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How We Ranked Our Top Online Colleges

This list features some of the best online colleges and universities across the country. Each school featured is a nonprofit, accredited institution, either public or private, with a high standard of academic quality for post-secondary institutions.

We evaluated each school on tuition costs, admission, retention and graduation rates, faculty, reputation, and the student resources provided for online students. Then we calculated the Intelligent Score on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Next, we compared this comprehensive list of online colleges and universities to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications like the U.S. News & World Report, among others, to simplify a student’s college search. We pored through these rankings so students don’t have to.

Best Accredited Online Colleges That Might Interest You

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Best Accredited Online Colleges

Best Colleges and Top Universities

University of Florida

University of Central Florida

Embry - Riddle Aeronautical University

Oregon State University

University of Illinois Chicago

MUSC College of Health Professions

Golden Gate University

Union Institute & University

Texas A&M University

Thomas Jefferson University

Florida International University

Arizona State University

Penn State World Campus

University of North Carolina

Thomas Edison State University

University of Missouri

University of Arizona

Oklahoma State University

University of Massachusetts Lowell

Excelsior University

Northeastern University

University of North Dakota

CUNY School of Professional Studies

East Carolina University

Kansas State University

Ohio State University--Columbus

University of Massachusetts Global

The University of Alabama

Utah State University

Washington State University

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What You Should Know About Online Colleges

“Attending an online college can be a convenient and flexible way to pursue higher education,” says Blanca Villagomez, a program coordinator and counselor at UC Irvine. “However, it’s important to carefully research and evaluate the institution and program you’re considering to ensure that it meets your needs and will be recognized by employers or other educational institutions.”

With this in mind, there are a few things students must be aware of when considering enrolling in an online college.


This list includes only accredited colleges because of how important accreditation is to the quality of school and the educational experience it provides students. There are two types of accreditation for U.S. colleges — regional and national. Schools with regional accreditation are typically nonprofit and may be public or private. Nationally accredited schools are typically for-profit and private institutions.

Regional accreditation is the more widely recognized accreditation type, with rigorous standards for academic quality. Employers typically seek out job candidates from regionally accredited schools. In some professions, like teaching, students must have a degree from a regionally accredited institution to be eligible for necessary licenses and credentials.

Accreditation also matters when it comes to transferring schools or pursuing advanced study. Regionally accredited schools only accept credits and degrees from other regionally accredited schools, not nationally accredited schools. This can limit future educational options for students who earn an undergraduate degree at a nationally-accredited school.

There are also financial implications to consider. While nationally-accredited schools may have lower tuition than regionally-accredited schools, their programs may not be eligible for the full range of student financial aid options. Additionally, the limitations of degrees from nationally-accredited schools in the job market may impact students’ future earnings and employment opportunities.

Most schools include their accreditation status in their marketing materials, but if you need more clarification, you can check the U.S. Department of Education’s database.

Nonprofit vs. for-profit status

Like accreditation, a school’s status as a nonprofit or for-profit also impacts the quality of education, future employment opportunities, and financial aid eligibility.

The majority of higher education institutions in the U.S. are nonprofit. This status is considered the standard-bearer for post-secondary education since, by definition, they can’t turn a profit. Instead, they must reinvest all revenue into the school via faculty and staff salaries, infrastructure, student services, and more.

As the name implies, for-profit schools are designed to make money. As such, they can use revenue to pay shareholders, executives, and investors rather than invest revenue in the school, which can impact the quality of programs and infrastructure.

Residency requirements

While online programs may advertise the ability to learn from anywhere, that might not always be possible. Restrictions in the U.S. may prevent students from attending school in a specific state or pursuing a specific degree program. In order to grant degrees to students living in different states, Institutions must be authorized by those states to award degrees to their residents. Otherwise, students are ineligible for enrollment. To make learning across state borders easier, over 2300 institutions throughout 49 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands participate in the National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA), ensuring their distance education programs are authorized to operate and grant degrees in multiple states.

A student’s area of study can also impact where they earn their degree. For those pursuing teaching degrees, there are certification requirements that vary by state and may dictate that a student earn their degree in the state in which they plan to teach. When exploring online colleges and programs, it’s important to keep this type of career-specific in mind.

Online program availability

As with residency requirements, the ability to complete a program entirely online may come with some restrictions. Although there are many degree programs that students can complete without ever leaving their homes, others may have components that require in-person attendance, either on campus or at another site. Online programs offered by colleges with brick-and-mortar campuses may be taught in a hybrid or blended format, with some online and some in-person classes. Other programs, like nursing, counseling, or teaching, require students to gain experience in the field through internships or clinical rotations, which they may need to complete in person.

Avoiding online college scams

The rise of online education has led to many benefits for students. However, there are also downsides, including scams like diploma mills, which are more concerned with turning a profit than providing quality education. Online marketing may make these schools look legitimate, so it’s on students to be savvy and know the warning signs of a scam college. These include:

  • Lack of accreditation or accreditation by organizations that the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t recognize.
  • An unrealistic time frame for earning a degree. For example, earning a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes a minimum of four years, in a few months.
  • A name that is very similar to a well-known, accredited institution. For example, San Francisco University is unaccredited, whereas San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco are accredited, reputable institutions.
  • Tuition paid on a per-degree basis or offering discounts for enrolling in multiple degree programs. Accredited institutions charge on a per-credit or per-term basis.
  • Lack of interaction with professors.
  • A P.O. Box or suite number in place of a physical street address.

How to Choose the Best Online College for You

Step 1: Determine which online learning option works for you

Online programs can be delivered in a few different ways. Some are synchronous, meaning students attend classes virtually at designated days and times, as they would if they were in an in-person program. Others are asynchronous, meaning there are no set class times, and students can access lessons and complete assignments on their own schedules. Some programs may deliver courses through a combination of synchronous and asynchronous courses.

Both delivery methods have their advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to understand your needs and learning habits to choose the type of program that’s right for you.

Asynchronous programs are the most flexible, which may be ideal for individuals balancing other responsibilities like full-time jobs and childcare. However, because there’s less oversight from faculty, students must be comfortable working independently and have good time management and organization skills to succeed.

Synchronous programs offer more real-time interaction with faculty and peers, so this might be a better option if you’ll need help staying focused and accountable. However, you will have to attend classes according to a predetermined schedule.

If you need help determining which program is best for you, speak to an admissions counselor or program representative about your needs and how their program will support you.

Step 2: Select your major

Knowing what you want to study will help you choose the online college that’s right for you. Identifying your intended major requires research and self-reflection, says Villagomez.

“Consider what you’re passionate about learning, what your long-term career goals are, and how a degree will help you achieve them,” she says. “There are many ways to explore your interests, including taking classes in a variety of subjects, participating in internships, joining student clubs or volunteer organizations, and networking with individuals in jobs that appeal to you.”

Step 3: Set your parameters

Your intended major and course delivery method are two key parameters that will help you narrow your search of potential online colleges. As you explore your options, you can set other parameters to help you find an online school that will meet your needs and wants.

These parameters can include:

  • Public versus private institution
  • Tuition cost
  • Scholarship availability
  • Full-time versus part-time attendance
  • Student support services
  • School reputation and ranking
  • Faculty
  • Extracurricular activities

Step 4: Research programs

There are many ways to gather information about online colleges,  including visiting the school’s website and social media platforms, contacting admissions representatives, and requesting digital or print admissions materials.

“Whenever possible, attend virtual informational sessions to gain a better sense of the program and the school,” says Villagomez. “This can help you get a feel for the culture and community at the university and determine if it is a good fit for you.”

Villagomez also reminds students that they don’t have to go through this process alone. “As you conduct your research, keep track of your findings and consult with a trusted teacher, school counselor, or mentor to help you understand your options,” she says. “They can provide valuable guidance and recommendations on how to choose the right fit.”

How to Apply to Online College

The application process for an online college will vary based on the individual school, program, and type of degree. When conducting your research, review the admissions qualifications for the school and the specific program you’re considering. Also, be mindful of deadlines, as missing cutoff dates for sending applications and materials can impact your admissions chances.

It’s also important to remember that most colleges charge application fees. The average application fee is $45, which can add up depending on how many applications you’re submitting. To offset these costs, students should determine if they’re eligible for fee waivers from organizations like the College Board or the Common Application.

In addition to an application, most schools require the following as part of the application process:

  • Official high school transcripts: This is a standard requirement for first-time college students applying to associate or bachelor’s degree programs. Transcripts should be sent directly from your high school to the college’s admissions department.
  • Official college transcripts: A standard requirement for students who have college credits who are transferring to a different school, or who are applying to an advanced degree program after receiving an undergraduate degree. Transcripts should be sent directly from your college to the new school’s admissions department.
  • Letters of recommendation: Request recommendations from individuals who know you well, can speak to any abilities or qualities relevant to your intended program, and will take the time to write a substantial, thoughtful reference.
  • Personal statement: Give yourself ample time to write your essays, and have a trusted counselor or instructor review them for clarity, length, grammar, and spelling before submitting.
  • Standardized test scores: For undergraduate students, the most common standardized tests are the SAT and ACT. The most widely-used standardized tests for graduate students are the GRE and GMAT. However, students should note that, following the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, more colleges are adopting test-optional policies. Find out what the policies are at the schools you’re applying to, and talk to an admissions counselor about whether submitting standardized test scores will enhance your application.

Some schools and programs require further evaluations, like interviews, auditions, or aptitude tests. Additional requirements are typical for master’s and doctorate degree programs. You can find information about a particular school’s admissions process and requirements on its website or by contacting its admissions office.

How to Get Financial Aid for Online College

The process for getting financial aid for online college is very similar to the financial aid process for brick-and-mortar schools.

Students should start by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which schools use to determine eligibility for federal student loans, work-study jobs, and need-based scholarships and grants. Individual states or schools may have additional applications that students need to complete to be considered for the full range of financial aid options. Consult with your school’s financial aid office to ensure you’re completing all the necessary steps for financial aid consideration.

Unlike loans, most online colleges offer need- and merit-based scholarships and grants, which are preferred financial aid options because they do not require repayment. Students should also research scholarships from outside sources like businesses, nonprofits, community groups, and religious organizations. Students can utilize scholarship databases to find award opportunities based on factors like their intended major, race/ethnicity, or student status.

Students who are currently employed or plan on working while attending school online should also research whether their employer offers tuition assistance benefits. This type of financial aid may look different based on the company offering it, but it typically consists of an employer reimbursing an employee for successfully completing college courses. The provision of tuition assistance to employees is becoming increasingly common among companies such as Starbucks, FedEx, Wal-Mart, and Disney.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Colleges

How much does online college cost?

Multiple factors influence how much it costs to attend an online college.

Public universities tend to charge lower tuition than private institutions, although in-state students typically pay less than out-of-state students. For example, in the 2020-21 academic year, the average annual undergraduate tuition and fees at public universities was $9,375 for in-state students and $27,091 for out-of-state students. The average tuition and fees at private schools, which charge the same regardless of student residency status, was $32,764. However, for online students, some public colleges charge the same tuition, regardless of where students live.

Degree level also impacts program cost. In the 2020-21 academic year, the average annual tuition for graduate degree programs was $12,394 at public universities and $26,621 at private institutions.

However, by attending college online, students can cut down on associated costs like room and board, transportation, and campus activities fees. Online students should be sure to budget for tech-related expenses, like a computer, webcam, microphone, and reliable internet access.

How long does it take to earn an online degree?

The length of time it takes to earn an online degree largely depends on the type of degree that you’re earning:

  • Associate degrees: Minimum of 60 credits; typically take at least two years of full-time study to complete.
  • Bachelor’s degrees: Minimum of 120 credits; typically take at least four years of full-time study to complete.
  • Master’s degrees: Minimum of 30 credits; typically take at least one year of full-time study to complete
  • Doctoral (Ph.D.) degrees: Require 60-120 credits. Program duration varies based on dissertation and research requirements, but Ph.D. programs typically take a minimum of three years to complete.

Because of the flexibility of online learning, many online colleges offer accelerated programs that can be completed in shorter time frames. This can include degree completion programs, which allow students to maximize previously earned credits and earn a bachelor’s degree in as few semesters as possible, and accelerated programs that offer complete programs in a compressed timeline.

A student’s enrollment status also affects how quickly they earn their degree. Students who enroll part-time typically take longer to complete their programs since they take fewer classes each term, but they still need to reach the minimum number of credits their degree requires.

Do employers respect online colleges?

“Every industry and employer will value online education differently, but most are very accepting of degrees from online colleges as long as there’s proof of accreditation,” Villagomez says. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated trends toward a wider acceptance of online colleges and degrees, with 75% of students enrolling in online classes during lockdowns.

To understand how potential employers view candidates who attend college online, Villagomez encourages students to conduct informational interviews with employers or professionals in their intended field to understand their perceptions of online learning.

Is attending an online college worth it?

From a financial and career perspective, there are several benefits to earning a degree, whether it’s from an online college or a brick-and-mortar institution.

For example, the more education an individual has, the more they’re likely to earn. Individuals with college degrees also experience lower unemployment rates than those without higher education experience. One contributing factor is that many jobs in fast-growing fields, such as chemical engineers, marketing managers, computer and IT managers, and health services managers, require a degree.

However, Villagomez points out, “The value of attending an online college depends on various factors, including the reputation of the school and the program, student support services, the degree’s accreditation, and the specific career or educational path students are pursuing.”

She adds, “Earning a degree online can be a very rewarding experience for those seeking to advance their career in a flexible, accessible way. But the return on investment ultimately depends on a student’s personal needs, educational goals, and potential career outcomes.”

To help them make smart choices, Villagomez recommends that students consult an admissions counselor or trusted mentor to find the program that best suits their needs and goals.

Online Colleges by State

Other Online College Rankings

Frequently Asked Questions