Can Online Colleges Offer Competitive Career Outcomes?

A Look at Salary and Employment Data at the Most Popular Online Schools

By Sung Rhee | Updated 8/18/2021

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.

Key Insights:

  • Military and government organizations hire a significant share of online students and likely contribute to high salaries in fields such as healthcare, computer systems, business, and criminal justice
  • Healthcare and education are the dominant industries for online alumni
  • Many online colleges offer competitive employment outcomes, beating even Ivy League schools in some cases

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.


Methodology

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

The average Salary Score across these 10 popular online colleges is 82.9, meaning that overall, alumni tended to earn more in their field of study. The fact that each of these schools have such impressive alumni outcomes for salary showcases how competitive online colleges can be in the higher education space.

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 occupations for online students
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

top industries for online students
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

top employers for online students
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Excelsior College

Salary Score: 97

Excelsior College's Salary Score of 97 at the bachelor's level beats out many prestigious universities, including Princeton University, Columbia University, and Cornell University. While it only has eight fields of study with student outcomes data for bachelor's programs available, alumni from nearly every degree category earned higher average salaries for their major.

Excelsior's history and psychology programs each received a Salary Score of 100, with average salaries of $52,110 and $42,680, respectively. Their criminal justice, liberal arts, and humanities programs were not far behind with Salary Scores of 99.

While Excelsior's business administration programs had a high Salary Score of 98, their general business and commerce degrees had the lowest Salary Score at 54, meaning alumni earned nearly average salaries for their field of study.

Top employers for Excelsior alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
Top industries for Excelsior alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
Top occupations for Excelsior alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Thomas Edison State University

Salary Score: 94

Thomas Edison State University's high Salary Score of 94 makes it the top public college on our Best Bachelor's Degrees by Salary Score rankings, ahead of the University of California–Berkeley. While most alumni see a measurable payoff for their field of study, TESU has particularly strong salary outcomes in healthcare and business administration.

TESU's top program by Salary Score is applied science and technology with a score of 100. Alumni earned a median salary of $73,700 in their first year out of college.

The university also has strong programs in healthcare, with high Salary Scores across several scientific fields of study. Health professions and clinical studies has a Salary Score of 99, followed by biological and physical sciences at 98. Nursing majors from TESU are also top earners in their field. The degree category, which includes programs in nursing, nurse education, and nurse administration, has a Salary Score of 92 with a median alumni salary of $80,740.

While business administration, management, and operations degrees also score well at 96, the rest of the university's business-related fields of study do not. Accounting has a low score of 38, and programs in human resources management and marketing were close to the average for salaries in this field of study 56 and 52, respectively.

top employers for Thomas Edison state university alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Thomas Edison state university alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Thomas Edison state university alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Capella University

Salary Score: 91

Capella University is well-known in the online education realm and has offered online programs since the early 1990s. The institution as a whole has a Salary Score of 91, ranking No. 35 for best bachelor's degrees overall on our sister site, GradReports. Capella's strongest programs by alumni salary are concentrated in information technology and business.

The university is a top choice for alumni salaries in computer and information science with a Salary Score of 100 for IT administration degrees and 99 for computer and information science. Median alumni salaries ranged from $81,700 to $85,540 for these categories.

Business administration and management programs also ranked well at 98, with a median alumni salary of $61,070 for the first year out of college. Accounting, however, had a low Salary Score of 19.

top employers for Capella university alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Capella university alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Capella university alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

American Public University System

Salary Score: 90

American Public University System, or APUS, includes two online colleges — the American Military University and American Public University — and primarily serves military students, veterans, and their families. The university system has a Salary Score of 90, ranking just above New York University for alumni earnings by field of study.

APUS has a wide range of programs whose alumni are top earners in their field. Fields of study with a Salary Score of 100 include criminal justice, health education, history, global studies, liberal arts and humanities, and political science. Many of these degree programs are relevant to roles in the military and may allow service members to pair military knowledge and experience with academic studies to transition out of their branch and into civilian life.

The university also has strong Salary Scores in sociology, environmental science, hospitality, and business and commerce.

The lowest-scoring field of study for alumni salary is human development and family studies with a Salary Score of 10. The field of study has a median alumni salary of just $24,040. Accounting and mechanical engineering majors also earned low salaries for their fields of study, with Salary Scores of 22 and 29, respectively.

top employers for American Public University System alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for American Public University System alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for American Public University System alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Colorado State University Global

Salary Score: 89

Colorado State University Global alumni from nearly every field of study earned higher average wages for their major. The university's strongest Salary Scores are in business and management, communications, and criminal justice. It also ranks highly for human resources.

Communications and media studies is the university's top major by Salary Score at 100, with median alumni earnings of $49,960. Degrees in management information systems, business administration and management, and public administration all score in the high 90s, with median alumni earnings between $62,210 to $80,110. CSU Global's criminal justice alumni also tend to earn more in their field of study, with a median salary of $46,670 and a Salary Score of 95.

CSU Global really has no weak programs for alumni salary — even its lowest paying majors still have Salary Scores of 50 or higher. These include human services at 50 and marketing at 55, meaning alumni tended to earn salaries in line with the average for their major.

top employers for Colorado State University Global for alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Colorado State University Global for alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Colorado State University Global for alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Columbia Southern University

Salary Score: 87

Columbia Southern University has very strong Salary Scores for its criminal justice, environmental science, and occupational safety majors. Alumni from the criminal justice and natural resources conservation programs were among the top earners in their fields of study, with Salary Scores of 100. The median salary for criminal justice majors was $57,320, and environmental science majors earned a median of $68,220.

Occupational safety and health majors earned a median of $70,370, giving the major a Salary Score of 90. Business administration programs were also above average with a Salary Score of 83.

Even the lowest majors for salary at CSU fall close to the average for Salary Score, with computer information technology at 49 and human resources management at 56. The vast majority of CSU alumni earned more in their field of study than graduates from other colleges.

top employers for Columbia Southern University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Columbia Southern University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Columbia Southern University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Western Governors University

Salary Score: 82

Western Governors University is fairly unique in the online space because it offers competency-based education, where students can test out of a course if they're already familiar with the subject. The school has an overall Salary Score of 82, putting it in the same pool as the University of Texas at Austin and above the University of Washington. Alumni of most programs tend to earn higher average salaries than graduates of other colleges.

WGU's strongest programs for alumni salary are in healthcare and business. WGU is one of the best schools for pre-nursing with a Salary Score of 100 and a median alumni salary of $71,020 for preparatory health and medical programs. Business majors are not far behind, with a Salary Score of 98 for general sales, merchandising, and marketing operations, and a score of 96 for business administration and management degrees. WGU's marketing programs also earned a score of 90, with a median alumni salary of $51,220.

The university's only low-paid field of study was in teacher education programs for specific grade levels. Alumni of these programs, such as elementary education, were paid lower than average with a Salary Score of 22. However, general and special education majors earned salaries close to the average for their field of study, with scores of 56 and 59 respectively. WGU graduates of teaching programs for specific subjects, such as science or math, tended to earn a bit more with a Salary Score of 66.

top employers for Western Govorners University Alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Western Govorners University Alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Western Govorners University Alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Southern New Hampshire University Online

Salary Score: 75

Southern New Hampshire University is one of the largest schools by enrollment in the country due to its significant online presence. SNHU Online offers a wide variety of degree programs at the bachelor's level, which vary in terms of salary outcomes for alumni. The online university's strongest majors for alumni salary include business, liberal arts, allied healthcare, and environmental science.

Business alumni at SNHU tended to earn high median salaries for their field of study. Business, management, marketing, and related support services, had a Salary Score of 98 with a median alumni salary of $71,850. Degrees in business administration, management, and operations also had a high median starting salary for alumni at $51,370

SNHU's liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities programs had a Salary Score of 98, with a median alumni salary of $48,630. Alumni studying programs in general health services, allied healthcare, and health sciences earned a median salary of $58,480, with a Salary Score of 97.

SNHU Online's lowest-paid graduates are from political science and government programs – this degree category had a Salary Score of 2, with median alumni earnings of $22,670 in the first year out of college. General education majors were also low-paid for their field, with median earnings of $27,550 and a Salary Score of 17. Computer software and media applications and public health each had Salary Scores in the low 20s.

top employers for Southern New Hampshire University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Southern New Hampshire University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Southern New Hampshire University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Grand Canyon University

Salary Score: 73

Grand Canyon University's wide range of bachelor's degrees offer varied financial outcomes for alumni depending on the major. GCU's strongest majors for alumni salary include degrees in nursing and the arts.

GCU's best field of study by Salary Score was registered nursing and related majors with a Salary Score of 87. Arts alumni also tended to earn high salaries for their fields of study. Visual and performing arts degrees had a Salary Score of 84, while film, video, and photography majors scored 78. Median alumni earnings ranged from $30,550 to $32,470.

Employment outcomes for teaching majors varied widely depending on their program. Those who earned teaching degrees in specific subjects, such as science or history, tended to earn higher wages for their field of study with a Salary Score of 78. However, those who earned more general teaching degrees had a much lower Salary Score of 32. Special education teachers fared even worse compared to alumni of the same major at other colleges with a Salary Score of 19.

top employers for Grand Canyon University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Grand Canyon University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Grand Canyon University alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.

Liberty University

Salary Score: 51

Online Christian school Liberty University is just above average with a total Salary Score of 51. The university is well-known in the online higher education space and offers 130 online bachelor's degrees with varied outcomes for alumni earnings.The school's strongest programs for Salary Score include business, religious studies, and criminal justice.

General business and commerce majors had a Salary Score of 86 with median alumni earnings of $54,660 in their first year out of college. Criminal justice programs had a Salary Score of 80.

Religious studies and religious music majors also earned higher than average salaries for their field of study, with Salary Scores of 81 and 83, respectively. Median alumni starting salaries ranged from $32,930 to $34,430.

Liberty is one of the lowest-ranking schools for salary in teaching and special education programs. Degrees in teaching for specific grade levels, including elementary and middle school education, had a Salary Score of 3 and median earnings of $26,880 per year. The school's special education program had a score of 0, meaning alumni were some of the lowest-paid for their major across the country.

Health sciences majors also tended to earn less in their field of study. Degrees in allied health diagnostics, such as respiratory therapy, and public health each had a Salary Score of 8.

top employers for Liberty University Alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top industries for Liberty University Alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies
top occupations for Liberty University Alumni
Data from Burning Glass Technologies

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.