What Are the Largest Online Colleges?
Even before the pandemic turned many of us into distance learners and distance workers, online education was a growing business. In the pre-pandemic United States of 2019 there were over 7.3 million postsecondary distance learners, according to Department of Education data. Our past studies of popular online colleges have already shown that alumni of some of these online schools are earning a higher salary than many campus-based institutions, including Ivy League schools in some cases.
Not only are they earning competitive salaries, but they are finding work with reputable employers. The military and government are significant employers of online graduates for graduates of fields such as healthcare, computer systems, business, and criminal justice.
To get a better understanding of popular online colleges, we wanted to look into which universities were the largest based on their online-specific enrollment. There are benefits to going to a large online school as opposed to, for example, taking online classes at a local community college. A school that knows a large portion of its students rely on distance education is likely to be more inclined to invest in top-notch IT infrastructure and online learning platforms. Similarly, professors at online schools are often better set up for teaching in online learning environments. At a school with significant online enrollment, the obvious priority is putting time and resources into preparing for the online classes.
Online schooling is attractive to those who cannot commit to a full-time, on-campus experience, but many still question the utility of online degree programs. So to get a clearer, outcomes-based look at how a graduate’s earnings by major compare to other schools nationally, we have created Salary Score. We give each program that a school offers an individual Salary Score by comparing the median starting salary of graduates to other graduates from the same program nationally.
A score above 50 suggests above-average salaries compared to their program peers from other schools, while a Salary Score below 50 shows an expected salary that is below the national average. We have included school-wide Salary Scores for each school’s associates degree, bachelors degree, or both. This provides another point of comparison for potential students.
25 Largest Schools by Undergraduate Online Enrollment
Ten Largest Online Schools By Enrollment
Western Governor’s University
WGU consistently ranks as one of the largest online colleges and is a relative dinosaur for online learning, having been founded in 1997. WGU's tenure in the online education space is likely a draw for students, as the school has a strong background in distance education. WGU maintains strong salary outcomes for bachelors degrees, which may be contributing to its near six-figure population of students. They offer competency-based education, which the school says measures mastery of a skill rather than time spent in a classroom, allowing students to move forward at the pace that suits their learning abilities.
Southern New Hampshire University Online
Southern New Hampshire University, which maintains a campus in Manchester, New Hampshire, trails WGU by over 10,000 online undergraduates. But if we counted its on-campus undergrads, the school would be ahead of WGU by over 10,000. SNHU also has over 20,000 masters and doctoral students.
University of Phoenix
The University of Phoenix is one of the better-known online universities, in part because it was one of the first. The University of Phoenix was founded in 1976, and started offering online courses in 1989. Since then, the online student population has all but taken over the school. It offers above-average salary outcomes, but there are other universities on this list that may offer a better value proposition, depending on major and degree.
Also located in the Phoenix area is Strayer University, which is similar to the University of Phoenix, but does not offer associates’ degrees. It also offers almost exclusively online classes. However, it has an overall bachelors Salary Score that is 11 points higher.
Grand Canyon University
Grand Canyon University is the first school so far that has a more equitable mix of on-campus and online students. But it still leans towards online students, which make up two-thirds of the school’s overall enrollment. GCU is also located in Phoenix but trails the previous schools by tens of thousands of online learners. However it just barely bests them when it comes to bachelors Salary Scores.
American Public University System
Only slightly smaller, but with significantly better career outcomes is the American Public University System. It is an all-online school that tends to cater towards learners interested in pursuing, or have already begun a career in, public or military service. Again, worth noting its Salary Scores for associates and bachelors degrees are exceptional.
University of Maryland Global Campus
This school may be smaller than some competitors, but it has much to offer. Its Salary Score for bachelors degrees is excellent, at 86. It’s another school that offers a mix of online and on-campus learning. But the on-campus part is located a half-hour outside of Washington, D.C, presumably making it a popular choice for distance learners in the Beltway.
Liberty University Campus
Liberty University is perhaps the best-known religious university in America. It was founded as a private Evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1971. Now it offers online degrees and over a quarter of its undergraduate population is following that path. While Liberty's Salary Scores for both their associate and bachelor's degrees are above average, they are lower than many of the school's included on this list.
Arizona State University
Arizona State University is one of the few schools in the top ten that has a higher share of on-campus students compared to online. Nearly two-thirds of its undergraduates are on-campus. But, as a testament to its sheer overall size, that still leaves over 33,000 students learning online. ASU offers a more competitive associates degree than its bachelors degree, which is hovering around average.
Though only founded in 2018, Purdue is another recognizable name as a major online school. It is almost exclusively online, with just a handful of students studying on-campus. However both of its degrees’ Salary Scores hover around average, putting them behind many of the other schools on this list.
Size Doesn’t Always Equal Quality With Online Colleges – But It Can
There can be many benefits to attending a large online college, including the resources, student community, and college network. However, salary outcomes are another important thing to consider when choosing an online university. Throughout this study, it is clear that many of these large online universities have strong graduate salary outcomes at both the associate and bachelors level.
Excelsior College, American Public University System, and Columbia Southern University show some of the strongest Salary Scores among the schools. It is interesting to note that Excelsior and Columbia Southern are on the smaller side when it comes to online enrollment. However, the largest schools, Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University also offer strong Salary Scores above 75.
For this study we used the most recent data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to pull out the largest colleges by online enrollment.
Our data on alumni earnings comes from College Scorecard, an annually updated resource provided by the U.S. Department of Education. The earnings data used in our Salary Score is for alumni in the first year after completing a degree. The data was released in December 2020, and is for students who graduated in 2016 and 2017, with earnings measured in 2017 and 2018, respectively, and inflation-adjusted to 2019 dollars.
The data is based on the earnings of students who received federal financial aid because that is the sample for which the Department of Education has data. This excludes students who did not receive federal financial aid. Please see our "What is Salary Score?" resource for additional information.