2021 Best Online Colleges & Degrees

By the OnlineU team | Updated 11/29/2021

Online degree programs are increasingly popular options for students seeking higher education. Virtual learning can offer a flexible way to study and may potentially lead to similar career outcomes as an in-person degree.

Our 2021-2022 rankings use student salary and debt data from the government to determine the best online colleges. For each online degree, we calculated a 10-year return on investment using these program-specific outcomes data. Schools with the highest ROI scores ranked on our lists of the best colleges for online degrees. While the data reflects student experiences in all learning formats, program data was only used for schools offering online degrees in the subject.

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ABOUT OUR RANKINGS:

  • 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

POPULAR RANKINGS: Associate | Bachelor's | Master's | Doctoral | 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.


Overview of Online Colleges

The first colleges to offer an online education were private for-profit schools, but other institutions soon caught up. Prospective college students can now choose from online degree programs offered by every category and type of college: private, public, two-year, four-year, nonprofit, or for-profit. These programs range from certificates and associate degrees all the way to doctoral and professional degrees.

But what is the online learning experience? Online students log in to a virtual learning platform, such as Blackboard or Canvas, to view lectures, access readings and materials, post in discussion forums, and submit assignments. Most online courses are asynchronous, meaning that faculty record their lectures and there are no set times when students are required to be online. Some courses may be synchronous or feature some synchronous elements that require students to be present in video meetings at specified times.



Prospective college students can now choose from online degree programs offered by every category and type of college: private, public, two-year, four-year, nonprofit, or for-profit.

People choose an online college degree for many reasons, including affordability, potentially shortened timelines to graduation, and convenience. These factors have led to a surge in enrollment in distance education since 2000, to the point where 79% of colleges offer at least some online courses.

How Much Do Online Colleges Cost?

We've looked at tuition rates from hundreds of schools to determine what it will cost to pursue a degree online. We found the following median annual tuition rates for online degrees.

Degree Cost
Associate $8,300
Bachelor's $13,919
Master's $14,278
Doctoral $14,925

Online degree programs can sometimes be more affordable than their campus counterparts. Private schools usually charge the same or lower tuition rate to online students, and many public schools charge the in-state tuition rate to distance learners regardless of where they live. The $13,919 median tuition rate for an online bachelor's compares favorably to the average cost of tuition and fees for private and out-of-state public bachelor's degrees, according to the National Center for Education statistics. The NCES uses data for both on-campus and online schools and can give a sense of the overall cost of a college education.

Tuition is the largest portion of a degree's cost, but students also need to pay assorted fees that vary by school and program. Though distance learners usually pay a technology fee each term, schools often exempt them from fees for upkeep of campus facilities. In addition, online students don't need to pay room and board or transportation costs to commute, which can be significant expenses.

Although cost is an important factor in education, applicants should understand that every degree is an investment. Besides cost, a key consideration is the return on investment provided by a particular program: Will the money and time spent on the degree lead to salary and job security benefits in the future? How well does the degree set alumni up for success? To help answer these questions, OnlineU ranks schools and degree programs by ROI.

Financial Aid for Online Students

In most cases, online learners can access the same financial aid opportunities as on-campus students, but make sure to check each opportunity for restrictions such as in-state residency or program accreditation requirements. Aid can come from federal and state governments, colleges, and private organizations such as foundations or non-profits.

The best forms of financial aid are grants, scholarships, and work-study programs, which don't need to be repaid. Ideally, students should apply for as much of this funding as possible. A student loan — such as a low-interest government option — can bridge the remaining gap.

The financial aid process begins by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form determines your eligibility for federal assistance, but states and colleges also use it. Some states have special forms for applicants with undocumented immigration status — these students generally can't qualify for federal aid but can pursue state and private funding.

The scholarship landscape is wide and diverse, and students should pursue opportunities specific to their field of study. Some schools also offer scholarships specifically for online learners at the school. Below, we've included a few examples of scholarships that are available to online students but not attached to a specific college.

The Gates Scholarship

Each year, 300 students from underrepresented backgrounds earn awards equal to the full cost of tuition, fees, and books for a bachelor's degree. Applicants must be high school students who demonstrate financial need, a strong academic record, and personal leadership ability in extracurricular activities.

Optimal Online Degree Scholarship

One of Optimal's quarterly scholarships is a need-based award of $2,000 for an online student. Applicants can study any major and attend any accredited online program. They must answer four reflective questions, including one about their choice to study online instead of in person.

Study.com Undergraduate Distance Learning Degrees Academic Scholarship

Test-prep site Study.com awards $500 to one associate or bachelor's degree student per year. Applicants must be enrolled in an online program in any major. This is a merit-based scholarship based on academic performance and a record of extracurricular activities.

Accreditation

Before applying to any online degree program, prospective students should ensure that it's accredited.


Accreditation indicates that an independent review organization has verified a school's quality, from its faculty and curricula to its student services. Only accredited institutions are allowed to offer federal financial aid to their students.


Colleges as a whole may earn national or regional accreditation. National accrediting bodies review professional and trade schools. Regional accreditors focus on academic institutions and hold them to higher standards than national accreditors do. Because of this distinction, regionally accredited colleges only accept transfer credits from other regionally accredited institutions. Applicants can search a U.S. Department of Education database for nationally accredited schools and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation for regionally accredited colleges.

Many fields of study also feature recognized program accreditors that certify the quality of individual degrees. Programmatic accreditation indicates that a degree has a special stamp of approval from a professional group in a student's intended field. It's important to note a few facts about programmatic accreditation:

  • In some professions, it may be necessary to earn a programmatically accredited degree to become licensed or certified. For example, all states will only license social workers who graduate with a degree accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
  • Some programmatic accreditors only review certain levels, such as bachelor's or doctoral degrees.
  • Some program accreditors only review on-campus programs. For example, the American Psychological Association only accredits in-person doctoral degrees in psychology.

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.