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Top Online Colleges of 2017

According to the latest survey of online higher education by the Sloan Consortium, titled “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States,” about 33.5% of college students now take at least one course online. This is the highest percentage yet. With the best online colleges increasingly offering more options to distance students, online education continues to show tremendous growth.

In addition, 65.9% of academic leaders surveyed at online colleges agreed that online education is critical to their schools’ future strategies, and only 9.7% of the schools surveyed disagreed with that statement (the remainder neither agreed nor disagreed). All of this points toward online education slowly and steadily becoming part of the higher education standard for schools in the U.S.

Why Choose an Online Degree Program

There are many reasons for this dramatic increase in enrollment among the country’s top online schools. More and more adults are returning to school to upgrade their skills and gain some advantage in an increasingly competitive job market. A high school diploma no longer holds the same weight with potential employers that it once did. Having a college degree is more necessary than ever — and, thanks to fully integrated online programs, more relatable and accessible — for securing a decent job or advancing one’s career.

The best online colleges and universities offer flexible and relatively low-cost programs, making them especially attractive to students seeking an alternative to traditional brick and mortar schools. Working adults and students with children are among those who stand to benefit the most from earning a degree online. Many of the best accredited online colleges also offer a greater variety of classes, not to mention they allow students the convenience of eliminating the commute to and from campus. Today, students pursuing an online degree from one of the nation’s best accredited online colleges or universities can rest assured they are getting an education on par with a traditional classroom program.

Types of Schools That Offer Online Programs

There are a variety of different types of institutions that offer online education programs. Like any traditional program, the best online colleges share one important attribute: accreditation. When it comes to other factors, however, such as program delivery, facilities, financial aid and support for online students, each school has its own policies and methods of operation. Below are some key facts outlining what to expect from online programs at each kind of school:

Purely Online Schools

Some of the best online schools are those offering only online programs. While many of them have not been around for as long as brick and mortar colleges, they can offer keen insight into the learning process in a digital environment and provide support tailored to the online experience. As many purely online schools have had years to develop distance-friendly programs and streamline their method of delivery, they are often able to provide students with comprehensive online programs at a lower cost than their brick and mortar counterparts.

Brick and Mortar Schools with Online Programs

Brick and mortar schools that offer online programs can offer a more diverse learning experience, potentially allowing distance students to supplement with on-campus coursework if they so choose. Online programs in healthcare, for example, that require a clinical component may have on-campus resources to help students complete the degree. Traditional schools that have incorporated online programs over the years can also lean on their established institutional reputation to attract distance students. While costs may vary, tuition for online programs at brick and mortar schools may be subject to in- or out-of-state residency or program-specific fees, among other factors.

For-Profit Schools

These schools are owned and operated by private corporations whose chief priority is to earn revenue, which is why it generally costs more to attend a for-profit school. Also, because for-profit schools are not held to the same accreditation standards as non-profit schools, students with previous online credits may not be able to transfer them toward a for-profit school degree. Many for-profits offer more associate or two-year degrees and certificates than general education and liberal arts programs, which may limit some students’ abilities to eventually pursue an advanced degree.

Nonprofit Schools

Not-for-profit colleges and universities are publicly owned and governed by a board of trustees. These schools are eligible to receive federal and state funding to operate, because they are publicly owned. Funds leftover from fundraising efforts must be applied to furthering the organization’s initiatives, not increasing the salaries of top-level management, which is one of the reasons why non-profit schools are typically less expensive than for-profit schools. Generally, non-profit schools offer the broadest variety of programs, potentially spanning all levels of degrees, certificates and open courseware options, as well as flexible full- and part-time scheduling options for online students.

While open courseware does not constitute a full degree program, it can offer a supplementary education in a major of the student’s choice; some schools that do not offer online degrees do provide a variety of open courseware options to distance students and/or professionals interested in continuing education.

What Are The Best Online Colleges and Universities of 2017?

How to Choose an Online Degree Program

Pursuing an online degree is a major investment of your time and money, so choosing the best online college is an important decision. Consider your lifestyle when selecting a program. Some programs deliver courses asynchronously, which allows for more flexibility, while others require synchronous class sessions and even in-person residencies. Also determine the total tuition cost, and research employment rates of graduates in your chosen major.

Types of Online Degrees

Students pursue all types of degrees through online colleges. Online programs offer everything from specialized certificates to graduate degrees. Deciding which degree to pursue is the first step toward selecting the best online college for you.

Diploma

Diploma and certificate programs generally require the fewest credit hours and are often taken in conjunction with another degree. Many students earn certificates in specialized areas to be more competitive in the job market. For example, a certificate in web security may be beneficial for a student pursuing an associate or bachelor’s degree in information technology.

Associate

Students earn associate degrees in two years or less, depending on program requirements. An associate degree fulfills general education requirements and introductory major courses. For example, an associate degree in business might include basic courses in communications, writing, and business skills. Many graduates of associate programs transfer into bachelor’s degree programs.

Bachelor's

The bachelor’s degree is the standard, four-year degree that most students pursue, but some online programs offer accelerated options. A bachelor’s degree provides a comprehensive education in the student’s chosen major, in addition to general education coursework. Many job fields require at least a bachelor’s degree.

Master's

Graduate degree programs are competitive, as they often offer funding. Most require two to three years to complete, though some are offered in accelerated formats. Many master’s programs are cohort-based; students work through the program in small groups. Master’s degrees sometimes lead to licensure in the field and may be terminal.

Doctorate

Doctoral degrees are highly specialized and culminate in a dissertation, a major research project. While many doctoral candidates already hold a master’s degree, some doctoral programs require only a bachelor’s degree to apply. Online programs may require in-person residencies and usually take three to four years to complete. Most university-level teaching positions require a doctorate.

College Majors and Specializations

The best online colleges offer a wide array of majors and specializations. A student’s major impacts their career path and potential salary. Below are popular majors and potential careers for graduates.

Accreditation for Online Colleges

The top online colleges will be accredited, which means an agency has verified that the school or program meets a set of educational standards. There are two types of accreditation: regional and national. Regional accreditation is more common and more highly regarded.

The best online schools are often accredited by a number of agencies, and certain programs are accredited by field-specific agencies. Research to learn which agencies are the most prominent in your chosen field.

The Department of Education oversees all U.S. educational policy, including financial aid, which is allocated to students attending accredited colleges. Visit the databases at the Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation to find the best online accredited colleges.

Who is the Ideal Student for an Online Program?

The best online accredited colleges provide especially flexible study options for distance students. While completing a degree from home time might be appealing to a variety of students, those who stand to benefit the most from an online education include caretakers, full-time workers, parents, and military personnel, just to name a few. Through an online program, these students can accommodate both a convenient study schedule and a full-time job or other personal obligation. In addition to flexibility, target groups for online education may be eligible for additional perks specific to their needs. For example, working parents can potentially save on childcare costs, and military personnel can learn a new skill or pursue a new field by skipping the commute and completing their degree from a distance.

Why Use Our Online College and University Rankings

With the rise in popularity of online degree programs, the number of online colleges and universities has exploded in recent years. Students seeking an online degree now have an unprecedented variety of online schools and degree programs to choose from. However, the quality of these online schools and degree programs can vary widely. Some are high-quality accredited institutions of higher education, whereas the quality is called into question at others, deemed worthless diploma mills looking to exploit people’s desire for affordable education. Even more fall somewhere in between.

That’s why we’ve put together this list of the best online colleges and universities for 2017. We’ve done extensive research to determine which of the top online schools offer students the highest quality, most reputable online degrees for their money so you don’t have to. Unfortunately, many existing online college and university rankings are really nothing more than paid advertisements for certain schools and make no attempt at providing an objective, data-driven analysis. On the contrary, we strive to provide the most authoritative, objective, comprehensive, and transparent analysis of the top online colleges and universities available, so you can be confident in making one of the most important decisions of your life: where to invest in your education.

How to Use our Online College and University Rankings

That said, only you can make the decision about which online college or university is best for you. Every student is different. Our list of the top online colleges and universities for 2017 is offered as a jumping-off point, a place to start your personal journey towards choosing the online degree program that is right for your own unique needs and circumstances.

How We Calculated Our Online College and University Rankings

Data was gathered from objective, independent sources like The National Center for Education Statistics, as well as from school websites and direct conversations with school representatives.


To determine the best online colleges, we looked at the most important factors prospective students, mainly common predictors of future success and a school’s commitment to online programs. This boils down to admissions rate, student loan default rate, retention rate, graduation rate, and the percent of students enrolled in online classes. All data points are taken from information provided by colleges and universities to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Each factor is weighted evenly in order to give an objective view and determine the 15 best online colleges. To calculate our rankings, we looked at a school’s ranking when organized by a single factor, and then averaged each category’s ranking to find an overall score: Admissions Rate (20%) + Default Rate (20%) + Retention Rate (20%) + Graduation Rate (20%) + Percent of Students Enrolled in Online Classes (20%) = Final score.

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