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According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in the fall of 2021, 11.2 million U.S. college students were enrolled in at least one online course. By comparison, in the fall of 2019, only 6 million students took online classes.

While the COVID-19 pandemic can partially explain this increase, it’s also part of a trend that started within the last few decades, as more and more students were drawn to the convenience and affordability of online degree programs. Now there are hundreds of brick-and-mortar and exclusively online colleges that offer online degrees at all levels and in a wide variety of subjects.

Sorting through these options can be challenging, which is why researched hundreds of programs to create this list of the Best Online Degrees of 2023. Degree programs were evaluated based on cost, faculty, school ranking and reputation, and retention and graduation rates.

To further help students navigate the college search and admissions process, Blanca Villagomez, a program counselor, and coordinator at UC-Irvine, offers her insight into what students should know about online degrees and colleges, how to choose the right online degree program, and other frequently asked questions about online degrees.

What You Should Know About Online Degrees

In many ways, online degree programs are similar to traditional in-person degrees. Classes cover the same educational content and are often taught by the same faculty who instruct in-person courses if the school has a brick-and-mortar location.

“Securing a job with an online degree is not vastly different from a traditional program,” Villagomez adds. “Most employers are very accepting of online degrees as long as there’s proof that they were earned at an accredited institution.” To ensure your degree will prepare you for the job you want, Villagomez recommends meeting with potential employers or current professionals in your field of study to learn more about educational standards and requirements.

Students earn the same types of degrees through online programs that they do through traditional college programs. There are four types of degrees students can earn online:

Degree Level Minimum Credits Standard Minimum Completion Time Types of Degrees
Associate 60 2 years Associate of Arts (AA)
Associate of Science (AS)
Associate of Applied Science (AAS)
Bachelor’s 120 4 years Bachelor of Arts (BA)
Bachelor of Science (BS)
Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA)
Bachelor of Education (B.Ed)
Master’s 30-60 1-2 years Master of Arts (MA)
Master of Science (MS)
Master of Engineering (M.Eng)
Master of Education (M.Ed)
Doctorate 60-120 4 years Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Doctor of Business Administration (DBA)
Doctor of Healthcare Administration (DHA)
Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D)
Juris Doctor (JD)

Many schools also offer online certificate programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Certificates, which can take a few weeks to a few months to complete, are ideal for students who want to develop new skills, expand their knowledge of a specific topic, or learn more about a field of study before committing to a degree. However, students should note that, depending on the job they’re seeking, they may need a full degree to qualify for all opportunities.

Students should also know that some online degrees have in-person learning requirements, even if all classes can be completed virtually. For example, nursing degree students typically have to complete clinical rotations that require them to be at a specific site. When researching online degrees, students should check with a program representative to find out if there are any site-specific in-person requirements as part of the curriculum.

Classes in online degree programs are delivered either synchronously or asynchronously. In synchronous programs, students meet in virtual classrooms at designated times, giving them more opportunities for interaction with instructors and classmates. Asynchronous programs have no set class meeting times. Students access their lessons and assignments according to their schedules and typically only engage with teachers and classmates through email or message boards.

According to Villagomez, “Any online college program requires a lot of independent study and self-motivation. The students best suited for online degree programs are those who enjoy learning and can work independently.” Before enrolling in an online degree program, Villagomez recommends that students develop their study habits, time management, organization, and research skills to help them navigate the common challenges of online learning.

What You Should Know About Online Colleges

Whether a school operates exclusively online or has a brick-and-mortar establishment, its accreditation is a key indicator that they are a reputable institution that offers quality education. In the U.S., schools can have regional or national accreditation, with regional accreditation being the more widely accepted and respected. In addition to ensuring that a school offers a high-quality education, accreditation status can also impact financial aid eligibility, the ability to transfer credits to another school or pursue additional degrees, and a student’s job prospects. A school’s accreditation status can affect.

Verifying an online college’s accreditation status is also an important way to avoid college scams, including enrolling in a diploma mill that doesn’t meet basic quality standards and offers fraudulent degrees. Many of these schools look legitimate thanks to online marketing, so it’s up to students to know how to spot a fake online college. Some common warning signs include:

  • No accreditation or accreditation by organizations that aren’t recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • 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 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 is paid per degree or 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.

Lastly, students should be aware of residency restrictions that may impact which college they can attend, even if it’s online. 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, certification requirements 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 essential to keep this type of career-specific in mind.

Pros and Cons of Earning a Degree Online


  • tickFlexibility:

    Says Villagomez, “Online programs can be a good option for students who are balancing multiple commitments, such as work or caregiving, because they can attend classes from anywhere with a reliable internet connection and complete coursework on their schedule. The increased flexibility online programs offer is an advantage for students who need to maximize their time.”

  • tickAccessibility:

    Online programs also increase access to learning by removing physical or geographic barriers. Students can enroll in degree programs that may not be available at local colleges and study in settings that better suit their physical and learning needs than a traditional classroom.

  • tickAffordability:

    While tuition may be similar between online and brick-and-mortar programs, there are several ways that students save money by attending school remotely. “Travel time, gas, and parking expenses are significantly reduced by attending an online program,” Villagomez says. Additionally, students who want to attend a school in an expensive area can choose to live somewhere with a lower cost of living.


  • tickTechnical skills needed:

    While all students need some technological proficiency, virtual learners must be very adept at troubleshooting connectivity issues and working with various types of learning and videoconferencing software. Before enrolling in an online degree program, students should have access to reliable internet and up-to-date hardware, including computers, microphones, and web cameras.

  • tickNot suited for all learning styles:

    “The increased flexibility of online learning requires time management and prioritization skills so that students can balance work, family responsibilities, and coursework,” Villagomez says. Additionally, students in virtual programs must do more to hold themselves accountable for completing work on time, as they may not have consistent check-ins with faculty and peers.

  • tickNetworking challenges:

    Students enrolled in online degree programs may lack a sense of belonging with their peers and faculty, particularly if they’re in an asynchronous program that doesn’t offer regular class meetings. To mitigate this, Villagomez recommends attending virtual office hours with faculty, seeking out social engagement opportunities for remote students, and hosting virtual study sessions with peers.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does an online degree cost?

Several factors determine how much an online degree costs. Public institutions tend to have lower tuition rates than private colleges, particularly for students who are residents of the state where the school is located. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2020-21 academic year, average undergraduate tuition and fees were $9,375 for in-state students at public universities, $27,091 for out-of-state students at public universities, and $32,825 for students at private institutions, which charge students the same tuition regardless of residency.

Other influential factors include the type of degree a student is seeking, a student’s enrollment status as part-time or full-time, and the amount of scholarships and financial aid a student receives. Online students tend to save money because they don’t have to pay for on-campus housing and meals, transportation, and fees for in-person students. For the most accurate information on what an online degree will cost, consult with the financial aid office at the school or schools you’re considering attending.

How long does it take to earn an online degree?

The time it takes to complete an online degree largely depends on the type of degree you’re pursuing, as different types of degrees have different minimum completion times. However, because of the flexibility of online learning, many schools offer accelerated degree programs, which allow students to earn their degrees faster by compressing coursework into a shortened time frame. Accelerated online degrees are an attractive option for students who want to earn their degrees as quickly as possible. However, students should be aware that these programs tend to be more rigorous and require even more focus and discipline, as students must complete the same number of credits as they would in a traditionally-paced program but in a faster-paced environment. A program advisor can give you the most accurate information on how long it will take you to complete a particular online degree.

How do I choose the online degree program that's right for me?

“When selecting an online degree program, your job is to choose a program that aligns with your interests, budget, and goals so that you possess the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in your future career,” Villagomez says. To help with this task, Villagomez offers the following tips:

  • Reflect and identify your interests. This reflection includes what you’re passionate about learning, your long-term career goals, and what motivates you to earn a degree.
  • Seek advice from your support system. Your support can include teachers, school counselors, mentors, family members, friends, and colleagues. “These individuals can provide valuable guidance and recommendations on choosing an online degree that fits your needs,” Villagomez says.
  • Research programs and universities using custom filters. Villagomez recommends setting parameters for your search like available majors, cost of attendance, school ranking and reputation, scholarship and financial aid availability, faculty expertise, student support services, and extracurricular activities. You can then filter search results to narrow your list of potential online colleges.
  • Attend informational sessions. “Whenever possible, take advantage of virtual informational sessions to gain a better sense of the program and the school,” Villagomez says. “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.”

What are the best degrees to get online?

Ultimately, the best online degree to pursue is the one that meets your needs in terms of career preparation, affordability, and accessibility. Students of all levels who know the degree they want can begin by searching for an online college that offers the program of study they seek. Undergraduate students can also search for a bachelor’s degree program based on their intended area of study.

However, if you’re still exploring your career options, consider the following online degrees, which can prepare students for jobs in fast-growing or high-paying fields.


Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing fields in the U.S., with job openings expected to increase by 13% through 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There is an exceptionally high demand for nurses. The BLS predicts there will be about 203,200 job openings for registered nurses annually over the next decade and 30,200 job openings for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners during the same period.

Students at the start of their nursing career journey can begin their search with Intelligent’s list of the Best Online Nursing Degree Programs. For registered nurses who want to increase their earning potential and career options, Intelligent has picks for the Best Online RN-to-BSN Programs. Those with a bachelor’s degree in nursing can continue their educational journey with the Best Online Master’s in Nursing Programs.


Business degrees offer flexibility and versatility, preparing graduates for jobs in various industries, including finance, healthcare, marketing, and technology. The BLS predicts that overall employment in business and finance will increase by 7% through 2031. However, employment in specific jobs, like market research analysts, financial examiners, and logisticians, will grow even faster.

Business is also a lucrative field to enter. The median annual wage for someone with a business or finance occupation is $76,570, while the median yearly salary for all occupations is $45,760.

Intelligent has top picks for the Best Online Business Degrees, including undergraduate and graduate degree programs in general business administration or related fields. Meanwhile, for individuals seeking to advance their business careers and increase their earning potential, the Best Online MBA Programs offer options for a prevalent online graduate degree in business.

Social work

Social workers are crucial in helping individuals, families, communities, and other populations stay emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy. According to the BLS, job openings for social workers will increase by 9% through 2031, with roughly 74,700 new jobs available each year over the next decade.

To qualify for the highest-paying social work jobs, individuals need a master’s degree in social work. Intelligent evaluated dozens of online social work programs to create this list of the Best Online Master’s in Social Work.


The need for more educators in the U.S. is well-documented. The BLS reports that about 658,200 new jobs will open for teachers, librarians, and administrators through 2031. While pay for educators can vary widely based on position and geographic location, the median annual wage for this group was $57,220 in May 2021, compared to $45,760, the median yearly salary for all occupations.

Educators can increase their earning potential by getting an advanced degree. Intelligent reviewed hundreds of programs to create this list of the Best Online Master’s in Education Programs.

Read our degree guides for more information on specific degrees, outlooks, and career information.

Best Online Degrees

How we rank programs

This list features some of the best online degrees for various areas of study in the U.S. All are offered by nonprofit, accredited institutions, either public or private, with a high standard of academic quality for post-secondary institutions.

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

Next, we compared our picks 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.

Program categories

Art and Design



Biblical Studies & Theology



Business and Management





Computer and Technology




Criminal Justice & Legal Studies




Education and Teaching





Liberal Arts and Humanities





Nursing & Healthcare





Psychology and Counseling





Science and Engineering



Trades and Career



Affordability Rankings (Most Affordable)

Other Rankings


Every student has unique needs to consider when selecting an online college and degree program. The guides listed below provide additional information for students from specific backgrounds or with various educational needs.

Have Additional Questions?

There’s much to consider when preparing to enroll in an online degree program. Do employers accept online degrees? How much do online degrees cost? What if you already have some college credits and want to complete your degree online? has you covered, with expert advice and resources answering these and other questions.

Interested in a degree instead?

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