Our Ranking Methodology
To find the best online colleges, we started with three basic criteria: each college needed to be nonprofit, accredited, and offer fully online degrees. Then, we evaluated each college based on three criteria:
In addition to accreditation, we wanted to see how well each university’s program ranked in top college evaluators like U.S. News. We also looked at how many times a college had received awards for its online programs.
Then, we created an algorithm that compares how well each university fared across multiple rankings, as well as giving bonus points for receiving multiple awards. A high score here meant that a program was more widely-recognized for the rigorousness of its program.
As more students look for flexible study options, more colleges offer online degrees. That said, some colleges are better prepared to teach online degrees than others. We evaluated each school based on student satisfaction surveys — looking for how well students regarded professors and programs — and the online resources provided by the university. This helped us score each school based on how well equipped it is to teach coursework online.
While the exact cost for college depends on the degree you choose, we wanted to identify the schools which wouldn’t break the bank. We assessed how much a university charged per credit for undergraduate and graduate degrees, and how much it charged for online credit, whether in-state or out-of-state. Colleges that charged less per credit for all students earned the highest marks in this category.
This Gave Us Our Intelligent Score
We then used these three scores to calculate our Intelligent Score. The top-scoring universities all have excellent reputations, are known for the rigorousness of their online programs, and offer their degrees at competitive rates.
While some few of the schools on our list have lower scores than the others, we still view them as good options. A few, like Drexel University and North Carolina State University, had high marks for program strength and online readiness, but come at a relatively steeper cost. Depending on your choice of degree, these lower scoring schools still might be the right match for you.
This Degree Isn’t For Everyone
The largest caveat to earning a degree online is to not underestimate the amount of work required — and knowing that it’s largely isolated work. While there are programs which incorporate online students into live class sessions, many require you to study independently. Being able to study at any time is a perk for online learning, but means that your education requires perhaps more self-motivation than average — and you won’t get the networking or teamwork experience of an in-person class.
Taking a moment to identify what you’d like to get out of a degree program can help you decide whether an online college is the best option for you. If networking, tutoring, and group study sessions are important, see which colleges offer an online equivalent.
As you hone in on the specific degree and college right for you, there are a few details to keep in mind. All of the universities on our list have regional accreditation, which means that the university itself has been recognized to provide quality education. However, there are accrediting organizations on the degree-level, too. Researching if there is an accreditor for your specific degree (whether business, social work, or otherwise), and then checking if a prospective school has that accreditation, adds another stamp of approval to your degree.
Additionally, the professors at a given university will be an even larger part of your academic experience than with an on-campus program. Taking a closer look at a department’s faculty, the courses they’ve taught recently, and the research they’re interested in, can help you identify whether a program meets your specific interests.
Finally, you’ll want to keep an eye on each prospective university’s state authorizations. Different states can have different requirements for higher education, and this can translate into one state not recognizing another’s authority for awarding a diploma. If you live in a different state than the university, you’ll need to make sure your home state has authorized the university to grant degrees. Most universities have a specific webpage for their information, but you can also check with the admissions office or your local Board of Education for more details.