Online Colleges

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Whether you are a first-time college student or an adult returning to college after a long absence, online colleges and degree programs can offer you the flexibility and freedom to “do school” on your own terms.

Online Colleges

But enrolling in college is a big decision, so we’ve created this online college guide to help you better understand some of the differences between online college vs. traditional college, how much it costs, and what your options are.

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What Is an Online College?

An online college provides the opportunity to take courses and earn a certificate or degree completely online. But dedicated online colleges are not the only way to earn a degree online!

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Traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities – the ones with strong reputations and names you recognize – now offer degree programs that can be completed partially or entirely online. So when it comes to learning online, there are a lot of options!

Is Online College Right for You?

Student taking college degree online

In order to determine whether or not online college is a good fit for you, you will have to do some self-reflection.

Here are a few steps to get you started:

  • Know Yourself – Many online classes do not follow a week-to-week schedule, so you will be expected to work at your own pace and complete everything by the end of the term. Without much structure, it can be easy to fall behind. Will you be motivated and self-disciplined enough to do your work and stay on track?
  • Assess your access – Online courses require a fast, reliable, and up-to-date computer and internet connection. You may also need a printer, web cam and headset, flash drive and other software or tools related to your field of study. Try searching “technology requirements” or “computer requirements” on your school’s website to find out what you will need.
  • Try before you buy – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free, no-credit online courses that are open to anyone. What better way to find out how well you do on your own? And on top of that, it will demonstrate initiative to college admissions officers.

It is important to think about these things and be realistic about your specific circumstances. While online learning is a great option that allows tremendous flexibility and convenience, some students truly need the structure of in-person learning.

How to Choose the Best Online College for You

Student searching the best online college options for him

There are many reputable online colleges out there, but not all will be a good fit for you. Take the time to consider these questions:

  • What are your professional goals?
  • Does the school offer the program/major you’re looking for?
  • Does the school offer the degree level you’re looking for?
  • As an online learner, are there times you will need to be on campus for an event?
  • How will classes fit into your schedule?
  • How long will it take to complete the program? Can you take classes at your own pace and/or are there accelerated options?
  • Is the school accredited?
  • Does the school have a positive reputation?
  • Will the school prepare you to move into your profession immediately?
  • Does the school offer the support programs – tech support, career counseling, access to online libraries, tutoring, etc – that you may need?
  •  What kind of financial aid is available?

As you consider these questions and narrow down your list, you may also wish to consult college rankings and reviews online. Gather as much information as you can to ensure that you find an online college and program that will help you achieve your goals.

What are the Benefits of Online College?

Millions of students from around the world are opting to pursue their college degrees online. Here are just a few of the reasons this format is so appealing:

  • Flexibility – Online classes can fit around existing commitments, such as work or family life. If you need to read over breakfast or listen to lectures during your morning commute, no problem!
  • Cost – Lower tuition prices at some schools, fewer course materials, no commuting costs
  • Career advancement – Completing college courses while working is tough and can show your boss, coworkers and others that you are ambitious.
  • Pace – You can work on your degree at your own pace, whether that means taking just 3 college credits at a time, or opting into an accelerated degree program that will help you graduate sooner.
  • Convenience – You can work around obstacles like traffic, health issues, childcare conflicts, inconsistent work schedules, etc.

Online learning is extremely adaptable, allowing you to keep your existing commitments and simply add school in.

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If you manage your time well and can stay disciplined about getting things done, this learning method may be the perfect choice!

How Should You Choose an Online College?

Follow these 4 steps to help you select an online college.

Step 1: Determine Whether the School Is Accredited.

Accredited University that offers online college program

Choosing an accredited online college is very important. To become accredited, colleges must meet certain quality standards that are established and evaluated not by the U.S. Department of Education, but by private agencies.

There are two main types of accreditation in the US: regional and national.

  • Regional accreditation is the “gold standard.” It’s the most widely recognized and respected, and what most people mean when they’re discussing accreditation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 85% of all colleges in the U.S. are regionally accredited. Attending a school that is regionally accredited will allow you to apply for federal and state financial aid, transfer college credits and degrees more easily, and will provide better employment opportunities upon graduation.
  • Nationally accredited schools, on the other hand, are typically for-profit schools, often offering vocational or technical programs. Because the programs are so highly focused and varied, the accreditation requirements are not as standardized as they are for regional accreditation. National accreditation is still a good thing, but it’s hard to assess its merits when the standards aren’t the same across the board. This is why students at nationally accredited online colleges sometimes have trouble transferring credits to regionally accredited 4 year online colleges, and why graduates sometimes have trouble getting licensed in their field.

Step 2: Select the Degree Level You Will Need.

Woman deciding college degree level she'll enroll to

A first consideration for the pros and cons between online classes vs. traditional classes is how long it will take to complete. Online degrees can be earned in 2 years, or over as many as 12 years! Which degree level you choose to pursue will depend largely on your career goals.

Here are some of the options:

Associate

You can earn an associate degree in about 2 years, if enrolled full-time. According to data from the BLS, the median weekly earnings for someone with an associate degree are $887.

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This type of degree can open the door to vocational or administrative support careers, but will have the highest return on investment in fields like healthcare, technology and engineering. It may also be used as an affordable means to earn general education credits before transferring to a 4-year program.

Bachelor’s

You can earn a bachelor’s degree in about 4 years, if enrolled full-time. The 2019 data from the BLS shows median weekly earnings for bachelor’s degree holders at $1248. This degree is required for most entry level jobs in the business and tech fields, as well as in many other careers. When employers require applicants to have a degree, they are typically looking for a bachelor’s degree.

Master’s

You can upgrade your bachelor’s degree to a master’s in just 1-3 years, depending on how accelerated the program is. Median weekly earnings for someone with a master’s are $1497, according to the BLS. A master’s degree offers advanced knowledge of a specialized field, enabling you to advance your career, increase your earning potential, or move into a new field.

Doctorate

Some doctoral programs accept students with a bachelor’s degree, while others require a master’s. The doctoral program itself may take 4-8 years, depending on the field. The BLS reports a median weekly salary of $1883 for individuals with a doctorate.

Step 3: Decide on a Major.

Man deciding for his college major

When it comes to online degrees, the sky’s the limit! Online schools offer hundreds of majors to consider, ranging from business to art, from nursing to criminal justice.

The most popular online degree is in Business Administration. The skills gained with this degree can be applied in nearly any career. Grads may go into sales, marketing, financial analysis or entrepreneurship and can expect to earn an annual salary of anywhere from $61,150 per year as a Public Relations Specialist to more than $116,720 as a Human Resources Manager.

Nursing is the second most popular online degree, and is also in high demand. Registered nurses can earn around $73,300 per year.

Here are some of the other exciting subjects you can choose from:

  • Accounting
  • Art & Design
  • Business Administration
  • Communications
  • Computer Science
  • Counseling
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • English
  • Finance
  • Healthcare Administration
  • Information Technology
  • Marketing
  • Nursing
  • Political Science
  • Psychology
  • Religion / Theology / Ministry

These are just a few examples of popular choices, but almost any degree you can think of can be earned online!

Step 4: Consider the Amount of Flexibility You Need

The primary benefit to online learning is the flexibility, and only you know how much flexibility you need. If you have a young family, you may be looking for a program that you can fit in during nap times or after the kids are in bed, and that will allow you to be unavailable all day if something comes up. Perhaps you have an elderly or disabled relative to care for, and need schooling to work around that.

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You may have a career and wish to squeeze schoolwork in during your lunch hour or on your evening commute. Perhaps you travel for work, and need to be able to study in an airport or while abroad. Whatever your needs are, there is likely an online college program that is flexible enough to accommodate you.

Asynchronous vs. Synchronous – Attend Online Classes Live or Anytime?

When it comes to online learning, there are two formats: asynchronous, which is self-paced, and synchronous, which is live in real-time.

The two formats differ in how they present course materials and handle student communication. To determine which is best for you, you’ll need to consider your schedule and your learning style.

Here are some comparisons to help you decide:

Asynchronous (Self-Paced)

  • Online Course Format: Learning is at your own pace. You can watch or listen to lectures and complete coursework anytime, anywhere.
  • Tools Used for Class Participation: Use email to correspond with professor and other students, class material can be transmitted via streaming audio or video, and discussion boards are used as a primary means of class interaction.
  • Best Suited For: Asynchronous learning is best suited for students who are self-starters, self-disciplined, goal-oriented, and do not want or need constant interaction and instruction during the course.

Synchronous (Live, in real time)

  • Online Course Format: Instruction happens live, in real time, and classes meet online at a set time and you must be logged on and present.
  • Tools Used for Class Participation: Instant chat helps you communicate with peers and instructor during class, video & web conferencing may be used to facilitate lectures, and online whiteboard may be used for collaboration.
  • Best Suited For: Synchronous learning is best suited for students who thrive in a collaborative environment, need or desire live interaction with peers and instructors, prefer sticking to a set schedule, and are organized.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both formats, so sometimes instructors are able to create a hybrid format to accommodate both types of learners.

Types of Online Colleges

There are a number of ways to obtain the education and training necessary to reach your career goals. You may consider a trade school or traditional university, 2- or 4-year option, public or private, for-profit or not-for-profit.

Each option has its advantages and disadvantages, so we have gathered some of the most important information to help you decide.

Trade Schools

  • Benefits: Low tuition cost, high acceptance rate, hands-on rating, focused education (no unrelated classes), and faster to complete.
  • Drawbacks: Not as much financial aid available and difficult to change careers.
  • Best Suited For: People who have a clear idea of what they want to do and who already work in the field and want to advance.

2-Year Colleges

  • Benefits: Low tuition cost, High acceptance rate, and easy to transfer.
  • Drawbacks: Limited career options and limited curriculum.
  • Best Suited For: Non-traditional students/adult learners, students who need to save money, students who are unsure of their career goals, and students who need training or certification.

4-Year Public University

  • Benefits: Low tuition rates(especially for in-state residents), wide selection of majors, and high paying careers.
  • Drawbacks: Course availability, less individual attention, and less access to instructors.
  • Best Suited For: Students who want an opportunity to explore many subjects and students who want to continue on to more advanced degrees.

Private Not-For-Profit University

  • Benefits: Less expensive than for-profit, wide selection of majors, and more financial aid available.
  • Drawbacks: More expensive than public schools and low acceptance rate.
  • Best Suited For: Students who want prestige and students who want a challenging program.

There is no ideal type of college, as each one meets the needs of a different student. Which factors weigh most heavily in your case?

How to Afford Online Education

College is an expensive endeavor, no matter what. Knowing how much an online education costs, what assistance is available and how you can save money can help you prepare.

How Much Does Online College Cost?

Woman who is taking online college degree, sitting in library

The cost of an online degree will vary greatly, depending not only on the school itself, but also on the type of school (public or private, for-profit or not-for-profit), whether the student is in-state or out-of-state, the chosen degree level and major. Your own financial aid will also influence the cost and can vary between schools.

For comparison, let’s look at online bachelor’s degrees for in-state students. Here are a few budget-friendly choices:

  • University of Florida, $13,440
  • University of Central Florida, $12,600
  • Daytona State College (FL), $11,040
  • Western Carolina University (NC), $6,480
  • University of North Carolina-Pembroke (NC), $6,360

The average total cost of an online degree from a public, in-state college is more like $38,516, according to 2019-2020 data from U.S. News and World Report.

In-state vs. Out-of-state College Expenses

When it comes to traditional schooling, the differences between in-state and out-of-state public school tuition are pretty obvious. If you want to attend a public college in the state you legally reside in, you’ll get a deal. If you want to attend a public college in another state instead, you will pay as much as $10,000 more per year.

This, of course, is because residents are paying taxes that help fund the infrastructure of their state schools, while non-residents are not. But what about online learners, who aren’t necessarily benefiting from the school’s infrastructure? Well, it varies by school.

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Some colleges follow the same guidelines used for traditional students, charging out-of-state premiums to non-residents. Some colleges charge all online learners their in-state tuition rate, no matter where they reside. And still other colleges have an entirely separate tuition rate for online students, which does not differentiate between in-state and out-of-state.

As you consider online colleges outside your state of residence, be sure to ask the admissions or financial aid department about the school’s in-state vs out-of-state tuition policy for online learners.

How to Pay for Your Online Degree

FAFSA option for online college

Many people let cost deter them from pursuing higher education, but there are ways to make an online degree more affordable.

For example:

  • Complete the FAFSA to find out if you are eligible for grants, low-interest student loans or work-study opportunities
  • Ask your employer about tuition assistance programs
  • Utilize college scholarship search engines such as Fastweb and Scholarships.com
  • Look for local businesses and organizations, including unions and churches, that offer scholarships
  • Look for professional organizations that offer scholarships
  • Ask the school about college payment plan options
  • Look into private student loans
  • Take on a part-time job for extra income and potential tuition assistance

You will likely be surprised by what financial assistance you are able to find and qualify for!

Scholarships for Online Students

The number of businesses, organizations and other entities that offer college scholarships is mind-blowing! Most scholarships do not specify that applicants must attend on-campus, so they are open to online learners as well.

You can also find….

  • Scholarships by Major
  • Scholarships by State, City or Region
  • Scholarships by Age
  • Scholarships by Gender
  • Scholarships by Ethnicity
  • Scholarships by Religion
  • Scholarships by Sexual Orientation or Lifestyle
  • Scholarships for Working Adults
  • Scholarships for Single Parents
  • Scholarships for Seniors
  • Scholarships for Adults with Disabilities
  • Scholarships for Women
  • Scholarships for Specific Talents
  • Scholarships for Athletes
  • Scholarships for Artists
  • Scholarships for Community Involvement
  • Scholarships for Certain Hobbies and Interests

You can look for scholarships by using search engines like Fastweb and Scholarships.com as well as by checking local businesses, community organizations, churches, and professional organizations.

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And don’t forget to check with the school to which you are applying to see if they have scholarship opportunities!

Ways Online Students Can Save

In most cases, reputable, accredited colleges and universities charge the same tuition rate for online classes as they charge for classes held in on-campus classrooms, but online students can save in other ways.

For example, online students save by avoiding the following expenses:

  • Dorm housing
  • Campus meal plans
  • Parking fees
  • Commuting costs
  • Textbook fees
  • Activity fees
  • Athletic fees

Though online students may be charged an additional technology fee, they often still come out ahead!

Online Colleges by State

Even though online college opens the door to schools world-wide, some students choose to enroll in a school right in their home state.

Reasons for choosing an online degree from a nearby college or university include:

  • To avoid out-of-state fees (some schools waive these for online students, but not all)
  • To be a part of campus activities, events or sports
  • To utilize campus services and facilities (such as a library or gym)
  • To have the option of taking on-campus classes at a later date

If you’d like to find an online college degree program in your state, check out our listings by state!

Find Online Colleges by State

Is Online College Cheaper?

It might be. Usually colleges charge the same tuition rate for online and on-campus students. However, there are some additional expenses that online students avoid, such as:

  • Out-of-state tuition rates (some universities waive these for online learners)
  • Dorm expenses
  • Meal plans
  • Parking fees
  • Commuting costs
  • Text book fees
  • Activity fees
  • Athletic fees

While there may be additional fees for online students – such as technology fees – these are usually nominal, and online students still save money overall.

What Kind of Degree Can I Get Online?

You can get a degree of any level (certificate, undergraduate or graduate) in nearly any field online! Some of the most popular, highest-paying online degrees are in:

  • Accounting / Finance
  • Business Administration
  • Computer Science
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Healthcare Management
  • Logistics / Supply Chain Management
  • Marketing
  • Nursing
  • Paralegal

But these are just a few examples. You can pursue an online degree in almost any field, without having to sacrifice your family or work obligations.

Are Online Degrees Worth It?

Two friends enrolled in college online

Yes, earning an online degree is worth the time, effort and cost! In nearly every instance, earning a degree will improve your prospects for employment and your earning potential.

Here are the lifetime earnings for the 4 main degree levels:

  • Associates degree: $1,727,000
  • Bachelor’s degree: $2,268,000
  • Master’s degree: $2,671,000
  • Doctorate degree: $3,648,000

You can clearly see the earnings going up with each level of education. This means that over the course of a 40-year career, someone with a bachelor’s degree will be eligible to earn $541,000 more than someone with an associate degree.

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Upgrading from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s could earn you $403,000 more. Going back to school is a big decision, but it may be necessary in order to change fields or earn a promotion or raise. If you’re on the fence, our article on going back to school as an adult can help you make a decision.

What Is the Average Cost of Online College?

The average total cost of an online degree from a public, in-state college is $38,516, according to 2019-2020 data from U.S. News and World Report.

But there are many factors that influence the cost of college – the school itself, the type of school (public or private, for-profit or not-for-profit), whether it is in-state or out, the chosen degree level and the major, for example. And of course your financial aid will impact the cost as well.

Is There a Free Online College?

online college student working on her project

There is no free online college, but there you may be able to find opportunities to earn a college education for free. If you commit to military service, or to teaching or working in an impoverished area after graduation, for example, you may qualify for a tuition-free program.

Exceptional athletic or music talent may also allow you to earn a degree for free. And finally, some colleges offer free tuition to a limited number of low income students. Tuition-free online college courses for high school students through adults, however, are easier to come by.

Massive Open Online Courses, called MOOCs, are online, college-level courses available to large-scale population for free. They operate similar to online college classes in that there are lectures and forums, but there usually are not assignments or exams.

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.