2021 Best Online Colleges & Degrees

By the OnlineU team | Updated 11/25/2020

Our 2020-2021 rankings are the first of their kind to use student salary and debt data from the government to highlight the best accredited online colleges. For each online degree, we calculated a 10-year return on investment using these program-specific outcomes data. Schools with ROIs in the highest percentiles were ranked on our lists. While the data reflect student experiences in all learning formats, program data were only used for schools offering online degrees in the subject. With coronavirus continuing to impact higher education programs across the country, choosing a college with a high return on investment is even more important. For additional information on what changes to expect, we've created COVID-19 FAQs and Resources.

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  • Salary and debt data are program-specific
  • Tuition rates and degree offerings are manually researched and online-specific
  • School websites and government databases are the primary data sources
  • All schools are accredited and partner schools are not given preferential treatment
  • Read our full methodology

Bachelor's | Master's | By State

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Best Online Bachelor's Degrees

RankSchool Annual Tuition ROI Score
# 1 #1 University of Virginia $14,640 98.9%
# 2 #2 Northeastern University $16,230 97.6%
# 3 #3 Excelsior College $15,300 96.9%
# 4 #4 Capella University $9,600 94.8%
# 5 #5 SUNY Empire State College $10,943 94.7%
# 6 #6 University of Alaska Anchorage $25,440 94.3%
# 7 #7 Roger Williams University $12,990 92.9%
# 8 #8 Thomas Edison State University $9,278 92.1%
# 9 #9 Rider University $45,120 89.9%
# 10 #10 Colorado State University Global $10,500 89.0%

Most Popular Majors for Bachelor's Degrees

Best Online Master's Degrees

RankSchool Annual Tuition ROI Score
# 1 #1 Fordham University $47,788 97.0%
# 2 #2 University of California - Berkeley $26,817 96.9%
# 3 #3 Northwestern University $19,373 90.7%
# 4 #4 Columbia University in the City of New York $34,915 85.2%
# 5 #5 Johns Hopkins University $28,505 84.9%
# 6 #6 California State University-Northridge $13,950 84.1%
# 7 #7 George Mason University $13,305 83.1%
# 8 #8 St. John's University $22,185 81.4%
# 9 #9 University of Maryland - College Park $13,920 81.2%
# 10 #10 Seton Hall University $20,576 80.2%

Most Popular Master's Programs

Best Online Colleges by State

Highlighted Top Online Colleges

University of Massachusetts - Amherst

The University of Massachusetts (UM) - Amherst has been consecutively ranked in our top 25 best value lists for online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs from 2017 to 2020. Prospective students can select from many online programs at all levels, including 35 bachelor’s degrees and 21 master’s degrees. Bachelor’s degrees typically require 120 credits that can be completed in two to four years of full-time study. Online master’s programs require between 33 and 45 credits. It takes most graduate students between two semesters and four years to complete their programs. Students have the option to study part-time or full-time.

Undergraduate and graduate online coursework is asynchronous and delivered through the Blackboard learning management system. A generous credit transfer policy lets students receive credit for prior learning and experience, including examinations, professional or military training, and previous college coursework. UM Amherst is recognized for its business school, the Isenberg School of Management. Isenberg offers online degrees in business administration and management. It also offers multiple career preparation resources such as job and internship platforms, interview and job guidance, peer assistance, and virtual career coaching opportunities.

Admission requirements at this nonprofit college will vary by program. Generally, students must submit an online application with a fee and official transcripts. Undergraduate students must have completed at least 27 prior college credits with a minimum GPA of 2.7. Graduate students may also need to submit a personal statement, resume, and two letters of recommendation. Online students have access to many resources, including the Virtual Student Life platform. This platform allows students to participate in online clubs and engage with peers, as well as access mental health and career services, tutoring, technical support, and academic advising.

Liberty University

Liberty University has been consistently featured on many of our program rankings. Their bachelor’s degrees in social work, law, and music and master’s degrees in human services and forensic psychology were all featured in our top five best program rankings of 2020. The faith-based institution offers over 100 online bachelor's degrees and 200 online master’s degree programs. On average, students take 3.5 years to complete a 120-credit bachelor’s degree and 1.5 years to complete a 35-credit master’s degree.

Online courses are hosted on Blackboard and are asynchronous. Distance education students can log into their classes at any time but must meet assignment and project deadlines. Credit transfer policies allow students to transfer up to 75% of the bachelor’s degree program and up to 50% of the master’s degree program. Liberty also offers payment plans and tuition discounts for first-responders, military, small businesses, and transfer students. A team of academic advisors, student advocates, and supplemental instruction tutors can answer questions and support students throughout their programs.

To apply, undergraduate and graduate students must fill out an online application and send official transcripts. Application requirements will vary by program. Resources available to enrolled students include financial services, an IT helpdesk, a writing center, library services, student forums, and networking platforms.

Arizona State University

Many of Arizona State University’s online bachelor’s and master’s degrees have been featured in our best online program rankings. These include the top-ranked online bachelor's degrees in anthropology, philosophy, web development, and software engineering. ASU offers over 50 online bachelor degrees and nearly 100 online master’s degrees. Classes follow an accelerated 7.5-week format. To earn a bachelor’s degree, students must complete 120 credits. Master’s degree programs generally require 30 to 33 credits and can be completed in one year.

The majority of online coursework is asynchronous and accessible through Canvas, ideal for students with busy schedules. Classes emphasize discussion and working with peers. ASU offers comprehensive tutoring to serve online students’ educational needs in writing and engineering, and specific tutoring groups for graduate students in other online subjects. Budget planning and institutional scholarships are available to help students with the cost of tuition. According to ASU's Career and Professional Development Services department, nearly 90% of ASU graduates are employed within six months of graduation. World-renowned faculty have authored journal publications, spoken at conferences, and won prestigious awards in their respective fields.

Incoming first-year students must complete an online application and submit a fee, along with an official high school transcript or the equivalent. They should also meet one of the following requirements: be in the top 25% of their high school graduating class; have a 3.0 GPA; or meet a minimum ACT or SAT score. Prospective graduate students must have a bachelor’s degree with a minimum 3.0 GPA and include letters of recommendation, GMAT/GRE scores, a resume, responses to short-answer questions, references, and a personal statement. Enrolled online students can benefit from 24/7 counseling services, time management coaching, student wellness services, success coaches, and technical support.

University of Maryland Global Campus

The University of Maryland Global Campus has ranked over 20 times on our lists of best online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Top programs include their undergraduate degrees in graphic design, computer science, and law and graduate degrees in cybersecurity and information technology. Typically, online bachelor’s programs require the completion of 120 credits, and master’s degrees require 36-42 credits. Class schedules are flexible, so students can choose to take one class at a time. The program’s duration will vary depending on how many courses are taken in each eight-week or semester session.

Asynchronous online coursework is available through the Learning Experience Online (LEO) platform. Course activities emphasize collaborative online learning and include discussion forums and group projects. Distance learning students may be able to participate in hybrid classes in more than 20 locations in the United States. UMGC offers fast paths to credit, which gives students the ability to receive transfer credit from exams, prior learning, and previous training from military, industry, or technical experience. UMGC also has partnerships with community colleges nationwide to make the credit transfer process easier for students. The university is known for its expertise in handling tuition assistance and veterans benefits. UMGC also helps cut tuition and related expenses by providing electronic textbooks at no charge to students and offering more than 100 institutional scholarships.

Admission requirements for UMGC do not include SAT, ACT, or GRE/GMAT exam scores. Undergraduate program applicants should submit an online application and official high school transcripts or equivalent. Prospective graduate students should view the requirements for specific master's degree programs, which generally require a completed bachelor’s degree, submission of official transcripts, and an online application. Enrolled students have access to various support services, such as advising, career planning, mentoring programs, library resources, and military and veteran support.

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University’s master’s degree programs have been consistently featured in our best program lists. With over 30 online master’s degrees available, programs in communications, finance, organizational leadership, and project management have ranked in either first or second place. The majority of the graduate programs are 36 credits and offered on a part-time and full-time basis. Students can typically complete a master’s degree in two years.

Online coursework features both real-time synchronous lessons and asynchronous activities. Online classes utilize Zoom and Blackboard to deliver lectures and course materials. Courses are designed to be highly interactive, with a focus on project-based learning. Johns Hopkins offers qualified students several ways to finance their education through scholarships, loans, and payment plans. The Career Development Office provides students with tools and resources like career coaching sessions and internship and job postings through the Handshake platform. According to the Johns Hopkins website, 93.2% of MBA students accepted a job offer within three months of graduation.

To apply, prospective graduate students must have earned a bachelor’s degree and complete an online application. Students may also need to include a statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, a resume, and official transcripts. Application requirements vary by program, so students should check with their program of interest before applying. Enrolled students have access to digital library resources, academic advising, and support services.

Georgia Institute of Technology

Master’s degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) have been ranked in seven of our best programs lists. Their Master of Science in Computer Engineering program was listed on our best online rankings list for a master's in computer engineering. In total, Georgia Tech offers over 25 online graduate programs. On average, a master’s degree requires 30 credits, but the time it takes to complete will vary by program. Students who work full-time can typically complete two courses per semester.

Online courses are hosted on the Canvas learning management platform. Classes are asynchronous, allowing students with busy schedules to view pre-recorded lectures and access class materials when convenient. Students can expect to watch videos, participate in discussion boards, and submit assignments, papers, and projects by stated deadlines. Georgia Tech offers options to help offset the cost of education through scholarships and financial aid opportunities. Students can elect to complete a global research and internship program or a co-op, a five-year program where students complete one year of full-time work in their desired field. Career development advisors can guide online students during their job search or experiential learning programs.

While specific requirements may vary by graduate degree program, prospective students should complete an application and submit official undergraduate transcripts. Additional documentation may include three letters of recommendation, GRE/GMAT scores, a personal statement, and a resume. Once accepted, online graduate students have access to the same resources as on-campus students, including academic advising and support services.

Southern New Hampshire University Online

Southern New Hampshire University Online (SNHU) was ranked 30 times in our 2020 best online bachelor’s and master’s degree program lists. The programs featured in the top three spots on our 2020 rankings were bachelor’s degrees in graphic design, substance abuse counseling, and child development. Students can choose from over 200 online degree and certificate programs at SNHU. Bachelor’s degrees require 120 credits and typically take four years to complete. Master’s degrees can be completed in as little as 15 months. However, the time it takes to graduate will vary depending on how many credits are transferred and whether students take a full-time or part-time course load.

Online classes at SNHU are asynchronous. Students can access course material at any time but must submit assignments by weekly deadlines. Tuition is affordable because SNHU froze the cost per credit hour at the 2012 rate. Students can also reduce the cost of their degree by transferring up to 90 credits into their bachelor’s program. Online learners have access to Career Services, which offers one-on-one career counseling, resources, and an employment database.

All prospective students must submit an online application and transcript release form, and speak to an SNHU counselor. Graduate applicants must have a minimum 2.75 GPA for undergraduate coursework or a 2.0 GPA for provisional acceptance. They may need to submit additional documentation depending on their program of choice. There are no SAT/ACT or GRE/GMAT requirements. Enrolled students have access to various services for their educational needs, including the writing center, tutoring, academic advising, technical support, online library resources, and an online accessibility center.

Understanding Our Online College Rankings

At OnlineU, we believe in bringing transparent, accessible, and accurate data to students in their pursuit of an online education. With so much information out there and a variety of programs to choose from, OnlineU aims to add clarity to the process. We’ve published 2021 rankings for Best Online Colleges at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree levels to help students choose which online degree program is the best fit for them. Read on for information about our ranking factors, including how we collect information about debt, salary, and tuition and why we believe these factors are important.

How We Calculate Return on Investment

OnlineU’s 2021 online college rankings use return on investment (ROI) as a key ranking factor, with the exception of our doctoral rankings. Return on investment refers to how much someone will gain from their education, considering the costs and benefits. Our ROI calculations take debt into account because we know how long-lasting student debt can be, and how much it can impact students’ lives after graduation. According to Forbes, almost 45 million people in the U.S. are currently in debt from student loans. With this in mind, online students should have the tools to predict how much their education will cost, and can pair this with factors like expected salary for a full picture of what their financial obligations may be after earning a college degree.

How We Determine Debt

We determine debt using data from College Scorecard, a trusted source for information from the U.S. Department of Education. We chose College Scorecard because they have the largest database of program-specific student salaries and debt figures by school. In fact, we were the first company to use program-level data in our rankings. College Scorecard obtains their data about schools and programs primarily through IPEDS, a database through the National Center for Education Statistics which sends out surveys to post-secondary schools. All schools that use federal financial aid and give this aid to students under Title IV must fill out the IPEDS surveys. For our rankings, the average debt for graduates was assumed to be paid over 10 years with the current interest rate for federal loans.

How We Collect, Calculate, and Standardize Tuitions For Online Schools

For students who do not attend their first-choice school, cost of attendance is a leading factor, according to Inside HigherEd. While there are financial aid options and scholarships that can help with the cost of online education, having transparent data on tuition rates is key in choosing a program that fits a student’s needs and circumstances. While tuition is not one of the factors that goes into our school ranking lists, we include tuition rates on our lists to help students make informed decisions about affordability. We obtain tuition data from official school websites and use tuition rates for full-time online students. To standardize tuition across schools, we use rates for out-of-state students, unless in-state tuition is offered to all online students. This way we’re not underreporting costs by using the lowest online tuition rates.

In our calculations, we take out additional fees that could blur the picture. The only additional fees included in tuition numbers on our site are those for distance learning and costs specific to a program. We look for tuitions at the specific degree level, so if you are looking at a master’s program for a certain school, the tuition rates will be for that program rather than for a bachelor’s or associate degree. If the level is not specified, students can assume the bachelor’s level tuition was used. Because there are so many factors that go into tuition, site users can hover over the tuition numbers in our rankings lists for specific information on how rates were collected for any given school.

Tuition vs. Debt: What’s More Important for Students to Consider When Pursuing an Online Degree?

While tuition and debt are connected, each may be more important for students to consider depending on their circumstances and career goals. Tuition is more important to consider when current financial circumstances make it hard for a student to attend school. If students take out loans to help with tuition, that can lead to more student debt. However, if a student’s field leads to a high-paying career, debt may not be as much of a concern, as they will likely have an easier time paying off loans than someone in a lower-paying field. Therefore, students should take return on investment into account. If the ROI for a program is low, students will have a harder time paying off debt. If the ROI is high, students may not need to worry as much about debt.

Many students pursue online degrees to lower the cost of their education. Online programs are typically more affordable than enrolling on campus, and average tuition rates for online degrees have decreased in recent years as in-person rates continue to rise. Students should be aware of financial aid and scholarship options that can help with tuition and lower their student loan debt down the line. Our parent company, Optimal, funds multiple scholarships each year to help students pursue higher education.

Why Salary is a Key Ranking Factor

Our rankings use salary as a key ranking factor and we include salary data at specific degree levels, which is unique in the college ranking space. We compare median alumni salaries and average student debt to determine the ROI score for each school or program. Taking salary into account allows students to compare tuition rates and average student debt with how much they can expect to make in the future. We know students who attend college earn more money on average. According to Indeed, college graduates make an average of $50,000 per year. Business Insider reveals that graduates with bachelor’s degrees earn more than people without them in every state. However, there are major differences in salaries across fields and sector (public, private, nonprofit), and providing school and program-level data allows students to plan for their future with a more complete picture.

Transparent data about the future salary a student can expect to earn may help students in their school search. This information allows students to make informed choices about enrollment in a field of study or particular school. While salary may not be the primary motivator for every person or in every field, it is helpful for students to predict the financial impact of their education.

To calculate salary data, we use information from College Scorecard to determine the median salaries for graduates one year after completing a given online program. Then, in order to ensure students have an accurate understanding of their return on investment over time, our rankings take into account projected salary growth. We use PayScale’s research on salary growth, which finds that professionals can expect an approximate 29.5% increase in their salary after five years in a given career.

Frequently Asked Questions About College Rankings

Are college rankings reliable?

It's understandable for students to wonder whether school rankings are reliable. At OnlineU, we believe that transparency is critical when creating useful rankings for students. The goal of our rankings is to bring clarity to the college decision process by providing accessible and accurate information to help students make informed choices. In fact, our work has been recognized by Forbes, College Confidential, and Business Insider as trusted within the higher education space.

We only include accredited schools in our ranking lists, and we also feature alumni salaries. Students should feel confident that they can finish their education with an understanding of what their expected salary and debt will look like. Our methodology is available above every rankings list, and detailed information about ranking factors can be found by hovering over columns in our rankings lists.

While we are in an advertising relationship with over 200 colleges in order to provide accurate, up-to-date information about program offerings, accreditation, and tuition, the appearance of a school listing on this website should not be interpreted as an endorsement of the school by this site. Our rankings lists are created without consideration of these advertising relationships, and they do not affect our evaluation of a school or program.

Why are college rankings important?

Our parent company, Optimal, saw a critical need for transparent data in the college decision-making process. Students considering distance education options did not have access to the hard numbers necessary to make informed choices about their education. That’s where the idea for OnlineU was born. When applying to college, it can be difficult to understand what the actual cost of an education will be and how to predict return on investment. Our rankings provide a single place where students can find accurate information about tuition, debt, and alumni salaries. Further, our site provides student reviews and recommendation rates, because we believe it is helpful to hear from previous college students about their experiences. College rankings help people access quality and affordable education options.

What are college rankings based on?

At OnlineU, our newly released 2020-2021 rankings are based on tuition and return on investment (ROI). We collect tuitions from official school websites and base them on what a full-time student in a particular online degree program would expect to pay. Our ROI data is based on debt and salary. In fact, not many ranking sites use salary as a ranking factor. At OnlineU, we believe salary data is crucial in helping students understand the investment they are making toward their futures. Our salary and student loan debt information was gathered from College Scorecard.

We also have ranking lists based on different factors. Our military-friendly list, for example, is ranked by tuition, but also takes into account factors like GI Bill benefits and support networks for students who are military-affiliated. Our popular schools list includes information about tuition and recommendation rates from student reviews.

Best Online Colleges Near You

Local colleges provide a lot of great benefits for online students including discounted tuition, relationships with local employers, and an accessible campus where students can talk to school representatives in person if needed.