The best online bachelor’s degree program will offer the major you want to study and the best resources to help you achieve your goals, at a price tag you can afford. Finding a program that checks all those boxes can be an overwhelming endeavor: Over 80 percent of public and half of private universities offer programs that are totally online. But if you do the groundwork to figure out what you’re looking for, you can make a decision-dense process more efficient. Our advice: Start broad and narrow the field based on your goals.
How to Find the Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Program for You
First: Find a school with programs in your field of study.
Since available majors differ from school to school, narrowing the field to only schools that offer your desired major will eliminate a big chunk of potential options right off the bat.
If you know you want to graduate as an accountant, apply for medical school, or have similarly clear career goals, this step may be the easiest part of the process. Name your major, and you’ll be able to use that information to filter out programs that aren’t worth looking at.
Already have some specific Bachelor's degree programs in mind? LinkedIn lets you filter search results based on where people went to school. Finding graduates of a program you’re considering could give some insight into where graduates land, and gives you a chance to reach out to alum for specific program pros and cons.
If you’re not sure, take a look at the resources available to undecided students online at sites like The Princeton Review and BestColleges.com, or look at typical salaries in your area based on career for some ideas. You might even try searching LinkedIn and contacting professionals in your area who are working in fields that you find interesting.
Not even sure where to start? U.S. News & World Report is a great place to see what schools offer an online Bachelor's degree — it has data and rankings for 311 schools. We suggest skipping the home page, which is mostly full of sponsored ads, and start here.
Make sure that school is accredited.
Colleges can be divided into nonprofit and for-profit institutions. For-profit colleges (owned by profit-seeking businesses) have gotten a bad rap in the past for using unethical or deceitful recruiting tactics and landing graduates with lots of debt and fewer jobs than graduates of nonprofit schools.
But one major draw cited by U.S. News & Report is that for-profit colleges tend to be less selective — an indispensable pro for some students who don’t have competitive grades or standardized test scores. For-profit schools also tend to be on a rolling admissions schedule, which is helpful to students who want to start school right away (although many non-profit institutions we looked into also enroll on a rolling basis for their online programs).
Accreditation affects financial aid.Only colleges that are accredited by USDE-recognized accreditors are eligible to receive federal financial aid.
Regardless of whether the schools you’re looking at are non-profit or for-profit, any school you consider needs to be accredited by a recognized accreditor so you avoid sinking money into a diploma mill (read: a school that cranks out diplomas — usually by offering claims like “earn your degree in 3 months!” — without adhering to recognized standards). If your degree doesn’t come from an accredited institution, future employers and graduate schools may not recognize your hard-earned credits. The stakes are high, so it’s worth putting some time in to really understand what to look for.
Schools can be accredited on a few levels:
- Regionally or nationally: Regional accreditation is most likely to be recognized by other schools. In other words, your credits are more likely to transfer across regionally accredited institutions than from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited school. If you’re considering grad school in the future, keep that in mind. Most nonprofit institutions are regionally accredited, while for-profit institutions and vocational schools tend to be nationally accredited.
- Institutionally or specialized: An entire school and all of its programs may be accredited, or a more targeted accreditation may be given to specific programs. For example, the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education specializes in accrediting midwifery programs.
But don’t take a stamp of accreditation at face value. Faux accreditors are out there, putting fake stamps on schools in an effort to rope students in with a guise of legitimacy. It doesn’t take much to sniff out those bad actors. Legitimate and respected accreditors are backed by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), and some are backed by both. Those organizations review accreditors and “recognize” them if they’re up to par with their strict qualifications.
Then, find a program that fits your lifestyle.
The right program will offer resources that help you succeed and will address your specific needs. This is another part of the process that might require some introspection to figure out what you’re looking for — your schedule, how you learn best, and your career goals will all come into play. A 2014 survey of online students by Aslanian Market Research and The Learning House found that, behind a school’s overall reputation and cost of a program, “no set class meeting time” was the third most important factor in choosing a program. That may be because, according to data from U.S. News & World Report, an average of 84 percent of online bachelor’s students are employed when they apply.
If your goal is to work full-time while you earn a bachelor’s degree so you can earn a promotion, one of your priorities will be scheduling flexibility and the type of classes that are available. You might only consider programs that offer asynchronous classes — classes that don’t require all students to be online at the same time for lectures and “in-person” interaction. On the other hand, that interaction might benefit you if you learn best in a discussion-rich environment; if that’s the case, look for programs that offer synchronous classes in the evening.
Reaching out to admissions offices at schools you’re considering and diving into program websites will shed light on the finer details that help differentiate programs. If you’re considering multiple programs at this point, though, a good source for finding information like the most popular major at a school, average class sizes, and what types of classes are offered is U.S. News & World Report’s individual school profiles. After finding a few with features you like, you can then compare the features across schools.
Check if, and how, your credits will transfer.
If you have existing college credits already, you’re in good company: Data from Aslanian Market Researchshows that 80 percent of online undergraduate students have earned credit elsewhere and prioritize transfering that credit when choosing a program. The numbers U.S. News & World Report reports are even higher, at 95 percent.
Unsure on how to transfer your credits? Read this piece by U.S. News & World Report. It gives deeper details on what might affect transfer, first-hand accounts from students who’ve transferred credits, guidance on the right questions to ask, and how to push back if your requests are rejected.
You’ll need to request an official transcript from the school(s) where you’ve earned college credit and have it sent to the programs you’re considering. In the meantime, you can always contact a prospective school’s enrollment counselors and ask how many credits they might expect to transfer. Or if you’re not ready to get on the phone, some schools — like Arizona State and Penn State — offer online tools.
Five factors that can impact credit transfers:
- Differences in your prior and future school’s term lengths (semesters vs. quarters)
- A potential school’s cap on the number of credits a student can transfer
- The accreditation of your prior and future school (if your school was nationally accredited, and the school you’re applying to is regionally accredited, credits may not translate)
- The minimum required class grade for credits to transfer (for example, some schools require a C average in a course)
- Depending on your field of study, when you took your class might be a factor (if you took Intro to Computer Science in 1972, that may not count as Intro to Computer Science in 2017; though, theoretically, Classic English Literature may transfer just fine)
Finally: Consider cost.
You might decide that, if a program meets your prior criteria, cost doesn’t matter (in 2014, 66 percent of online undergrads didn’t choose the cheapest available program). But it will likely become a factor at some point in your decision-making process. Online degree-granting programs typically charge per credit hour, but that same Learning House and Aslanian Market Research survey of online students found that per-credit is the least-favored way to think about price. That makes sense: Per-credit pricing just doesn’t paint a full picture.
One way to get a rough estimate of how much you might actually pay over time is to multiply the number of credits required to graduate (usually about 120) by the cost-per-credit. But your actual costs might also be affected by a few other factors that you’ll have to consider as you look deeper into specific programs.
Tuition may vary based on any given school’s policies, and usually rise year to year.
Some schools charge less per credit hour if you take more classes at a time or charge a flat rate once you hit a certain number of credits (this is sometimes seen as a case in favor of full-time enrollment). And public schools often charge much more per credit for out-of-state students than for students who live in-state.
We found in-state and out-of-state tuition to be listed front-and-center on the program websites we looked into. But once you’ve narrowed down your choices, dig into schools’ websites or check with an enrollment counselor at the schools you’re considering to see if your tuition might change based on the number of credits you’re planning to take.
Fees for using technology, taking assessments, or even graduating a program can be hiding in a program’s costs
We recommend checking with an enrollment counselor and reading the fine print on prospective programs’ websites to get the full picture.
For example, on Penn State’s World Campus website, we found that technology fees range from $86 to $252 for undergraduates coming in with 59 or fewer credits via the site’s tuition estimation tool.
Similarly, we found that University of Florida charges financial aid, technology, and capital improvement fees per credit hour, along with an “optional fee package” that allows online students to access on-campus services if they’re in the area.
Consider the supplies you need< for an online program.
This school supplies list for online students from U.S. News & World Report includes a relatively new computer and a reliable internet connection. You may already be set; if you aren’t, make sure to talk to the admissions departments at schools you’re considering to find out exactly what hardware and software you need to get the most out of your program.
Financial aid can help.
You’ll want to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what grants, loans, or work-study funds you’re eligible to receive. FAFSA deadlines vary by state and school, so be sure to check on the deadline for the schools you’re considering early on in your search. Remember that accreditation may play a role in the type of aid you’re eligible to receive — look for schools’ accreditors to have a stamp of approval from the USDE if you want to receive federal funding.
You might also want to browse a scholarship search platform to see what outside funds for which you’re a competitive candidate (check out our review of best scholarship search platforms for a good place to start).
Bookmark these resources to help you find the best online Bachelor's program.
Choosing a major:
- The Princeton Review has an online guide to choosing a college major, and a major search tool that explains and gives an honest perspective on what to expect out of each discipline. Under Journalism, for instance, you’ll find: “At universities with elite Journalism programs, time-consuming weed-out courses abound and you must be formally accepted into the Journalism program, which can be ridiculously difficult and competitive.”
- If you prefer a nuts-and-bolts approach over Princeton’s Review’s more narrative style, check out BestColleges.com’s guide that “uses measured student outcomes, job market statistics and other higher education data to explore the various benefits and drawbacks of the nation’s most popular undergraduate major subjects.”
- To work backward from well-paying jobs in your area, poke around PayScale’s map that lets you explore the salaries of different professions by location.
- Message people in your area who are doing jobs you think might be a fit on LinkedIn. Later in the process, consider contacting people who’ve graduated from the schools you’re considering.
- Check to ensure it’s a USDE-recognized accreditor on the department’s website — if they are, the schools (and therefore, you) are eligible for federal aid.
- Check the deadline for your FAFSA at the school(s) you might attend and fill one out to see what federal aid you’re eligible to receive.
- Read our review of best scholarship search platforms and look into outside scholarships for which you might be competitive.
- Before applying, find out each potential school’s accreditor, make sure that accreditor is on this list of agencies that are USDE- and CHEA-recognized.
- For extra assurance, make sure the accreditor isn’t on Get Educated’s list of accreditation agencies that are commonly used by “fake colleges.”
- Read more tips from Business Insider on how to spot a diploma mill (one tip: Avoid colleges with pseudo-official sounding names like “Columbiana” and “Barkley”).
- U.S. News & World Report collects data from schools in four main categories: student engagement, faculty credentials and training, student services and technology, and peer reputation. The site then ranks schools based on that data. Thanks to that wealth of information, you can go to the site and filter schools by majors available, tuition, enrollment, school type, and program type, dig into individual programs, and compare schools. The same site keeps a blog with helpful posts on subjects like which student services to contact before you start your program, how your personal goals might factor into your decision, additional factors to consider when you’re doing your research, and what questions you might want to ask current students before committing to a school. One tip: Avoid using the "Degree Finder" drop-down tool sprinkled throughout the site. It skews results to only show schools who have paid for placement.
- The Guide to Online Schools offers rankings as well, but its methodology is less transparent. You may find it worth a look as a second source of information while you do your own research into each program.