The Best Online Colleges and Universities of 2022
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Best Online Schools and Unviersities
Many of the country's top-ranked colleges and universities offer online programs. Many students choose online college because of the schedule flexibility. Rather than commuting to class on campus, online schools let students complete coursework from anywhere. In many cases, this makes online programs a more accessible pathway to a degree. Students can enroll in the best schools online without needing to relocate or quit their jobs.
The best online colleges are the ones that build the knowledge and skills necessary for career advancement and offer student services especially for online learners, including online tutoring, career services, and academic advising. The top online programs also offer strong alumni networks and connections with prospective employers.
This page covers the basics of online education and ranks the best online schools. You can use it to find the right program to help you reach your professional goals.
Common Questions About Online Colleges
How Long Does It Take to Complete an Online Degree Program?
Four years for a bachelor's degree and two years for a master's. Some online schools offer accelerated programs, allowing students to graduate sooner.
What Can I Do With an Online Degree?
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.
How Is Online College Different From On-Campus College?
Online courses let students complete coursework on their own schedules, though some online programs still have set class times. However, the material, instructors, and requirements are often the same in online and on-campus programs.
Are Online Courses Harder?
No, they cover the same material as in-person classes. However, students who have trouble focusing or staying self-motivated may find it harder. Many online schools offer resources to help students transition to an online learning format.
Are Online Degrees Recognized?
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.
Are There Year-Round Online Programs?
Yes. Many online schools have classes all year, including summer terms. Most online colleges offer multiple start dates.
Do My Credits Transfer to an Online College?
Yes. Credits earned from a regionally accredited institution usually transfer to online colleges. Some online colleges also offer credit for work experience or military training.
What Is an Online College?
Online colleges let students earn degrees through an online learning format, including associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, and graduate degrees. Online students can pursue degrees in areas like business, education, healthcare, or engineering. During an online degree, learners complete coursework by watching recorded lectures, participating in discussion boards, and taking online examinations.
Attending an online program is a great way to build your skills or change careers while still working full time. You can plan coursework around your schedule. Students with family obligations may also prefer the flexibility of an online college.
Often, online degrees are offered through the same institutions as regular degrees and carry the same weight as an on-campus degree. So long you earn it through a regionally accredited school, your online degree will be taken seriously.
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Campus vs. Online Programs
The biggest difference between online programs and on-campus programs is the schedule flexibility. In an asynchronous online course — meaning it doesn't have set class times — students can finish classwork whenever it is convenient for them. This flexibility appeals to working professionals and students who need to balance school with other responsibilities. Many learners can also save on transportation costs by choosing an online degree.
Some learners prefer the face-to-face experience of on-campus programs. But online programs allow students to connect through discussion boards, group projects, and other interactive elements. Plus, online programs with lab or practicum requirements often let students do those classes locally. For example, online nursing programs often use local health clinics. It's also common for online colleges to have 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 & Universities
Online College Ranking Guidelines
Our ranking methodology combines data analysis with research into academic excellence, faculty, reputation, affordability, and range of degree programs. It is also reviewed by our Academic Advisory Board. All of these online colleges and universities are regionally accredited and nonprofit. Our goal is to list the best accredited online colleges to help online students.
Here at TheBestSchools.org, we take the trust and welfare of our readers very seriously. When making our school and program rankings, our top priority is ensuring that our readers get accurate, unbiased information that can help them make informed decisions about online education. That's why we've developed a rigorous ranking methodology that keeps the needs of our readers front and center.
Our proprietary, multi-criteria ranking algorithm analyzes key data indicators — as collected by the federal government — for each school or program. What data we use depends on the focus of each specific ranking, but in all cases, our ranking methodology is impartial: Schools cannot buy better rankings at TBS.
While specific criteria under consideration can vary by ranking, there are a few data points that we value most highly. They are affordability, academic quality, and online enrollment. Below, we break down our algorithm to help you understand what you're getting when you use one of our rankings.
The data used in TBS rankings comes primarily from the federal government, and much of it is provided by the schools themselves. We aggregate and analyze this data to build our rankings.
The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) is our primary source. Its data comes from annual surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Every college, university, or technical school with access to federal financial aid must participate in these surveys, which include questions about enrollment, graduation rates, finances, and faculty qualifications. This is publicly available data, which you can access yourself through the College Navigator.
Additionally, because we value a personal touch and the professional experience of our staff and Academic Advisory Board, we vet all results and adjust rankings as necessary based on our collected knowledge of schools and degree programs. Depending on the ranking, we may obtain additional input from AcademicInfluence.com, subject matter experts, prior TBS ranking lists, or other sources we deem relevant to a particular ranking.
Breakdown of Our Rankings Methodology
About Our Ranking Factors
Here at TBS, we value what you value: quality education, affordability, and the accessibility of online education. These factors guide all of our program rankings.
Each of these factors are further broken down into weighted subfactors. For example, retention rates are weighted more heavily than availability of program options because they are a better indicator of student success.
We chose the following factors for our rankings because of their influence on learning experiences and graduate outcomes. However, students should always balance our rankings against their personal priorities. For instance, a learner who needs a fully online program may prioritize online flexibility more than our rankings do. Our rankings are designed to help you make a decision — not to make a decision for you.
In all our school rankings and recommendations, we work for objectivity and balance. We carefully research and compile each ranking list, and as stated in our advertising disclosure, we do NOT permit financial incentives to influence rankings. Our articles never promote or disregard a school for financial gain.
If you have questions about our ranking methodology, please feel free to connect with our staff through contact page.
We thank you for your readership and trust.
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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
Online learners can pay for school through scholarships, grants, and loans. Online students qualify for many of the same financial aid as traditional students, including federal financial aid. Students can also find scholarships and grants from their schools or use employee tuition reimbursement programs.
- Federal Financial Aid: The federal government offers grants, loans, and other financial aid to students at accredited online colleges. Students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form every year to qualify for federal financial aid.
- Scholarships and Grants: Many schools and professional organizations offer scholarships and grants. Eligibility may relate to demographic group or major.
- Private Student Loans: Online students can apply for private student loans offered by banks and other financial institutions.
- Work-study Programs: Work-study is a federal program that gives students part-time jobs while they complete degrees.
Learn more about how to apply for student loans or fill out the FAFSA to apply for federal financial aid.
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Expert Advice for Online College
Dr. Joanna Bauer
Preferred Pronouns: She/They
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. She teaches communication, leadership, critical thinking, and conflict resolution. She also teaches research, marketing, sociology, and behavioral science.
Bauer has held a variety of academic administrative positions, teaching on campus and online for 20 years. She 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.
What should students interested in studying online know or consider before applying?
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.
What skills or habits help students who choose to study online be successful?
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).
What makes online degrees valuable from an employer's perspective?
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.
Do students with an online degree have the same opportunities as students who study in traditional brick-and-mortar settings?
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.
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