The Online Student Perspective: What are the top-rated online colleges, and what are they doing right?
Countless surveys done in late spring found students were significantly less satisfied with their learning experience when COVID-19 shifted higher education online. However, most did not blame instructors for the drop in quality.
Data from Digital Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to innovation in education, shows that two-thirds of students felt their learning suffered because they lost the ability to collaborate with their peers in the switch to virtual learning. Half said they felt less included in the online classroom, and 57% struggled to stay interested in their coursework. Overall, the lack of structure in emergency remote learning left students feeling overwhelmed and unsatisfied.
Creating a classroom community and keeping students engaged requires a strategic framework built into most traditional online programs. Class structure, lecture style, and even the way assignments are labeled in learning management systems all have an effect on student satisfaction.
To paint a fuller picture of what aspects work well for online students, we examined the top online colleges based on student reviews from GradReports, a leading publisher of student reviews for online colleges.
Students and alumni rate their education based on five critical factors: quality of instruction, financial services, degree satisfaction, earning potential, and career preparedness. These questions encompass need-to-know information to help prospective students make informed decisions when choosing an online program.
To accurately compare school review ratings, we gathered online-specific reviews from the past three years. Each school needed five or more student reviews to be included. After applying those requirements to our database of over 30,000 reviews, the resulting data set used for this analysis comprises 1,280 total student reviews for 43 online schools.
We manually researched tuition rates for each online program and used out-of-state tuition when applicable to ensure the rates are accurate for the largest number of potential students. When calculating annual tuition rates, we assumed a total of 30 credits per year for full-time students, used the cost per credit, and did not include potential fees. Bachelor's level tuition was collected for all schools except for Ultimate Medical Academy, which only offers associate degrees, and the University of Southern California, which only offers master’s and doctoral programs online.
We've provided additional information at the bottom of this article.
The 10 Top-Rated Online Colleges Based on Student Reviews
(by confidence interval)
|College Name||Mean Rating||Number of Reviews||Recommend Rate||Annual Tuition|
|#5||Valdosta State University||3.86||7||100%||$6,060|
|#6||Arizona State University||3.97||37||86%||$15,900|
|#7||Ultimate Medical Academy||3.77||101||64%||$13,500|
|#8||Western Governors University||3.68||161||73%||$6,450|
|#9||Thomas Edison State University||3.84||19||72%||$9,278|
|#10||University of Southern California||4.07||6||83%||$39,900|
Mean Rating: 4.79
Number of Reviews: 20
Recommend Rate: 100%
Annual tuition: $10,980
Mean Rating: 4.67
Number of Reviews: 63
Recommend Rate: 95%
Annual tuition: $19,120
Mean Rating: 4.59
Number of Reviews: 42
Recommend Rate: 95%
Annual tuition: $13,730
Mean Rating: 3.94
Number of Reviews: 68
Recommend Rate: 84%
Annual tuition: $19,740
Valdosta State Universit
Mean Rating: 3.86
Number of Reviews: 7
Recommend Rate: 100%
Annual tuition: $6,060
Arizona State University
Mean Rating: 3.97
Number of Reviews: 37
Recommend Rate: 86%
Annual tuition: $15,900
Ultimate Medical Academy
Mean Rating: 3.77
Number of Reviews: 101
Recommend Rate: 64%
Annual tuition: $13,500
Western Governors University
Mean Rating: 3.68
Number of Reviews: 161
Recommend Rate: 73%
Annual tuition: $6,450
Thomas Edison State University
Mean Rating: 3.84
Number of Reviews: 19
Recommend Rate: 72%
Annual tuition: $9,278
University of Southern California
Mean Rating: 4.07
Number of Reviews: 6
Recommend Rate: 83%
Annual tuition: $39,900
Students favor private schools and value engaging, supportive instructors
While this list includes a mix of public and private institutions, the top three schools with the highest student ratings are small, private colleges serving 6,000 or fewer undergraduate students.
Although online programs are in a different format than in-person classes and require alternative teaching strategies to keep students engaged, the benefits of attending a smaller private college often remain the same.
They tend to have smaller class sizes, which allow students to get help from instructors and connect with peers. Fostering community in an online setting can be difficult, and small class sizes make it easier for students to build relationships.
“Even though Simmons is an online format degree, the personal touch and the commitment of the professor reminds me of my home town university,” wrote Amy, who earned her master’s of science in nursing online at Simmons University. “Each professor knows my name and becomes invested in my determination to learn.”
Small private colleges are also known for academic excellence, but this often comes at a higher price, with fewer program offerings and a demanding schedule that requires full student engagement. Online programs allow students to gain the benefits offered by private colleges without the schedule constraints of being on campus.
Lower undergraduate enrollment numbers mean educators can spend more time with students and may be able to provide better support. Helpful staff, engaging classes, and available professors were also common themes throughout reviews of these programs.
“As I am set to graduate in May of 2020, I reflect on all of my professors and how they were there for me in many email conversations providing guidance,” wrote Mckenzie, who earned an online degree in communication at King University. “I think about how intentional my success coaches were who truly wanted to see me flourish, I think about how much I have been pushed and grown throughout this process and can say with confidence that I could not have asked for a better experience.”
Everglades University student Sharon Wright-Dyson, who earned an online bachelor’s degree in alternative medicine, said the program changed her view of online education. Before she enrolled at Everglades, she didn’t think online learning would work for her. She found that the learning management system was easy to use, and connections with her professors and thorough support services helped her succeed academically. She went on to enroll in their master’s in public health program.
Students at all three top universities said they received comprehensive support from staff, had dedicated and engaging professors, and enjoyed the program’s flexibility.
Low student to faculty ratios correlate with higher student satisfaction
Nearly every school on the list has a student to faculty ratio of 20:1 or lower. The only exceptions were Valdosta State University, with a ratio of 21:1, and Western Governors University, with a ratio of 41:1.
Online education can be isolating. For students who prefer to work on their own, this may not be an issue. Others enroll in an online program for the flexible benefits they offer but struggle to learn effectively without a strong peer network.
The smaller class sizes at online private colleges may encourage a sense of community and help prevent students from feeling lost in the crowd. Small classes allow for more interaction between students and instructors and more opportunities to connect with peers.
“Faculty were attentive, and the class sizes were small enough that I was always able to ask questions and work one on one with the instructor if needed,” wrote Paul, an online student who earned his MBA through Everglades University.
Amy, a psychology major at Arizona State University, said that she enrolled online because she had a full-time job, but worried about taking classes online because of how isolating it can be. However, she found that she still felt a sense of community with her online peers.
“Upon starting college, I didn’t think online was a good idea because you are physically alone. You miss out on a lot of student life,” she wrote in her review. “You are not alone online. The professors always provided excellent assistance and support, showing constant excitement for what they were teaching. The students in all classes provide a sense of belonging, as ultimately, you all are ‘there’ for the same purpose.”
Western Governors University is the only school without a physical campus
Western Governors University has the largest proportion of online student reviews, in part because it’s one of the largest universities in the country and does not have in-person programs. WGU is a popular online university, serving nearly 120,000 online students per year. Their 161 student reviews spanned many different programs.
Students liked the flexible schedule and ability to learn at their own pace. The university utilizes competency-based education (CBE), where students move as quickly or slowly as they like through classes, then take a test or complete other assignments to demonstrate knowledge in a subject. Competency-based education relies on one-on-one instructor feedback and written discussions between students rather than having live lectures and scheduled meeting times.
“The classes are difficult, but rightfully so. You get out of it what you put into it,” wrote Susan, a WGU student who studied business administration. “The exams are challenging, as to be expected with a program that is based on competency. It has taken me less than a week to complete some, and up to a couple months to complete others.”
Other students said CBE allowed them to complete their degree in a shorter period by using prior knowledge and experience to pass competency exams.
“WGU’s setup is perfect for working adults who already have experience in the workplace, as you will have already learned about many things informally in the workplace,” wrote WGU graduate Jimmy, who studied accounting online. “I’ve raved about WGU to almost anyone who will listen, as I think their competency-based model is the model of the future when it comes to Higher Education.”
Rather than taking traditional credit courses, students can move through as many classes in a quarter as they’d like and pay a flat tuition rate instead of paying per credit. At $6,670 per year, tuition rates at WGU are significantly lower than other online programs.
Dedicated students can use this structure to complete degrees faster and lower their education costs, making quality CBE programs appealing for many adult learners looking for flexible, affordable education options.
Students who are self-starters, highly motivated, and work better on their own often like this style of learning. Those who need more support, engagement, or work better in a collaborative setting may struggle in this learning environment.
This model is also used at other universities, but WGU is the largest competency-based university and one of the country’s largest higher education institutions. Most other online schools using the model also offer traditional credit tracks.
“The exams are challenging, as to be expected with a program that is based on competency. It has taken me less than a week to complete some, and up to a couple months to complete others.”
Top-rated school King University scored high due to online Communications degree
While King University scored highest overall, the bulk of online reviews for the school were specifically about their online Bachelor’s of Science in Communication program. The program allows students to earn their degree in less than two years by taking one five-week class at a time rather than multiple classes simultaneously per quarter.
Reviews show most students liked this method because they could focus solely on one subject at a time. Students said the program was flexible and made it easy to complete a degree while working full-time or balancing caring for children.
King students were overall more satisfied with their degree and felt more prepared for their careers than students at Everglades or Herzing.
“The professors are experts in all communication fields and develop students capable of entering the workforce with confidence in their communication skills,” wrote Katie, who earned her bachelor’s in communication online at King. “I learned many valuable strengths that will transfer seamlessly into a communication career from professors who showed me that I matter as an individual, welcomed my inquiries, and gave me feedback I can grow from long after my degree starts gathering dust.”
The program is comprehensive and teaches a wide range of communication skills applicable to many career paths. Coursework includes professional, interpersonal, and organizational communication, editing, marketing, and public relations.
Most student reviews also said support staff and instructors were key components in the program. Dedicated success coaches, available professors, and hands-on learning activities made classes engaging and helped them stay on track, students said.
Student reviews identify three key needs: Flexibility, affordability, and academic support
One consideration when reviewing these schools is how affordable their degree programs are, and how this impacts students’ perspectives. While tuition rates varied widely, students often seemed to gauge how satisfied they were with their education based in part on the cost. For some, higher tuition rates were worth it because they felt they got more support and received a higher quality of education. For others, lower tuition rates also played a factor in evaluating quality.
Tuition rates at King University, the top-rated school, were significantly more affordable than the average online tuition rate ($14,068) for private colleges for the 2020-21 school year. Online students at King pay $10,980 per year and are able to complete their degree in less than four years, which may have contributed to satisfaction rates.
Western Governors University offered the lowest rates for a private nonprofit college at $6,670 per year, less than half the median cost for online programs at private colleges. Their larger class sizes may enable the school to charge significantly less.
Online students at Herzing paid $13,730 per year, while tuition rates at Everglades and Simmons were higher than average at around $19,000 per year.
“This school is expensive but the online program has been great and interactive. I love being able to see people on the screen and make friends with people from all over the country,” wrote Jacqui, a student in the RN to BSN program at Simmons University. “The professors are very knowledgeable. I feel like I have a great foundation to advance my career.”
Valdosta State University, a public nonprofit school, had the most affordable rates for an online program at around $6,000 per year. Other public nonprofit schools on the list ranged from $9,278 at Thomas Edison University to $15,900 at Arizona State University for undergraduate online tuition rates. The median tuition cost for online programs at public nonprofits was $12,570 for the 2020-21 school year.
Overall, student reviews show many students value quality education and feel they learn best when they have adequate support, and not just from professors. Reviews for these top schools frequently mentioned good communication in class and resource offices such as admissions and financial aid. Students also favored flexible online programs customized to work around busy schedules, whether it was competency-based education or accelerated degree programs.
To weigh review rating and count, we calculated the mean and standard deviation of the overall ratings for all schools. We then used the mean and standard deviation to calculate the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval and ordered the schools based on this lower bound.
The 95% confidence interval indicates a 95% chance the actual school rating is between the upper and lower bounds given the review scores we have. When there are fewer reviews for a school, the confidence interval is likely to be larger. When there are more reviews, the confidence interval is likely to be smaller. This allows us to account for varying numbers of reviews for schools with similar ratings.