it won’t be respected by employers. In fact, an online degree might make you more competitive for remote positions. Many of these positions are a good fit for people with work-from-home experience, and an online degree would count toward that requirement for a remote job.
Are online degree programs eligible for scholarships and other financial aid?
Online degrees are eligible for the most common type of financial assistance, which is federal aid. You may also find scholarships and financial aid options from your university and private organizations that are only available to online students. To learn more, check out our financial aid guide and scholarship guide for online students.
How much does an online degree cost?
The cost of a degree from the best online colleges varies from school to school, but generally speaking it should be cheaper than an in-person program. Other factors influence program cost too, including if a program is out-of-state or in-state, private or public. Usually, in-state public universities are more affordable, but this can vary depending on your financial aid package.
What subjects/majors can you get an online degree in?
The best accredited online colleges offer degrees in any field you can think of, from healthcare to computer science. Most likely, there’s an online major in any subject you want to study, though online programs are more common in some fields than in others. To learn more about the most popular online majors, check out the lists we’ve compiled below of the top online colleges by major and subject.
Find Top Online Colleges by Subject and Major
Online degrees are available in nearly every field of study from reputable, accredited colleges and universities. Explore today’s online best colleges in nine fields of study below.More Subjects and Majors Coming Soon!