Can Online Colleges Offer Competitive Career Outcomes?
A Look at Salary and Employment Data at the Most Popular Online Schools
While the availability and popularity of online degree programs have grown rapidly in recent years, there is limited research available on contemporary online learning. Students, college administrators, lawmakers, and journalists frequently want to know, is online education as valuable as the traditional model?
One of the most important measures of this is the impact an online degree has on employment outcomes. To answer this question, we examined data for 10 popular online schools with Salary Scores over 50 at the bachelor's level to find out how online students fare in terms of salary and employment after graduation.
What is Salary Score?
Our proprietary Salary Scores database offers students an easy way to find out which colleges offer the best chance at a high salary in their field of study. We compare alumni earnings by major in the first year out of college to similar programs at colleges across the country. Alumni from schools with Salary Scores above 50 tend to be top-earners in their field of study, while scores below 50 indicate most students earn less than average for their major. For example, Harvard University is the top school for alumni salary in nearly every field with a Salary Score of 100.
We selected popular online colleges with strong alumni outcomes, including some of the largest schools by enrollment in the country. Our list includes Excelsior College, Thomas Edison State University, Capella University, American Public University System, Colorado State University Global, Columbia Southern University, Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, Grand Canyon University, and Liberty University.
Our Salary Scores come from federal earnings data provided by the U.S. Department of Education through College Scorecard. Our guide to Salary Scores provides more information on our calculations, methodology, and data sources.
We used software analytics company Burning Glass Technologies to examine the top five occupations, industries, and employers for each popular online college. Career outcomes data from Burning Glass includes the graduating classes from 2010 through 2020.
Most Popular Online Schools Salary Scores
|Thomas Edison State University||94|
|American Public University System||90|
|Colorado State University Global||89|
|Columbia Southern University||87|
|Western Governors University||82|
|Southern New Hampshire University Online||75|
|Grand Canyon University||73|
Top Occupations, Industries, and Employers of Popular Online Schools
Across the 10 popular online schools, we found the occupations, industries, and companies that employ the most alumni. What we discovered is that not only are alumni salaries from these online colleges higher than many campus-based schools, graduates are finding positions with reputable employers in top industries, including healthcare, tech, and education.
Top career paths for online students are largely focused in business. Nearly 5% of alumni became business owners or founders, general managers, or CEOs after earning their degree online. The fact that many graduates of online programs are starting their own businesses and securing upper-level management positions shows a growing acceptance of online degrees.
Management analysis is also a common role for online students, which is not surprising given that business is the most popular major. This finding is interesting considering that many students say math and science classes are harder online, and analytical roles are somewhat math-heavy.
Registered nurses make up another 5% of online students, which speaks to the strength of online programs in healthcare and other experiential professions. Today's online programs in nursing and related fields use innovative virtual learning methods, community partnerships, and clinical internships to get students the hands-on experience necessary to work in direct patient care.
Healthcare and social assistance tops the list of industries for online graduates, followed by education services. Teaching and nursing programs are frequently offered online, so this finding is not surprising. However, business has historically been the most popular degree, so it's likely that online business majors are also dispersed across these industries.
The fact that healthcare and education dominate industries for online alumni occupations also speaks to the quality of programs that many might think are challenging to do well online.
Public administration, which frequently includes positions in the government and military, is also popular, followed by finance and insurance.
Military and government groups are the largest employers of online students, which is influenced by a few different factors. Military service members and their families make up a large portion of online students. Because they frequently move around the country and around the world in many cases, military members often can't complete their degrees on campus. Our analysis of employment outcomes found that many people in the military use online degrees to qualify for higher-level positions within their service branch. Online programs also give military students an opportunity to translate skills learned in service into a career as a civilian.
Interestingly enough, Amazon is also a top employer for alumni of online colleges as a group but rarely shows up as a top-five employer for each individual college.
Breakdown of Alumni Employment Outcomes by College
We looked at the strongest and weakest programs by Salary Score for 10 popular online colleges, as well as the top jobs, industries, and employers. More information on the Salary Score makeup of each school can be found on its profile page on our student reviews and rankings site, GradReports.
See our list of the 100 Most Popular Accredited Online Schools for annual tuition and student recommendation rates for other well-known online colleges.
Salary Score: 97
Excelsior graduates the third-highest percentage of registered nurses, behind Grand Canyon University and Western Governors University. Excelsior nursing alumni are highly paid, with a Salary Score of 88.
Top employers for Excelsior are mostly concentrated in the military, with over half of alumni working for the U.S. Army, Navy, or Air Force. Many alumni also work in operations, IT, and human resources for government organizations.
Salary Score: 94
Top occupations for TESU included registered nurses, software developers, and upper-level positions in business. Many TESU graduates go onto careers in operations management, general management, or head their own companies.
Half of TESU alumni work in public services — healthcare, education, public administration, and social services are all top industries for the university. The largest employers for TESU alumni include the U.S. Navy, Army, USPS, Amazon, and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey, where the university is headquartered.
Nearly a third of TESU alumni work for the military in healthcare, upper-level management, administrative, communications, and technical fields.
The U.S. Parcel Service is also a top employer for TESU graduates. USPS employees from TESU hold positions in analytics, computer programming, communications, management, and customer service.
Salary Score: 91
Many of Capella's alumni go on to work in finance and insurance — top business-related occupations include business owners, CEOs, and general managers. Capella's largest employers include insurance company UnitedHealth Group, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Army, and Wells Fargo.
Registered nursing is also a popular career path for alumni, with 17% of graduates in healthcare and social assistance services. Kaiser Permanente is a top employer for Capella graduates, employing nearly 6% of alumni. Many graduates also become college professors, which requires a master's or doctoral degree.
Salary Score: 90
Top careers for APUS alumni include military positions — unsurprising given the school's student demographics and area of focus — and business. Graduates went on to start their own companies or hold positions in business and management analysis, general management, and operations management.
By far the vast majority of APUS alumni work in public service, with 43% going into public administration and 7% into education. One in 10 alumni work in professional, scientific, and technical services. And less than 10% work in manufacturing and retail trade.
Together, the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps employ nearly 60% of APUS graduates.
Salary Score: 89
CSU Global graduates often pursue business-related career paths, including project management, accounting, operations management, general management, and human resources. Many of these graduates find jobs in finance, insurance, and public administration. One in four alumni work in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and other education services.
Another 21% work in healthcare and social services, largely at hospitals and health provider offices. CSU Global's top employers in the industry are UCHealth and Kaiser Permanente, both of which have facilities across Colorado.
Professional, scientific, and technical services also top the list of CSU Global's most popular industries for alumni employment, and include services a company might outsource or hire someone for, such as management consulting, scientific research and development, accounting, or advertising.
Salary Score: 87
Nearly 10% of CSU alumni work in occupational safety and health as safety managers, specialists, and coordinators, many of whom work for military or government organizations. Business owners and military positions also topped the list of careers for CSU.
While HR is a popular career for CSU graduates, alumni tend to earn salaries in line with the average for their field of study at the bachelor's level.
The US Army, Navy, and Air Force together employ 50% of CSU graduates, while the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Defense employ another 10%. Popular careers for military and government employees include human resources specialists, information security and IT, operations specialists, software developers, and project managers.
Salary Score: 82
WGU graduates a high number of registered nurses – 10% of alumni go on to become RNs, many of whom are highly paid. The university's registered nursing major and related programs earned a Salary Score of 79, with alumni earning a median of $74,550 their first year out of college.
Healthcare and social assistance is the top industry for WGU, with Kaiser Permanente, Intermountain Healthcare, and Hospital Corporation of America employing 18% of WGU graduates. Given the strong employment outcomes for healthcare graduates, it's clear that WGU is a strong choice for prospective nursing students.
Education is another top major at WGU. Nearly 20% of alumni work in education services and are likely to find work in school districts across the country, although Salary Scores for the university's teaching programs range from 66 to 22, depending on the specific degree.
Many alumni also go into software development, information security, and related fields, with computer and information sciences earning a median starting salary of $75,270. Both Amazon and the U.S. Air Force are top employers for the university – together the organizations hire nearly one in 10 WGU graduates.
Salary Score: 75
SNHU alumni tend to take jobs in business, finance, and insurance. Top careers include positions as general managers, accountants, business owners and partners, administrative assistants, and retail managers.
Many of these graduates found positions in two insurance institutions, Anthem Blue Cross and Liberty Mutual, and financial services provider Fidelity Brokerage. Comcast and the U.S. Army also top the list of SNHU employers.
Other popular industries for SNHU Online alumni include healthcare and social assistance, education, retail, and manufacturing. Healthcare majors at SNHU tended to earn high salaries, with Salary Scores ranging from 72 for nursing programs to 97 for allied health majors.
Salary Score: 73
GCU's top industry is educational services, with nearly 30% of alumni working in schools and other education services. GCU is a popular choice for middle and high school teachers. Special education teaching is also a top career for GCU alumni, but they are not paid well compared to graduates from the same programs at other schools.
GCU's strongest occupation is nursing, with 10% of alumni working as registered nurses. Many of these graduates work at Banner Health System, HonorHealth, and Dignity Health, and are paid well compared to nursing majors from other schools, with a median starting salary of $78,090 for GCU nursing graduates.
Salary Score: 51
Many Liberty alumni went on to pursue roles in business, with general managers, CEOs, business owners, and administrative assistants topping the list of most popular careers. Nearly one in three Liberty graduates went on to work for the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, or the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Chaplains, pastors, and priests were also a popular career path for Liberty graduates, many of whom earned more than average for their field of study, with a median salary of $34,430 for religious studies majors.
Education services, public administration, and healthcare and social service were the most common industries for Liberty alumni. Given the low Salary Scores for teaching and healthcare-related majors, it may be that graduates in these industries hold administrative and support staff positions rather than teaching or working directly with patients.
Online Colleges Offer Competitive Salaries for Students, Support Workforce and Public Good
Our research highlights the fact that online education can be a viable alternative to traditional higher education models, and can result in stronger salaries across majors compared to many campus-based schools.
These popular online schools are not only competitive in the higher education space – in many cases, they beat prestigious public and private universities. Multiple schools on this list have similar or higher Salary Scores than half of the Ivy League schools, including Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown University. Two online schools – Excelsior College and Thomas Edison State University – have stronger Salary Scores than the University of California-Berkeley.
Our analysis also shows how strong online colleges can be for careers in business and healthcare. Some of the most common occupations for these online alumni include registered nurses, business owners, and senior management positions.
Students from these online colleges also tend to go into industries that serve the public good – healthcare, education, public administration, and social services were some of the most popular industries for these schools. These findings suggest that making higher education more affordable and accessible through high-quality online options can have a positive impact not only on students' lives but in our society as a whole.