The Best Online Colleges & Universities of 2021
| TBS Staff
Are you ready to discover your college program?
Many of the country's top-ranked colleges and universities offer online programs for students. However, traditionally lower-ranked colleges can also offer exceptional online programs.
Many students who choose an online college prefer the flexible schedule of an online learning environment. Rather than attending class on campus, online schools let students complete coursework from anywhere. Online programs also provide a more accessible pathway to a degree. Students can enroll in the best schools online without relocating or quitting their jobs.
The best online colleges also offer exceptional student services to help online learners succeed, including online tutoring, career services, and academic advising. Graduates from the top online programs also benefit from strong alumni networks and connections with prospective employers. The best online schools build the knowledge and skills necessary for career advancement.
The following list ranks the best online colleges to help prospective students find the right programs to reach their personal and professional goals.
|#1||University of Florida Gainesville, FL|
|#2||University of Central Florida Orlando, FL|
|#3||University of Georgia Athens, GA|
|#4||Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta, GA|
|#5||Florida State University Tallahassee, FL|
|#6||Florida International University Miami, FL|
|#7||University of Wisconsin-La Crosse La Crosse, WI|
|#8||Harding University Searcy, AR|
|#9||Albizu University Miami, FL|
|#10||Texas A & M University College Station, TX|
Featured Online Schools
What Is an Online College?
An online college lets students complete degrees through an online learning format. Online colleges offer associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, and graduate degrees in many fields. Students can pursue degrees in business, education, healthcare, or engineering through online colleges. During an online degree, learners complete coursework by watching recorded lectures, participating in discussion boards, and taking online examinations.
Online programs help professionals advance or change their careers while working full time. Students with personal or family obligations may also prefer the flexibility of an online college.
Many traditional colleges offer online enrollment options for students. When offered by accredited institutions, these online programs meet the same standards as on-campus programs.
Campus vs. Online Programs
Online programs offer several advantages over on-campus programs. Asynchronous online courses, which do not require set class times, offer schedule flexibility compared to traditional on-campus courses. The flexible schedule of an online program appeals to working professionals and busy students balancing school with other responsibilities. Many learners can also save on tuition, commuting, and transportation costs by choosing an online degree.
Some learners prefer the interactive nature of on-campus programs. However, many online programs incorporate discussion boards, group projects, and other interactive elements to connect students. Online programs that require lab or practicum components often let students meet those requirements at local sites. For example, online nursing programs often use local clinical placements. Some online colleges may require on-campus orientations or residencies.
Choosing an Online Program
There are several factors to consider when evaluating an online college. For example, students should research the total cost of the degree, any on-campus requirements, and concentration options to find a program that fits their goals and needs. Learn more about how to choose an online degree below.
Top Online Colleges
UF grants degrees both from its 2,000-acre campus in Gainesville and through UF Online. The public institution offers over 200 online programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Degree-seekers can earn bachelor's degrees in unique majors like advertising, communication disorders, and sports and media journalism. UF also offers undergraduate majors in business administration, education, and nursing.
At the graduate level, enrollees can pursue degrees in areas like engineering, business, and healthcare. Applicants to UF Online must meet the university's general admission requirements. Distance learners can work with the financial affairs office to receive financial aid. UF Online graduates receive the same diplomas as on-campus students.
This public research university in Orlando, Florida, ranks among the best online colleges, thanks to UCF Online. Online learners at UCF work with success coaches to complete degree requirements and navigate distance learning resources. The university's most popular online bachelor's programs include psychology, nursing, criminal justice, and English. At the graduate level, master's students can pursue online degrees in social work, healthcare informatics, nursing, nonprofit management, and criminal justice.
The same faculty members teach online and on-campus programs. UCF Online prioritizes affordability and convenience for learners.
Founded as a public institution in 1785, UGA boasts an illustrious history in higher education. Today, Georgia's flagship university offers online programs to make a UGA degree more accessible. The online courses limit class sizes and use the same high academic standards as on-campus classes.
UGA offers an online bachelor's degree in special education and multiple online graduate programs in education. Degree-seekers can also earn master's degrees in community nutrition, international biomedical regulatory sciences, emerging media, and avian health and medicine. Other available online master's programs include business, technology, and social work.
Georgia Tech enrolls nearly 40,000 students on its campus in Atlanta. This public research university also offers online programs through Georgia Tech Online. As one of the best online colleges, Georgia Tech makes affordable online degrees more accessible by charging a lower tuition rate for distance learners.
The career-focused programs at Georgia Tech include 10 fully online master's programs and three hybrid professional master's degrees. Degree-seekers can study subjects like aerospace engineering, cybersecurity, manufacturing leadership, or analytics at Georgia Tech. Graduates earn the same degrees as on-campus enrollees.
FSU offers undergraduate and graduate programs on its campus in Tallahassee, and students can also enroll in Distance@FSU to earn their degrees in a fully online format. With synchronous and asynchronous class options and experienced faculty, FSU offers flexible programs that prepare graduates for careers in tech, education, and business.
At FSU, online students can earn bachelor's degrees in social science, computer science, and criminology. Its online master's programs include business administration, educational leadership, and art education. Online learners receive academic and career advising to help them transition into the workforce. FSU also offers academic tutoring, library services, and online mentoring to support distance learners.
FIU is a public research university in Miami, Florida, that offers more than 100 online programs through FIU Online. As one of the best online colleges, FIU prioritizes flexibility and convenience in its online classes.
FIU offers online bachelor's degrees in areas like computer science, Asian studies, biology, and criminal justice. Graduate students can also earn online master's degrees in finance, forensic science, cybersecurity, and health informatics. Distance learners receive academic development support, and FIU Online offers scholarships for online students.
Founded in 1909, UW-La Crosse is a public university that enrolls over 10,000 students every year. Degree-seekers can enroll in online programs at UW-La Crosse with both undergraduate and graduate options, advancing their education through a flexible format.
At the undergraduate level, learners can study health and wellness management or health information management in partnership with other UW campuses. UW-La Crosse also offers an online MBA, graduate programs in education, and a master's in data science. Distance learners can access student services to complete the admission and registration process, apply for financial aid, or participate in student life activities.
Located in Searcy, Arkansas, Harding is a private, Christian university. Harding's fully online programs help students complete a degree in a flexible format. In addition to ten online degrees, Harding offers hybrid programs and online certificates.
At Harding, degree-seekers can earn online graduate degrees in business or education. Harding also offers a master's in information systems, an MBA program, and a master's in teaching. Educators can also pursue endorsements in early childhood education, special education, or reading. Hardin's graduate school of business offers online certificates to help professionals develop their skills in specific areas.
Founded as an institute of psychology in 1966, Albizu University operates campuses in Puerto Rico and South Florida. The university's virtual programs allow learners to enroll in flexible online master's programs.
At Albizu University, graduate students can pursue master's-level online degrees in industrial and organizational psychology and teaching English for speakers of other languages. The industrial/organizational psychology program trains students to understand corporate culture and apply their knowledge in workplace settings. Distance learners can access courses and administrative services through the university's campus portal.
Founded in 1876 as Texas's first public university, Texas A&M enrolls over 69,000 students annually on its College Station campus. Texas A&M also offers distance education programs, including online degrees that meet the same standards as on-campus programs.
At Texas A&M, distance learners can earn bachelor's degrees in nursing or pursue nearly 50 different online graduate degrees. For example, the university offers an online master's in analytics, master's programs in nursing, and a master of public health program in epidemiology.
UT Dallas is a public university that offers online programs and courses in multiple disciplines to over 28,000 enrollees.
UT Dallas's Jindal School of Management offers an online MBA program where learners can expand their business training in a fully online program. UT Dallas also offers online master's programs in accounting, management science, marketing, and information technology. Undergraduate learners can also access individual courses online to earn UT Dallas credit through a flexible format.
As one of Wisconsin's public universities, UWEC builds critical thinkers and innovators. UWEC Online offers online programs and certificates for students. In addition to degrees, learners can choose individual online courses to earn UWEC credit.
At the graduate level, UWEC offers an online MBA program, a master's in data science, and a master's in communication sciences and disorders. Learners can also pursue certificates in business, education, or communication sciences. UWEC's student services help distance learners strengthen their study skills and balance school with other responsibilities.
North Carolina's flagship institution, UNC-Chapel Hill, dates back to 1789. UNC-Chapel Hill offers online degrees and courses as part of the state's consortium of University of North Carolina online programs.
UNC-Chapel Hill offers online master's programs in accounting, digital curation, and public health. Degree-seekers can also complete online MBAs at UNC-Chapel Hill. Undergraduates can choose from dozens of online courses offered each semester. Most online programs charge a flat tuition rate for both in-state and out-of-state students.
Located in Tampa, Florida, USF enrolls over 50,000 students annually across several campuses. USF students can also choose from dozens of online programs, including online undergraduate majors in criminology, information studies, public administration, and public health. Graduate students can earn degrees in areas like curriculum and instruction, cybercrime, or applied behavior analysis.
Distance learners receive both academic and technical support. USF also offers career services to help students explore different career paths after graduation.
UW is a public university that offers online degrees and certificates through UW Online. Students can choose from over 40 certificates that use fully online or hybrid formats, as well as online bachelor's and master's programs.
Undergraduate options include degrees in social sciences or early care and education. The online master's programs include aerospace engineering, library and information science, infrastructure planning, and education. Distance learners can also earn a master's in engineering, logistics, or computational finance.
Founded in 1894, Louisiana Tech enrolls 12,000 students annually on its Ruston campus. Students can also earn flexible and convenient online degrees, which use interactive courses that still meet Louisiana Tech's academic standards.
At the undergraduate level, Louisiana Tech offers a variety of programs, including an online bachelor's degree in health informatics and information management. Graduate students can earn master's degrees in engineering, English, history, and health informatics. Louisiana Tech also offers an online MBA program.
At U of I, students can choose from over 100 online degrees and programs. The public university also offers more than 1,700 individual online courses to help learners advance their education with added convenience.
In the college of liberal arts and sciences, online learners can pursue degrees in topics like sustainability, with multiple concentration options. At the graduate level, learners can study business, engineering, and education. U of I also offers an online MBA program for business professionals seeking career advancement. The same faculty members teach both online and on-campus courses.
Founded in 1889, Georgia College is a public, degree-granting institution that offers online programs with a professional focus. With graduate options in business, healthcare, and education, the online university offers career advancement opportunities and a flexible delivery method.
In the college of arts and sciences, graduate students can earn a degree in music education, criminal justice, or public administration. The college of business offers an online MBA and master's programs in logistics and management information systems. Its college of education offers educational leadership programs, and advanced practice nurses can develop their skills through the college of health sciences.
Named for President Harry Truman, Truman in Kirksville, Missouri, ranks among the best online colleges, thanks to its slate of online courses. The university encourages active learning in its online classes, strengthening problem-solving skills. Truman emphasizes interdisciplinary connections and a well-rounded educational foundation, taking a liberal arts approach to the online format.
In addition to dozens of online class options for degree-seeking students, Truman also offers an online graduate certificate in data science. Distance learners can access counseling services, a writing center, and tutoring support.
Located in the heart of Wisconsin, UWSP emphasizes critical thinking and sustainable living. Founded in 1894, UWSP now offers flexible, online programs. Distance learners can earn accredited degrees, enroll in online courses, and pursue continuing education options at UWSP.
At the undergraduate level, online students can major in applied computing, nursing, health and wellness management, or health information management. Graduate-level enrollees can study biotechnology, data science, education, leadership, or healthcare administration, all online. Prospective students must apply to UWSP before enrolling in online courses.
This public institution in the Central Valley offers online programs for working professionals that integrate networking opportunities and academic support. With fully online and hybrid options, the online university's flexible formatting helps working students reach their educational goals.
CSUB offers fully online bachelor's programs in communications and sociology and online master's degrees in management, education, or kinesiology. CSUB also offers an online MBA degree and hybrid programs in education, nursing, and social work.
This public institution is one of the top-ranked online colleges, offering flexible online degrees. The school's asynchronous class format allows learners to arrange coursework around their schedules.
At the undergraduate level, students can major in applied arts and sciences, economics, finance, business, or liberal studies. Other online options include degrees in political science, occupational safety, and special education.
At the graduate level, UW-Whitewater offers an online MBA program and master's degrees in business analytics, communication, cybersecurity, and environmental safety and health. Distance learners receive the same diplomas as on-campus students, and UW-Whitewater charges a flat tuition rate for most online students, regardless of state residency.
Established more than 100 years ago, Georgia Southern is a public research university offering online degrees in an asynchronous class format.
Fully-online undergraduate programs include modern languages, interdisciplinary studies, information technology, and criminal justice and criminology degrees as well as an RN to BSN program. Most undergraduate degree programs require 124 credit hours and a capstone project or an exit exam.
In addition, Georgia Southern offers online master's programs, including master's degrees in computer science, criminal justice and criminology, and public health; several business and health master's degrees and 20 degrees in the college of education.
Founded in 1871, U of A is a public research institution comprising 10 colleges and schools. It offers 9 bachelor's degrees that are available entirely online.
Online bachelor's options include communication, general business, supply chain management, nursing, and human resource degrees. Most bachelor's programs require 120 credits and take four years to complete.
U of A also offers online master's degrees in fields like education, science, and social work, plus doctoral degrees in education and nursing practice. Certification and licensure programs are also available online. Fully online students are eligible for in-state tuition regardless of their state of residency.
UWF has awarded more than 100,000 degrees in its more than 50-year history as a public university. Today, UWF offers 14 bachelor's degrees online, as well as 25 master's degrees.
Bachelor's degree options include accounting, health science, maritime studies, and psychology. Online master's degree options include accountancy, computer science, English, curriculum and instruction, political science, and healthcare administration. UWF's online criminal justice program is an accelerated bachelor's-to-master's program, which saves students 12 credits.
Online courses at UWF typically run 8-16 weeks. Undergraduate degrees require up to 132 credits, and students typically complete their degrees in 2-4 years.
Online College Ranking Guidelines
Our ranking methodology includes a blend of data analysis and research (in areas such as academic excellence, strength of faculty, reputation, affordability, and range of degree programs), as well as the combined professional experience of our staff and Academic Advisory Board. All of the online colleges and universities listed are regionally accredited, nonprofit, and offer a range of online degree programs. Our goal is to identify and rank the best accredited online colleges available to ensure the greatest satisfaction among online students.
The motto of TheBestSchools.org is Finding the best school for you. Here is how we do it:
The value of any ranking list of schools and/or degree programs depends on having a methodologically sound assessment of each school’s/program’s characteristics, especially insofar as these can be objectively measured. A college or university is a complex entity, with numerous factors to consider, and distilling these down to the place where meaningful comparisons can be made to form a defensible ranking list becomes part science and part art.
To meet this challenge—and thereby provide you with the most useful and insightful educational rankings on the Internet — TheBestSchools.org formulates our rankings based on five informational categories (six, when considering online schools). The major metrics and qualities for which we rank are these (with expanded, detailed considerations and weights listed):
1. Academic excellence based on a school’s curriculum generally or within the selected discipline [weight = 25%]
- Weighs school against known leading schools in that discipline
- Weighs number of core curricula listed as advanced courses within that discipline and compares against introductory courses
- Weighs school’s curriculum against known knowledge needs of major employers in that discipline
- Considers number and types of specializations offered within that discipline
- Considers faculty expertise in that discipline
- Considers range of electives within that discipline
- Considers quality of online environment offered to students (if applicable), particularly within that discipline
2. Strength of faculty scholarship [weight = 25%]
- Considers education background of the faculty
- Considers years of faculty experience both inside and outside of academia.
- Considers faculty membership and leadership within relevant, prominent associations
- Considers academic papers published by faculty in relevant, prominent periodicals
- Considers awards and recognitions given to faculty members from prominent organizations and from other sources
3. Reputation [weight = 20%]
- Considers a school’s reputation among academic peers and employers regarding the following:
- “Freshness” of academic knowledge
- Adaptability to changes in employment sectors
- Suitability of graduates for the workplace
4. Financial aid [weight = 10%]
- Mandatory: Requires full accreditation from an agency endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education and listed on the federal register to accept student federal financial aid
- Considers range of school-sponsored financial aid such as scholarships and grants
5. Range of degree programs [weight = 20%]
- Considers range of degree levels: associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral and professional
- Considers range of degree subjects offered, such as art & design, computers & technology, education & teaching, criminal justice, and business
6. Strength of online instruction methodology (if applicable) [weight = 25%; subtract 5% from each of the above for online schools/programs]
Considers the following of the online classes:
- Types of online technology used to deliver content
- Pedagogy style: asynchronous, synchronous, or both (depending on the degree)
- Extent and quality of the online, community learning environment, including options for communication, interactivity, and collaboration between students and also between students and instructors
- Variety, breadth, and depth of coursework, and its support, including project options and online tutoring
Considers the following of instructors:
- Extent of training for teaching within an online learning environment
- Amount of timely, consistent feedback to students
- Extent of collaboration with prospective employers to ensure suitability of instructional materials for achieving desired skills
- Ratio to number of students in a class
- Number and quality of internships in a student’s geographical area for applicable degrees
Because students tend to review a variety of information when choosing a school, the weight a student gives any one criterion will vary. For instance, it’s not enough to offer a carefully constructed ranking of great schools if many are too expensive or too difficult to get into.
To better serve the needs of prospective students, we are therefore increasingly offering filters that help you better use our rankings to find the schools that match your specific needs. These supplement our ranking criteria and include:
- Public or private status
- Acceptance rate
- Retention rate
- Graduation rate
- ACT/SAT requirements
- Cost in-state / out of state
- Undergrad, grad, or both offered
Get the best rankings here AND get them to suit your personal needs. That’s TheBestSchools.org advantage!
If you have any questions about our ranking methodology, please contact us.
Citations: For a broader account of our ranking methodology, especially as it relates to TheBestSchools.org's underlying educational philosophy and, in other ranking articles, looks beyond academic excellence (as here) to such factors as return on investment or incidental benefit, see our article "Ranking Methodology: How We Rank Schools at TBS." Reputation of schools and degree programs can at least in part be gauged through the school or department's publishing activity, citations, and desirability. At TheBestSchools.org, we keep track of such social and peer validation: "Making Sense of College Rankings." For nuts-and-bolts information about colleges and universities, we look to the National Center for Education Statistics and especially its College Navigator. Insofar as salary and inflation data are relevant to a ranking, we look to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Finally, nothing beats contacting schools and degree programs directly, which our researchers often do, with the result that all the entries in this article should be considered as belonging to this citation!
The Best Online Colleges in Each State
Students considering an online degree can attend college in any state, regardless of where they live. Learn about the best online schools in every state
Financing Your College Degree
Many online learners pay for their degrees through a mix of scholarships, grants, and loans. Online students qualify for many of the same financial aid options as traditional students, including federal financial aid. In addition to the following options, students can consider scholarships and grants offered by their institutions, or they can look into employee tuition reimbursement programs.
- Federal Financial Aid: The federal government offers grants, loans, and other financial aid to support students attending accredited online colleges. Students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) every year to qualify for federal financial aid.
- Scholarships and Grants: Many professional organizations offer scholarships and grants to support students. Eligibility requirements may include membership in a certain demographic group or a particular major.
- Private Student Loans: Online students can apply for private student loans offered by banks and other financial institutions.
- Work-Study Programs: The federal government's work-study program supports students by giving them part-time positions while they complete their degrees.
Ask an Expert
Dr. Joanna Bauer is vice president of academic affairs and chief academic officer for Claremont Lincoln University. She believes in the value of learning and the intersection of ethical leadership, sustainable solutions and social change. Bauer has held a variety of academic administrative positions, teaching onground and online for 20 years in the areas of communication, leadership, critical thinking, conflict resolution, research, marketing, sociology, and behavioral science.
Bauer has developed faculty mentoring programs, teaching and learning centers, and student success initiatives. She has received 15 awards, including Outstanding Faculty, Outstanding Public Service, Excellence in Curriculum Development and Classroom Innovation, and Excellence in Mentorship.
Online education that has a robust, peer-to-peer learning environment, such as what we provide at Claremont Lincoln University, gives students a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the content and participate in cohorts.
With the need of students to support work/life balance, yet engage in education that fits their schedules, online delivery is a superior choice. The flexibility of when and where to learn is literally at their fingertips. Students can travel, work, parent, set their own timelines and agenda, organize and prioritize their time, build relationships with classmates, and apply studies right away into professional and personal contexts.
Online learning allows students to earn the same credentials and degrees as they would with face-to-face learning and often helps to improve writing, critical thinking, and professional skills in organization, time management, and self-motivation.
Potential online students should research schools that develop courses based on sound online teaching practices (peer-to-peer exchanges, innovative course design, leveraging instructional design practices, etc.) instead of those that simply take the face-to-face course and convert it to an online format.
To be an effective online student, learners must have the ability to synthesize information individually, which happens predominantly through reading or watching videos. Some questions learners can ask themselves include: How much do I like being with other people? Do I need face time with my instructor? Am I self-motivated? How do I handle challenges? Am I comfortable building community in online spaces? Can I communicate well through email and Zoom?
It is important to note that whether online or face to face, students still have access to student and academic support resources, along with support from the faculty member.
One of the best aspects of online learning is the flexibility and how busy people can mold their schedules to fit daily life. Other skills or habits include being able to self-start, even when things are boring or challenging; being able to connect while learning primarily with the written word; being willing to take creative/academic risks and learn new skills; and being willing to meet people with a wider diversity than in a given geographic or professional context.
For organization of the coursework, it is helpful to have a course calendar and add everything in the calendar with reminders (not forgetting reading and reflection time).
Beyond the programmatic content, there are specialized skills that online learners develop because of the increased diverse nature of the cohort, as well as the professional skills needed to be successful.
Online degrees show employers that students are patient, motivated, self-directed, independent, and self-disciplined. Online students need to be able to communicate in a variety of ways to diverse audiences, including written and presentation skills, and this translates directly to the workplace in meetings, emails, videos, and the like.
Another big one is collaborating with peers and teams in the workplace. They can also learn skills such as self-starting, encouraging innovation, willingness to embrace change, willingness to grow as a writer, willingness to be in community with diverse viewpoints, and a high motivation to follow through. All of these make for exceptional, creative, and collaborative team members, no matter the context.
Definitely, and in fact probably more, in terms of participation, communication, and diversity.
Instead of a classroom with students from the same campus, online students have the opportunity to actively interact with a much broader group. This means developing and improving the skills of cultural competence, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, dialogue, collaboration, conflict resolution, embracing diverse ideologies, and new ways of thinking about law, policy, gender, education, and civic spaces. They also typically have access to a wider variety of faculty.
Additionally, in many brick-and-mortar classes, the emphasis is on "sage on the stage," or lecture learning, where a student can hide in the back of the large room and not participate. In online courses with discussions, students must participate in the discussion.
These communication skills are invaluable in the workplace and beyond. For job opportunities, brick-and-mortar students have to prove academic chops, plus digital and soft skills. Online students demonstrate mastery or near-mastery of both by virtue of how and where they studied.
In the past, online education was not accepted as widely as traditional academic institutions, but since COVID-19, online learning is gaining new support from many of those skeptics, who are now embracing it because it complements the work-from-home procedures that many had previously disliked.
Frequently Asked Questions
Earning an online bachelor's degree typically takes four years, while most master's programs take two years. Some online schools offer accelerated pathways to degrees, which reduce completion times.
Graduates with an online degree can pursue careers in fields like business, education, and healthcare. An online degree from an accredited institution meets the same licensure and certification requirements as an on-campus degree.
Students enrolled in online courses often complete coursework on their own schedules rather than attending class at a set time, though some online programs still run synchronously. However, the material, instructors, and requirements are often the same in online and on-campus programs.
Some students find online courses harder than in-person courses, especially if they have trouble focusing or staying self-motivated. Many online schools offer resources to help students transition to an online learning format.
Yes. Online degrees earned at an accredited online college meet the same academic standards as on-campus programs. They also meet the same licensure requirements, unless otherwise stated.
Yes. Many online schools operate on a year-round schedule, including summer terms, to help students earn their degrees faster. Most online colleges offer multiple start dates throughout the year.
Credits earned from a regionally accredited institution usually transfer to online colleges. Some online colleges also offer credit for work experience, military training, or prior learning.
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