What makes online colleges popular? By popularity, we simply mean the number of students attending a school. The greater this number, the more popular the online college.
Although popularity doesn’t directly gauge quality of education (see our ranking of the best online colleges for that), it is a good indicator of quality because students do not flock to a school unless it offers something valuable.
The most popular online schools on this list all have strong brands — they’re established leaders in the online education field. The list includes schools specializing in online education as well as more traditional campus-based schools with a significant online presence.
We gathered the numbers, representing part-time and full-time students, from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the colleges' own websites, and news reports. We also contacted school representatives and received data directly from them.
We selected the most popular online schools based on online student enrollment. We rounded the numbers to the nearest 1,000.
The Most Popular Online Colleges
1. University of Phoenix
(Enrollment: 263,000 (online & on-campus students combined))
Although The University of Phoenix does not provide a separate online student population total, our research indicates the University of Phoenix has the largest online student population. The University of Phoenix, a pioneer in adult learning, is the largest private university in North America.
The university provides undergraduate and graduate degrees in high-demand fields such as business, nursing, education, and technology.
Why students enroll at the University of Phoenix Online:
- University of Phoenix provides instructors with real-world experience in the field they teach
- The university focuses on the skills relevant to the current economy
- Education programs updated periodically to reflect the newest practices and standards in industries
- Each student has a Graduation Team, which may include an enrollment adviser, a financial adviser, and an academic adviser
- Students have access to collaborative learning teams
- Orientation workshops, provided at no cost, let people experience the University of Phoenix without enrolling at the university
- Academic social network provides students with access to a worldwide network of more than one million students, alumni, and faculty
2. American Public University System
American Public University System (APUS), a for-profit institution, serves online students through the American Military University (AMU) and the American Public University (APU). APUS provides more than 190 graduate and undergraduate programs and certificate programs.
The American Public University System places an emphasis on educating the nation’s military and public service personnel. The American Military University is the nation’s #1 provider of higher education to the U.S. armed forces. The American Public University provides higher education to adults of various types of backgrounds.
Why student enroll at American Public University Online:
- Received the Sloan Consortium Effective Practice Award
- The online library has a vast number of resources
- Clubs and organizations
- Career services provides networking opportunities
- Employer Partnership Program matches qualified students with mentors and internship supervisors who guide them as they search for a job
3. Liberty University
Liberty University, offers more than 100 undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs in business, education, criminal justice, nursing, and in other fields. The university also offers certificate programs.
Liberty University reports having the lowest tuition rates among top online colleges.
Why students enroll at Liberty University Online:
- Faculty members use their real-world experience and current industry practices to create in-depth curricula with a Christian worldview
- Academic advisers help students all the way to graduation
- The university provides a religious resource in the Liberty Online Ministries
- The university evaluates student skill levels and knowledge to ensure they’re taking the courses they need
- The Liberty Bruckner Learning Center resources help students with study skills, reading comprehension, reading speed, time management, and other relevant subjects
- The online library, available 24/7, provides an extensive list of electronic books, journals, and digital texts
- Yellow Ribbon participant
4. DeVry University
DeVry University offers graduate and undergraduate degree programs and specializations in 34 career fields.
The university’s Keller Graduate School of Management provides an online MBA and other graduate degree programs in numerous areas of concentration.
Why students enroll at DeVry University Online:
- Accelerated programs
- All of the instructors have an advanced degree and practical experience
- The university collaborates with top business leaders to develop its curriculum
- Professors and academic advisers help students stay on track to meet their educational and career goals
5. UMass Online
UMass Online is part of the highly respected University of Massachusetts system. UMass Online offers graduate and undergraduate degrees. The online college offers over 100 degree and certificate programs and over 1,500 online courses in education, liberal arts, nursing, business and management, information technology, public health and in many other fields.
Why students enroll at UMass Online:
- University of Massachusetts ranked #40 top public school by U.S. News & World Report
- UMass Online won the Sloan Consortium Award for the Most Outstanding Online Teaching and Learning Program
- The University of Massachusetts is one of the seven founding members of the National Technological University
- The world-class instructors who teach the on-campus classes teach the online classes
- Online graduates are members of a huge alumni network, including successful industry leaders, scientists, hi-tech entrepreneurs, and others
6. Walden University
Walden University, a leader in online education, offers bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degree programs in a variety of areas.
The university collaborates with an array of national industry leaders and higher education experts to create online programs relevant to the needs of the workforce.
Why students enroll at Walden University Online:
- Programs include specialized options
- The university reports two-thirds of its doctoral graduates surveyed replied they obtained a promotion as a result of getting their degree
- Free tutoring provided to undergraduates in areas such as science, math, statistics, and accounting
- The writing center provides free tutorial services; staff members provide one-on-one consultations on course papers
- A number of the online programs include a practicum which provides real-world field experience in the student’s area of interest under the supervision of Walden faculty and an on-site supervisor
- A number of the programs provide an internship
- Students can complete a bachelor’s degree in just 18 months
7. Ashford University
(Enrollment update: As of 12/31/2015 47,463 online students and 331 students attending the Iowa campus)
Ashford University provides graduate and undergraduate degree in over 50 programs. The university offers degrees in business, education, healthcare, the sciences, and other areas.
Why students enroll at Ashford University Online:
- Some degrees take just one year to complete
- Asynchronous classes allow students to log in at any time to participate in class and post their work
- Students, alumni, and faculty members interact with each other from across the United States and the world
- The university listed among the Military Friendly Schools by G.I. Jobs Magazine
- Undergraduates can participate in graduate courses
8. Western Governors University
Western Governors University (WGU), a private, non-profit online university, provides more than 50 undergraduate and graduate degrees in the fields of information technology, teaching, business, and health.
The governors of 19 states established the university. WGU uses a unique, competency-based, academic approach. WGU requires students to show competencies in required areas instead of focusing on credit hours in a classroom.
Why students enroll at WGU Online:
- Students can complete all of the required assessments at a faster rate to accelerate their program
- Programs do not require minimum GPAs or standardized test scores for admission
- Every student has a mentor
- More than 20 major foundations and corporations support the university
- Most programs begin monthly
- Competency-based approach to learning allows students to extensively personalize their degree program
- Students work with a dedicated student mentor and course members who support them all the way to graduation
9. University of Maryland University College
The University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Online provides undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificate programs in a variety of subjects. UMUC Online offers over 25 degree programs and 30 certificates provided entirely online.
UMUC is part of the University System of Maryland. The university includes the School of Undergraduate Studies and the Graduate School of Management & Technology.
Why students enroll at UMUC Online:
- Won the Sloan Consortium Award for Excellence in Institution-Wide Asynchronous Learning Network Programming
- Online MBA program won the Instructional Technology Council’s award for Outstanding e-Learning Program
- UMUC of Adelphi named the most popular college or university among active-duty service members by Military Times EDGE magazine
- UMUC named by KMI Media and Military Advanced Education as one of the top 20 colleges or universities serving military students
- Online students have access to academic clubs
- Members of the Allies Mentoring Program help students with study skills, time management, and other areas important to academic success
10. Purdue University Global
Purdue University Global, a newly established part of the Purdue University System, offers 180 online programs at the associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels.
The programs cover some of today’s most in-demand fields, such as psychology, business, information technology, nursing, criminal justice, legal studies, and public administration.
Why students enroll at Purdue Global:
- Affordable, world-class online education
- Individual educational advising
- No-cost tutoring in math, science, and writing
- Comprehensive career counseling services before and after graduation
- Credit for Work Experience
- Comprehensive career counseling services before and after graduation
11. Capella University
34,365 (7,835 Undergraduate) as of 2017
Capella University provides bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degrees in areas such as information technology, public safety, business, public health, psychology, human services, and education. The university offers more than 130 graduate and undergraduate specializations and numerous certificate programs.
Why students enroll at Capella University Online:
- Received the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) Award for Outstanding Institutional Practice in Student Learning Outcomes
- Personalized support
- Experts in their field teach the classes
- Alliances with over 100 corporations
- Business and management specializations allow students to take practical solutions from their classes to their workplace
- Benefits for military students
12. Strayer University
Strayer University offers graduate and undergraduate degree programs in areas such as business, information systems, criminal justice, public administration, management, education, health administration and other areas. The university also offers undergraduate diplomas and certificates.
Why students enroll at Strayer University Online:
- Quarter systems allows students to take more courses in a year than in a traditional semester system
- Life/work credit and credit from equivalency exams
- Faculty advisers help students design a plan to meet their academic goals
- Synchronous and asynchronous classes
- Free one-on-one and small-group tutoring sessions
- Accelerated programs
- The instructors provide relevant theoretical and practical knowledge in the classrooms
- Active military scholarships
13. Columbia Southern University
Columbia Southern University (CSU), an online college, provides undergraduate and graduate degrees in a variety of areas. The online school also offers graduate and undergraduate certificate programs which provide focused training in specialized areas.
Why students enroll at Columbia Southern University
- Students have access to a variety of support services
- No entrance exams required
- Students can begin courses at any time
- Member of the Servicemembers Opportunity College Consortium of Schools
- Participates in the U.S. Army’s GoArmyEd program
- Member of the U.S. Air Force’s Air University Associate to Baccalaureate Cooperative program
14. Grand Canyon University
Grand Canyon University, a private Christian online college, offers about 100 bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctoral degree programs in the fields of education, business, nursing and health sciences, fine arts and production, and liberal arts.
Why students enroll at Grand Canyon University Online:
- Online students take one class at a time, which allows students to obtain a more in-depth level of understanding.
- Full-time faculty members teach the online classes
- The four-credit courses allow students to complete their degree programs in less time
- Real-world degree programs tailored to meet the unique needs of students
- Grand Canyon University provides an education from the context of its Christian heritage.
15. Colorado Technical University
Colorado Technical University (CTU) provides career-relevant degrees in a variety of subjects. CTU offers graduate and undergraduate degrees. The university offers more than 100 undergraduate and graduate degree programs and concentrations.
CTU offers degrees in the areas of engineering and computer science; business and management; security studies; information systems and technology; and health sciences.
Why students enroll at CTU Online:
- Real-world, industry-current programs
- CTU Online collaborates with the business community to maintain relevant programs
- Faculty members have industry experience and advanced degrees
- The CTU Success Center provides students with opportunities to study, to receive assistance from staff members, to collaborate with other students, and to learn from student-success seminars
- The university’s Department of Military Education helps active military personnel, veterans, and military spouses achieve their learning goals
- Military tuition rate for active duty, reservist, and National Guard personnel
16 (Tied) Penn State World Campus
Penn State World Campus, part of the prestigious Pennsylvania State University, offers over 100 online graduate and undergraduate degree programs and certificate programs in areas such as business, engineering, education, technology, healthcare and more.
Why students enroll at Penn State World Campus:
- Penn State University ranked #8 among public universities in the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges in the United States list
- U.S. News & World Report recognizes more than 30 individual programs at Penn States University
- Ranked #3 in the U.S. News & World Report Best Online Bachelor’s Programs list
- World-class faculty members who teach the traditional courses also teach the online courses
- Graduates of online programs may join the Penn State Alumni Association, one of the world’s largest alumni associations
- Career counseling
- Student support services
16 (Tied) American InterContinental University
American InterContinental University (AIU) offers a variety of career-focused degree programs. The university provides industry-current associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree programs.
Why students enroll at AIU Online:
- Accelerated programs
- Students can transfer-in up to 50% of degree requirements from approved past college credits and from their work and life experience
- Virtual Campus recognized as “Best of the Best” in the Education and Academia category in the Computerworld Honors Program
- American InterContinental University was named “a TOP SCHOOL” in the Military Advanced Education 2017 Guide to Colleges and Universities. The accolade recognized the university for its dedication to making higher education accessible to military members, veterans and their families in four key areas: military culture, support services (including online support), financial services and flexibility.
- Programs frequently updated to reflect standards in many fields.
- Students can complete a bachelor’s degree program in just 17 months and a master’s degree in just one year
- Courses focus on applicable, industry-specific information
18. Southern New Hampshire University
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Online offers a number of online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and graduate certificate programs in an array of subjects.
Why students enroll at SNHU Online:
- Received Best Business Awards for Best Online Degree and Best MBA from the New Hampshire Business Review
- Offers the SNHU Recruit, a data base of employers, which provide internships and employment to SNHU students
- Military tuition assistance
- Named a top Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs
- Support team dedicated to assisting the military population
- Preferred provider by the U.S. Army
19 (Tied) Nova Southeastern University
Nova Southeastern University, a nonprofit institution, offers bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees as well as graduate certificate programs in a variety of areas. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching classifies Nova Southeastern University as a research university with “high research activity".
Why students enroll at Nova Southeastern University Online:
- Included in The Princeton Review’s “The Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools” list
- Career development office provides a variety of assistance
- Tutoring services
19 (Tied) South University
South University provides online associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees in fields such as business, criminal justice, healthcare, information technology, legal and paralegal, nursing, psychology, and in other fields.
Why students enroll at South University Online:
- Full-time students can complete a bachelor’s degree program in less than three years and a master’s degree program in 18 months
- Students have a team of support professionals to help them all the way to graduation
- Online students have access to tutoring
- Active-duty scholarships to eligible service members and scholarships to eligible veterans
- Instructors have industry experience in their teaching field
21. National University
National University is the second-largest private, non-profit institution of higher learning in California. The university, the flagship institution of the National University System, offers over 70 undergraduate and graduate degrees online in a variety of fields.
Why students enroll at National University Online:
- Named one of the best colleges in the nation by The Chronicle of Higher Education
- Named one of America’s top military-friendly colleges and universities by Military Advanced Education
- All of the faculty members have advanced degrees in their area of expertise; more than 80 percent of the faculty members have a doctoral degree
- Named a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs
- The Online Information Centers allow students to update study schedules and receive other types of services available at a campus
- Depending on where they live, many online students have a personal study advisory service close to home
22. Argosy University
Argosy University, a for-profit school has 28 locations in the United States. The online division offers flexible graduate and undergraduate degree programs in the fields of business, education, psychology and health sciences.
Why students enroll at Argosy University Online:
- Accelerated online courses
- The university reports students can connect with industry contacts and representatives from professional organizations from the Worldwide Professional Network
- Small class sizes
- Every student has a mentor professor and an academic advisor
- Argosy University has one of the nation’s largest graduate student communities
23 (Tied) Columbia College Missouri
Columbia College Missouri Online, a subsidiary of Columbia College, a private liberal arts and science school, offers a variety of graduate and undergraduate degrees. Columbia College, affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), welcomes students of all religious affiliations.
Why students enroll at Columbia College Online
- Eight week online courses
- Five sessions offered every year
- Scholarships and discounts for service members and spouses
- Member of Servicemembers Opportunities Colleges (SOC) Consortium and the SOC Degree Network System
- Yellow Ribbon Program participant
23 (Tied) Grantham University
Grantham University, one of the nation’s oldest private degree-granting institutions provides a variety of graduate and undergraduate degree programs.
Why students enroll at Grantham University Online:
- Accelerated programs
- Classes begin weekly
- Included in the Military Advanced Education Top 20 Military-Friendly Colleges & Institutions
- College credit provided via equivalency exams, challenge tests, ACE credit provided certification courses and military training
- Career services
- Member of the SOC Consortium
- Scholarships for military personnel and veterans
23 (Tied) Northcentral University
Northcentral University, a private, for-profit school, provides online graduate and undergraduate degrees in business, psychology; marriage and family therapy; and education. The Carnegie Classifications of Institutions of Higher Education classifies Northcentral University as a Doctoral Research University.
Why students enroll at Northcentral University Online:
- The university has a 100 percent doctoral faculty
- Every program designed with the assistance of professionals in the field
- Weekly course starts
- Students can tailor their education to meet their professional and personal goals
- Member of the Council of College and Military Education
- Preferred military tuition rates
Northcentral University is regionally accredited by the WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC).
26 (Tied) Arizona State University
Arizona State University (ASU) Online provides a variety of online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates.
Why students enroll at ASU Online:
- Named one of “America’s Best College Buys” by Forbes
- ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business ranked #30 best business school by U.S. News & World Report
- The university included in the U.S. News & World Report top-tier U.S. universities list
- Free tutoring services
- In a survey of fully online students, 97% reported being so satisfied they would recommend ASU Online to a family member, friend, or co-worker
- No out-of-state tuition for fully online students
- College credit for completion of DANTES, CLEP, and advanced placement examinations
26 (Tied) Washington State University Global Campus
Washington State University Global Campus provides a variety of online bachelor degrees and master’s degrees. The online school is part of Washington State University, a prominent research university.
Why students enroll at Washington State University Global Campus:
- Washington State University included in numerous U.S. News & World Report graduate school rankings
- Ranked #21 in the U.S. News & World Report Best Online Bachelor’s Programs list
- Received the Sloan Consortium Ralph E. Gomory Award for Quality Online Education
- Personal academic assistance
- Online students have access to a worldwide alumni network
28 (Tied) Baker College
Baker College Online is a division of Baker College. Baker College Online provides an array of undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Why students attend Baker College Online:
- One of the most affordable colleges in the nation
- No mandatory times for attendance
- Instructors have real-world experience
- Lifetime employment services
- Online students have online access to campus libraries
- Member of Services Members Opportunity Colleges
- Provides special tuition rates for active duty service members
28 (Tied) Post University
Post University, a private for-profit university, offers highly interactive online classes. Post University offers a wide variety of online graduate and undergraduate degrees as well as certificates.
Why students enroll at Post University Online:
- Ranked #19 in the U.S. News & World Report Best Online Bachelor’s Programs list
- Online students have access to a team of academic and student support specialists
- Online courses provided in eight-week modules
- Online students can obtain a bachelor’s degree in only 18 months
30. Drexel University
Drexel University has a strong background in technology and research. The 100 percent online education programs have the same high level academic standards as the on-campus programs.
The online college offers an array of undergraduate and graduate degrees. Online certificates are also available.
Why students enroll at Drexel University Online:
- According to U.S. News & World Report the university is one of the schools providing the “Best Online Graduate Programs” in the fields of engineering, library science, and business administration
- Ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of “America’s Best Colleges”
- Received the 21st Century Best Practice Award for Distance Learning from the United States Distance Learning Association
- Credit for work experience through CLEP exams
- The instructors who teach the on-campus programs also teach the online classes
- More than 90 percent of the faculty members have PhDs.