2021 Best Online Bachelor's Degrees
Online Colleges with the Highest Return on Investment
Earning a bachelor's degree has strong positive effects on earning potential and employment prospects, but it can be difficult to make an informed decision about where to apply. This is especially true now that more colleges offer online bachelor's degrees. Our ranking list of top online colleges is the first to highlight the online bachelor's degrees with the best return on investment (ROI) using student salary and debt data from the government.
To rank these schools, we first calculated a 10-year ROI for each online bachelor's degree program, then calculated the percentile by comparing the ROI against the average for comparable programs. Schools were then ranked by their average ROI percentile. We also required that each school offer online bachelor's degrees in at least three different subject areas. View our methodology for more details. We've also published an appendix that lists all of the program salaries and debt figures for these ranked schools.
The fields that are most commonly represented on this list are business, psychology, nursing, and computer and information science. You can view the complete list below, along with information about earning a degree online, accreditation, how much an online bachelor's degree will cost, and whether enrolling in a program will be worth it.
Those interested in earning an online bachelor's degree will find many options on our best colleges list. We also offer the following comprehensive list of accredited online bachelor’s degrees, which covers 463 schools and 5,184 programs. Prospective students will find information about their desired field and other popular areas of study, including the number of online schools and programs in each field. Average salaries for each program were calculated using earnings in the first year after graduation sourced from the 2020 release of the Department of Education's College Scorecard.
|a||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Art & Design||20||55||$27,350||NASAD|
|b||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Business||370||1,871||$46,030||AACSB ACBSP IACBE|
|c||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Construction Management||9||9||$65,640||ACCE ATMAE|
|d||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Data Science||28||42||Not reported||Institutional|
|e||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Early Childhood Education||74||124||$35,830||CAEP MACTE NAEYC NCATE|
|Education||162||470||$34,880||CAEP CEA MACTE NCATE|
|Elementary Education||49||79||$35,830||CAEP MACTE NCATE TEAC|
|f||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|g||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Geographic Information Systems||14||29||$36,780||Institutional|
|h||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Holistic Medicine||3||4||$27,960||ACAOM CNME|
|Human Resources||126||178||$46,850||AACSB ACBSP|
|i||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Interior Design||1||1||$45,400||CIDA NASAD|
|j||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|l||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Law||39||54||Not reported||ABA ABA|
|m||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Marriage & Family Therapy||18||22||$33,070||AAMFT COAMFTE|
|Medical Office Administration||1||1||$39,540||ABHES|
|n||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Nursing||320||397||$67,810||AANA ACEN ACEN ACME CCNE|
|o||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|p||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Project Management||40||69||$45,900||AACSB PMI-GAC|
|r||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|RN to BSN||274||295||Not reported||ACEN|
|s||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Secondary Education||21||63||$35,830||CAEP NCATE TEAC|
|Special Education||28||44||$38,270||CAA CAEP|
|Substance Abuse Counseling||23||33||$33,070||CACREP|
|Supply Chain Management||61||102||$45,900||Institutional|
|t||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Teaching||43||88||$36,120||CAEP MACTE NCATE TEAC|
|v||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
|Veterinary Technician||2||4||$31,970||AVMA COE|
|Video Game Design||16||23||$35,550||Institutional|
|w||Online Schools||Programs||Alumni Salary||Accreditation|
Best Online Colleges Highlights
Overview of Online Bachelor's Degrees
Can You Earn a Bachelor's Degree Online?
Yes, you can earn a bachelor's degree completely online. Public and private nonprofit schools started offering virtual courses in the late 1990s, but many people associated online learning with for-profit colleges for years. Today, all varieties of nonprofit and for-profit colleges provide accredited online degree options for undergraduate students.
Students might enroll in hybrid programs in which some of their courses are virtual and others are online. Others may enroll in exclusively online programs. The extent to which a degree can be completed entirely online depends on the particular program. Some majors, such as nursing, often feature in-person requirements. These can include internships in the student's local community, on-campus orientations or intensive sessions with a student's cohort, or lab hours at a college or other professional laboratory for science students. Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees typically require more than 100 clinical hours at a location near the student's home.
Today, all varieties of nonprofit and for-profit colleges provide accredited online degree options for undergraduate students.
Applying to an Online Bachelor's Program
The application requirements for an online bachelor's program are usually identical to the requirements for an on-campus program. In general, applicants must provide:
- Official high school transcripts or their equivalent showing at least a 2.0 GPA
- SAT or ACT scores
- Letters of recommendation from teachers, counselors, coaches, or others
- An entrance essay, usually personal and reflective
- Official transcripts from postsecondary colleges (transfer students only)
Some online schools provide accommodations to students who do not meet the minimum GPA requirements, such as probationary admission or the opportunity to give supplemental information to add context.
The qualifications are a bit different for applicants to an online degree completion program. These degrees are designed for adult students who have started but not completed a four-year degree, and they offer a faster and less expensive way for students to finish without starting over again. Applicants must have earned a minimum number of academic credits from previous institutions, usually between 50 and 60, or else substantial career or military experience.
How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Bachelor's Degree?
Online bachelor's degrees are typically designed to take four years of full-time study to complete, though many students take more time to finish. However, some online colleges offer several ways for students to fast-track their bachelor's degree. Accelerated programs feature shorter terms that run year-round to allow students to take more courses each year. Students may be able to shave a year off the time needed to graduate.
Check a school's credit transfer policy for another way to reduce the time spent earning your degree. Several schools offer credit for prior learning assessments that award academic credit to students with previous professional or military experience. Additionally, students can often demonstrate mastery in a subject by completing a portfolio or taking CLEP exams for credit that can be applied toward their degree.
What to Expect From an Online Bachelor's Degree
Online bachelor's degree programs differ by institution and subject, but there are some general features that you're likely to find in many of them.
Asynchronous coursework. Online courses usually feature recorded lectures and discussion boards where a student can post at any time during the week. Live lectures or set class meetings are less common, but weekly assignments will typically have set due dates.
A culminating experience. Degree programs often lead to a final experience that reinforces concepts from previous courses. In many programs this is a capstone course in which students complete a comprehensive research project or exam. In others, it's a supervised internship or other subject-appropriate field experience (such as nursing clinicals at a health care facility).
Virtual support. Completing a degree requires support and resources. A good college demonstrates its care for students by providing academic advisors, tutoring and writing support, open access to online library resources, and nonacademic services such as counseling and career advising.
Will I Be Able to Work While Earning My Online Bachelor's Degree?
Flexibility is one of the main draws of completing your education online. According to a 2019 report on online college students, 51% of undergraduate students worked full time and 21% worked part-time. Most online bachelor's degree courses are delivered asynchronously to accommodate students' busy schedules. Asynchronous courses offer the most flexibility since students can view pre-recorded lectures and complete online coursework when it's convenient for them. In contrast, synchronous classes require students to log in at set times during the week.
Which Accreditation Is Best For Online Degree Programs?
When researching degree programs, consider schools with regional accreditation first. Regional accreditation is considered the most prestigious because it's based on the most rigorous academic standards; national accreditation tends to focus on technical and trade schools. Attending a regionally accredited school will allow you to:
- Apply for federal financial aid
- Transfer credits to another regionally accredited college in the future
The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) is a national accreditor that certifies the quality of schools with online programs, so DEAC accreditation is another factor to consider. Finally, some major fields feature professional organizations that accredit individual programs, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) for engineering.
Is an Online Bachelor's Degree Legitimate?
Accredited online bachelor's degrees are legitimate. If a recognized agency has certified the quality of a school's online programs, then the credential is just as meaningful as a diploma earned through in-person learning. There are fraudulent accrediting agencies that give a stamp of approval to low-quality online colleges, so always check that all accreditors mentioned on a college's website are in the DAPIP or CHEA databases.
What Is the Easiest Degree to Get Online?
This question can't be answered in absolutes, because each person's strengths, weaknesses, and interests are different — research shows that students perform better in their favorite subjects. However, there are important factors beyond interest that can make a degree easier for an individual to obtain, including:
- Admissions requirements. More exclusive colleges may have difficult programs and faculty who expect a higher level of performance.
- Program length. You may stay motivated if you're on track to finish quickly.
- Student support. Some schools or departments may provide better academic services such as tutoring or writing help.
- Culminating projects or experiences. You may be better at writing long research papers than learning skills on the job at an internship, or vice versa.
It can be difficult to compare these factors using college's promotional materials and web pages alone. For less biased information, you can read reviews from real students and alumni of specific programs.
Cost of an Online Bachelor's Degree
Although there is wide variation between the most and least expensive choices, the average annual tuition for an online bachelor's degree is $14,993 according to data we've collected from school websites. In general, private colleges charge more than public colleges:
- Average yearly tuition at a public school: $14,499
- Average yearly tuition at a private school: $15,411
Tuition is the biggest portion of any degree's expense, but it's not the only cost associated with higher education. Schools charge fees that vary by institution. Many online students pay technology fees each term, and there are fees for applying to a college in the first place and for covering the cost of graduation in the final semester. Online students need reliable high-speed internet access, books or electronic books, and sometimes specific software.
You may want to consider future earnings in addition to the upfront costs of a degree. Our ROI scores show that the most expensive programs aren't necessarily the best investments in terms of future earning potential.
The average annual tuition for an online bachelor's degree is $14,993 according to data we've collected from school websites.
Financial Aid for Online Students
Financial aid can help online college students cover some or all of their education costs. The first step in the process is to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines how much federal aid a student qualifies for. Federal aid includes gift aid that doesn't need to be repaid: grants based on financial need, scholarships based on merit or family background, and work-study programs that provide tuition waivers for students. The government also offers loans at interest rates that are generally more favorable than loans from private sources.
Most states and colleges also use the FAFSA to determine aid eligibility. They may offer grants and scholarships, and some states have work-study options similar to the federal program. According to a report by Sallie Mae, 71% of all undergraduates or their families completed a FAFSA for 2019-2020, and 73% received at least some scholarship or grant money. In the same year, the average family covered about 42% of total college costs using a combination of gift aid and borrowing.
Online students apply for financial aid in the same way as campus students and are eligible for most of the same funding. Some private scholarships endowed by an institution's alumni may only apply to campus students, so check with a school's financial aid office before applying.
Salary Outcomes for Online Bachelor's Graduates
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that earning a bachelor's degree leads to higher earnings and a lower chance of unemployment over the course of an individual's career. Bachelor's graduates earn a median $500 more each week than high school graduates and about $360 more than those with an associate degree. These positive salary and employment prospects improve with each degree a student attains. Alumni of terminal doctoral and professional degree programs earn a median $600 more each week than bachelor's graduates and experience less unemployment.
Bachelor's degrees in general lead to higher wages, but the field of study can also make a difference in future earnings. BLS lists chief executive as the top job requiring a bachelor's degree for entry, and marketing and financial managers are also high earners. Other well-paying jobs include computer and information systems manager and engineer or engineering manager. To start down these career paths, you may want to study:
- Business, marketing, or finance
- Computer science
- Engineering (especially petroleum or nuclear)
Note that reaching the top of these fields requires years, and usually decades, of work experience, but a bachelor's degree is a good place to start.
Is an Online Bachelor's Degree Worth It?
Study after study has shown the benefits of higher education for employment and earning potential, but you may be wondering specifically whether an online degree is worth the cost and effort. Though this is a subjective measure that will vary by individual, the answer is usually yes: Online degrees can confer the same benefits as on-campus degrees, and they may be more accessible and flexible than on-campus programs. Online students can access their classrooms from anywhere with an internet connection and complete assignments when it's convenient for them. We dive into further detail about why the savings may be worth it, what online learning means for employment, and some potential downsides of online learning that you should keep in mind.