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Guide to Online Colleges

14 min. read

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The perks of opting for an online college degree are clear — ultimate convenience, true flexibility, and a cheaper cost. The best online college will provide the degree program you need, as well as the educational and financial resources that ensure your success. But with thousands of degree-granting institutions in the U.S., the search can be daunting. Fortunately, there are ways of making that overwhelming task much easier. Once you know the degree program you’re looking for, cross-checking your specific goals with a list of accredited online schools and your financial needs will help narrow down the institutions that are right for you.

How to Find the Best Online College for You

Find schools that offer the degree you want

Nearly every university will offer classes online, but that won’t always translate to an online degree. For example, the University of Washington offers several classes in gerontology (including Biological Aspects of Aging), but it doesn’t offer a full online degree in the subject.

If you’ve decided on your desired major, seek programs that offer that degree. The U.S. News & World Report’s online database is one of the best places to filter and find colleges and online programs by field of study. If you’re still exploring a few fields of interest, sites like CollegeBoard and U.S. News & World Report have resources that can help you find the right major; you can also visit our guide to the best online bachelor’s degree programs for more tips and tools.

There are online programs for master’s and doctoral degrees, too: anything from an online MBA to a Doctorate in Psychology. For graduate students, finding the right degree program will be a little different. The first step is still finding a school that offers the graduate degree you want. But we advise applying more vigor in examining your potential professors. Many graduate programs require a graduate committee — a group of professors who guide your work and research. That means you’ll have to find programs with professors that share your educational interests and are easy to get along with.

The first step is reaching out to faculty members at the programs you are interested in to see if they’d be willing to help guide your work. You can search for professors who have published similar work or who host students with related interests. Most college departments have dedicated web pages that provide the contact information for their professors, and you use LinkedIn or your undergraduate professors as resources, too. We suggest sending an email to a few professors you’re interested in working with to see if they feel the same.

Don’t overlook certificate programs

Though a bachelor’s or graduate degree seem like obvious goals for students, a certification program can work for many vocations. A certificate program is an undergraduate or graduate program that grants a certification or credential for a professional field. These certificate programs don’t award degrees but are designed to help students gain the credentials or licenses that are required in specialized fields, such as nursing and human resources.

Most certificate programs take less time to complete than an online bachelor’s or graduate degree. They also tend to be cheaper. Both of these features can be attractive to students who may not be able to dedicate years to their online education or are looking for a more affordable education option. Many online tools have filters for certificate programs, which will help you find schools with your desired program. But a word of caution: Not all schools that offer certificate programs are reputable, so you’ll need to make sure your school is recognized as a valid institution.

Check for valid accreditation

Accreditation is a form of quality control that indicates that a college meets recognized standards of education. Having accreditation from a recognized accrediting agency ensures that a school has enough resources and funding for its daily operations, so you won’t have to worry about your school suddenly closing in the middle of your degree. It also affects financial aid; schools participating in federal student aid programs must be accredited by an agency recognized by the United States Department of Education (USDE).

More importantly, not all employers will recognize a degree from a non-accredited institution. That means you could pour a lot of hard work into getting a degree that doesn’t help you get a job or provide any benefits. The same goes for other colleges — not all will accept credits or degrees from non-accredited schools. If you want to pursue a graduate degree or transfer schools, you may have to start all over.

Checking for accreditation is essential. Fortunately, it’s very easy: Trustworthy schools will proudly display their accreditation on their websites as a mark of quality.

Make sure you pick the right type of accreditation

While accreditation is an indication of quality, not all accreditation is created equal. There are three different types of accreditation, and each has its pros and cons:

  • Regional accreditation is the most widely recognized and prestigious type. Regionally accredited schools are academically oriented and usually have more competitive admission standards. Credits and degrees are more likely to transfer or be accepted if obtained at a regionally accredited school.
  • National accreditation is often given to vocational (trade) or for-profit institutions. Nationally accredited schools have more relaxed admission standards and are often less expensive than their regionally accredited counterparts.
  • Programmatic or specialized accreditation applies to schools, departments, or programs — think law school or nursing school — within a larger institution that already has either regional or national accreditation. This accreditation is a mark of a particularly strong curriculum or faculty.

Choosing between regional and national accreditation will come down to your personal needs. If you want a more traditional and academically oriented experience, regional accreditation is the way to go. For those who want a career-oriented experience, a vocational or trade school with national accreditation is a safe bet.

Programmatic accreditation is more important for those obtaining a graduate-level degree. For example, choosing an MBA program will depend heavily on AACSB accreditation — a type of programmatic accreditation. (Read more about that in our guide to the best online MBA programs.)

Beware of fake accreditation:
Regardless of the school you choose, you’ll need to make sure the accreditation comes from an accrediting agency that is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the United States Department of Education (USDE). Recognition from one of these two institutions ensures that the accreditation is the real deal — look to this list for recognized accreditors.


If the accrediting agency isn’t on the list, chances are the college is using a fake accreditation. More often than not, these colleges are diploma mills — scams that sell fake degrees. Degrees from diploma mills are illegitimate, which means employers and other colleges won’t acknowledge them. This list of fake accreditation agencies will help you identify any impostors.

Decide between a nonprofit and for-profit school

Online college programs are usually classified as nonprofit or for-profit institutions. When it comes to choosing between the two, nonprofit is likely the better choice. For-profit institutions have a history of making misleading claims about student success and leaving students in debt.

That’s not to say you can’t get a quality education from a for-profit institution. Many students enroll in for-profit programs because they offer more scheduling flexibility — an important consideration for working students or students with family.

While for-profit schools are responding to criticism with more focus on students, nonprofit schools are the best option for increasing your chances of finding a job and graduating with less debt – there’s still a stigma surrounding for-profit institutions among recruiters and employers. Lynda Spiegel, an HR professional who once taught at a for-profit school, agreed, telling us, “I’m less likely to hire people if their credentials only come from a for-profit school. Nonprofit name-brand schools have better reputations for preparing students.”

Seek colleges that support your learning style and lifestyle

It’s important to find an online college that helps you manage your other responsibilities: work schedule, family, and finances. A 2018 study found the flexibility of courses that are self-paced to be one of the most important criteria for students choosing an online program.

If you have a full-time job or family, self-paced classes — courses with no predesignated meeting times — may be the best fit. But if you prefer a more traditional classroom experience, consider making time for live classes — courses where you must be online during set times. The benefit of live classes is an increased opportunity to communicate with your peers and professor.

Do a little sleuthing to find out what type of learning experience your potential programs provide. We recommend looking through student reviews and speaking to recent graduates on sites like LinkedIn to get a better idea of how the programs address what you need as a learner. For example, you may ask whether the professors offer a lot of feedback, or whether there is 24-hour technical support for their learning software. Taking the time to make a checklist of what you need from a program will allow you to identify the colleges that not only provide a thorough education but a great learning experience. (Checklists like this one from Campus Explorer are a good way to get started.) Then, compare your list to program websites, online college profiles, and student responses.

Don’t forget about cost

Before you commit to any program, you should also consider the estimated costs. Since students don’t have to pay for housing or meal plans, online degree programs are typically cheaper than going to a traditional school. But depending on the school, the overall cost for an online degree can still range from $5,000 to $145,000. The cost of a degree comes down to tuition, fees, and financial aid (more on this later).

Schools are pretty transparent on their websites about tuition and what they charge per credit hour. That said, it’s still important to check and see whether you will be expected to pay in-state or out-of-state tuition for programs located farther away. According to Dr. Elizabeth Rozell, Associate Dean and director of the MBA program at Missouri State University, “it depends on the college, but some online programs don’t charge out-of-state tuition for out-of-state students.” Since out-of-state tuition is usually far more expensive than in-state, we suggest asking an enrollment counselor or the admissions office about the amount of tuition you can expect to pay.
Fees can cover anything from technology to enrollment itself. (Some online students have even discovered they’re paying fees for parking!) Unfortunately, fees are unavoidable, but learning the fees a program expects you to pay will help you calculate the estimated cost of your degree.

Find opportunities for financial aid

Tuition and fees are costly, so we recommend filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Filling out the FAFSA is free and will determine whether you qualify for federal student aid — this can include grants, work-study opportunities, and loans.

Lynne M. Lander Fleisher, Clarion University’s director of online programs, also recommends that students “call the financial aid departments and speak with an advisor — they will be able to walk you through how financial aid works within that specific institution.” But she warned that “you need to tell them you’re an online student so that the advisor will be on the same page as you. Advisors usually give the information for traditional students automatically first.”

Aside from federal student aid, scholarships are an excellent source of financial aid. Many schools offer their own scholarships, but there are a large number of scholarships that can be found online. They can also be major- or program-specific, which means there will almost certainly be a scholarship to match your needs. Our review of the best scholarship search platforms is a great place to start.

Online Colleges FAQ

Do online colleges offer free laptops?

Some online colleges do offer laptops. This is usually done through an arrangement between the university and the manufacturer to provide laptops either for free or, at the very least, at a reduced cost. If you are in need of a laptop in order to make the most of your online studies, we recommend limiting your search strictly to the accredited online colleges that offer laptops.

Is online college easier than traditional college?

That depends on how you define “easier.” If, for example, you are the kind of student who does better learning at their own pace (as opposed to being cooped up in a classroom), then online college can be much less stressful. It’s also more flexible than the brick-and-mortar experience, especially if you have family obligations or work full-time. However, if you absorb information better when surrounded by peers or while under a stricter schedule, an online college may inhibit your learning.

How successful are online college students?

In a 2018 Learning House study, more than half of online college students surveyed found full-time employment. Many online college students utilize career mentors and services for resume help and job searches. These are not always compulsory components of the online college experience, though many schools offer them.

Tools for Finding the Best Online College

Finding a degree program

  • U.S. News & World Report’s online search tool can help you find undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as certifications in your field of study. The degree finder only includes accredited schools, so you won’t have to worry about credibility.
  • If you need help choosing a degree or field of study, CollegeBoard has a guide to college majors and profiles for different majors and fields of study.
  • If you don’t know where to start, try the U.S. News & World Report’s list of self-reflection questions to see what topics or majors might interest you.

Checking for accreditation

  • Accreditation from a CHEA- or USDE-recognized agency indicates whether an online college meets recognized quality standards. Cross-checking your colleges with this list will reduce the risk of enrolling in a diploma mill.
  • Avoid schools that are accredited by agencies on Get Educated’s list of fake accreditors.

For help estimating costs and finding financial aid

  • Costs will differ depending on the level of degree and the school you choose, but lists of estimated costs can give you a good idea of what you can expect to pay. You can also contact the financial aid offices of the programs you are interested in for information. CollegeBoard also offers a cost calculator that you can use to cross-check the information they give you.
  • No matter how much a school costs, you’ll need to fill out a FAFSA application if you want to participate in state or federal financial aid programs. Double-check to make sure that the school has accreditation from a USDE-recognized agency — a requirement for federal student aid.
  • If you’ve never filled out a FAFSA form before, the Federal Student Aid’s guide will walk you through. Be sure to fill it out before the deadline.
  • Outside of FAFSA, scholarships are the best place to look for additional funding. Check out our review of the best scholarship search platforms to get started.

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