Accredited Non-Profit Online Colleges & Schools

By Jennifer King Logan | Updated December 2, 2020

When choosing a school to attend, prospective students may find it helpful to understand the differences between for-profit and non-profit online colleges. Non-profit status is conferred on schools that exist to serve the public good rather than to generate a profit. They cannot distribute earnings to owners by law and instead have to reinvest money back into the school. Non-profit schools are also exempt from federal corporate income taxes and may receive direct public funding or have charitable endowments. As a result, they may offer lower tuition rates and have more financial aid options for students. These factors, along with program quality, will vary by institution, and prospective students may consider this before enrolling in a program. On this page, we've provided a comprehensive list of accredited non-profit institutions offering online programs, followed by information about six highly-ranked non-profit universities, along with answers to frequently asked questions.

SCHOOLS BY TYPE: Affordable | Non-Profit | Military-Friendly | Popular

American University (AU) is a private non-profit college that has been classified as an R2 Research Institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. At American University, online students can choose from among 10 Master of Arts or Master of Science degrees in subjects such as strategic communication, public administration and policy, and economics. These online degree programs have received accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Many aspects of the school reflect its location in the nation’s capital. The overall student body is made up of individuals from all 50 states and 130 countries. Students receive an education from more than 1,500 faculty members with real-world experience as policy makers, diplomats, journalists, scientists, creatives, and business leaders. All students are encouraged to complete some coursework at one of the university’s campuses in Spain, Kenya, or Belgium. Among the support services available to online learners are library resources, career development assistance, and a selection of virtual student organizations. The four-year graduation rate at American University, including both online and on-campus students, averages about 75 percent.

Considered part of the Ivy League, Columbia University in the City of New York is one of the oldest private non-profit colleges in the United States. It consistently earns top spots on our school rankings lists for its online master’s degrees in engineering, health education, and computer science. Columbia is particularly strong in its online master’s degree program offerings, with 52 options in many subjects, including social work, operations research, applied mathematics, and applied analytics. The school offers 2 online doctorates and 38 undergraduate and graduate certificates as well. Many of Columbia Online’s programs are designed to address global issues through experiential learning. For example, a significant percentage of the university's online dental and nursing students participate in global health externships. Within the online law school, the Hybrid Executive Master of Laws (LL.M.) enables practicing lawyers to build a global network and engage in complex cross-border transactions. Finally, Columbia’s Earth Institute encourages students to address some of the world’s most difficult problems—from climate change and environmental degradation, to poverty, disease, and sustainable resources—by working with a multitude of strategic partners in science and education.

Excelsior College is a private non-profit college that has earned top rankings in many of our lists, including a ranking of #3 on our 2021 list of Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees and #1 for Best Online Associate Degrees. Excelsior offers 11 Associate of Science and Associate of Applied Science degrees in subjects such as nursing, criminal justice, and technology. The college also offers 49 bachelor’s degrees and 26 master’s degrees in a wide range of fields, from business administration and electrical engineering to biology and psychology. Excelsior has regional accreditation for its online programs. The school is noted for accommodating adult learners. New courses begin every eight weeks, and online students can earn transfer credits for previously completed higher education courses as well as military service, law enforcement service, and other training, exams, and certifications. Excelsior’s online learning resources include reading and writing labs, career development assistance, tech support, and a library. The school also caters to active military and veteran students by offering special resources and granting tuition discounts, as well as creating online programs of particular interest to these individuals. These degrees include the Bachelor of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the Bachelor of Science in Military Leadership, and the Bachelor of Science in National Security - Intelligence and Security Analysis.

Consistently featured in our school rankings lists, Northeastern University is #2 on our 2021 list of Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees. Northeastern’s high-quality online programs include 14 bachelor’s degrees, 7 doctoral degrees, and 68 undergraduate and graduate certificates. The university is especially strong in its master’s degree program offerings, with 190 options to choose from. These include 12 variations of a Master of Arts in Homeland Security degree, 9 Master of Business Administration degrees, 12 Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations degrees, and 8 Master of Science in Leadership degrees. Similar to their on-campus programs, Northeastern incorporates experiential learning components into their online courses through its Experiential Network. Online students are required to engage in short-term virtual projects at top companies, enabling them to gain experience while developing skills. Certain online programs, such as education, taxation, and nursing, also prepare students to pass exams and meet all other requirements for professional licensure in their respective fields. Distance learning students are encouraged to interact with each other through the Digital Media Commons. They’re also invited to use many of the university’s other student resources, such as the library, IT helpdesk, peer tutoring, and writing center.

A leading private non-profit college in the country, the University of Southern California (USC) consistently places at the top of our school rankings lists. USC earned the #1 spot on our 2021 Best Online Doctoral Degrees list and was recognized in nine of our 2020 rankings. The school offers 5 doctoral degrees through the education department, 30 undergraduate and graduate certificates, and a wealth of online master’s programs. Among the 99 possibilities are master’s degrees in engineering, teaching, public health, computer science, and nursing. The curricula of some of these programs, such as master’s degrees in nursing and education, are designed to prepare students to meet state requirements for professional licensure. Like their on-campus counterparts, USC online students will benefit from the university’s Diversity, Inclusion & Access (DIA) Initiative. The objectives of this initiative are to increase diversity in higher education, attract and include highly qualified underrepresented students, and to provide access to the tools needed to achieve professional goals. Online students at USC will also have the opportunity to receive a quality education from the school’s distinguished faculty, which includes five Nobel laureates and dozens of other prestigious award winners. The six-year graduation rate for USC students is 92 percent.

Ranked #1 on our 2021 list of the Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees, the University of Virginia (UVA) is a non-profit, public university. UVA offers a wide range of online education options: 13 bachelor’s degrees, 25 master’s degrees, 6 doctoral degrees, and 29 undergraduate and graduate certificates. Programs include 11 Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degrees in specializations such as business, cybersecurity, and health care management, 12 variations of the school's Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction degree, and 6 Master of Engineering degrees. The curricula of some of these online programs, such as the RN to BSN bachelor’s degree and the various master’s degrees in education, are designed to prepare students to meet the requirements for professional licensure. UVA also offers a number of alternative online courses, including computer programming bootcamps and other options delivered through Coursera. Online students at UVA gain access to essential services, including the library, tech support, mental health care, career development assistance, and tutoring. UVA has an overall four-year graduation rate of 88 percent.

Frequently Asked Questions About Non-Profit Colleges and Universities

What is the difference between a for-profit school and a non-profit school?

For-profit colleges, like all for-profit businesses, are privately owned businesses or corporations designed to generate revenue. These colleges are generally owned by a group of investors, or shareholders, who work collectively to operate the school. Many of their decisions are made with the purpose of turning a profit and generating a return for investors. Because there is a strong market for tech and vocational training, many for-profit schools specialize in skills-based education. For-profit schools are typically awarded accreditation by national agencies.

Non-profit colleges are not designed to generate investment returns for investors. However, the institution must still cover all of its current and future operating expenses, so the boards of trustees that govern these schools must make sound financial decisions while also meeting the needs of students. Regional accreditation bodies typically evaluate non-profit colleges. Non-profit organizations can be further divided into two categories.

  • Public colleges and universities: Public schools receive funding from state governments. Often, tuition is lower at public schools because of government subsidies.
  • Private colleges and universities: Private schools do not receive government funding, and their tuition is often higher as a result of this. They are generally started with endowments from individuals or other organizations and continue to be funded through donations and tuition.

What is the controversy around for-profit colleges?

For-profit colleges and universities came under scrutiny about 15 years ago. It was discovered that some of these organizations were taking advantage of students. They charged higher tuition rates, cut programs without notice, failed to obtain accreditation for their programs, and put the needs of shareholders above those of student. Because of the unethical practices of some for-profit organizations, all for-profits earned a poor reputation.

Starting in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education imposed new regulations on all institutions of higher education, both for traditional and online programs. Schools that could not meet the new requirements went out of business or were forced to upgrade their programs and services. What this means for today’s students is that they are far more likely to receive a quality education at schools that have been awarded regional or national accreditation. Accreditation is an important factor to consider for all types of schools, including private and public non-profit schools and for-profit higher education institutions. Researchers at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, also recommend investigating how much of each tuition dollar gets reinvested in educational programs and student support services. We've compiled a comprehensive list of accredited colleges and universities for students to explore. Further, OnlineU only includes accredited online schools in our ranking lists.

What are the benefits of attending a non-profit school?

While accredited for-profit schools may be a good choice for some students - such as those who do not meet the often stricter admission requirements at non-profit schools or individuals who want to focus on vocational training - there are several significant advantages of attending a non-profit college or university:

  1. Statistics show that earning a degree at a for-profit school often costs more and takes more time. Enrollment in an online degree program at a non-profit college will typically be more affordable.
  2. Non-profit schools are required to reinvest money from tuition into educational programs and resources. Thus, both on-campus and online students will enjoy a greater range of programs, services, and activities.
  3. Due to the history of unethical practices among some for-profit schools, most non-profit colleges and universities don't accept transfer credits from these schools. College students who want to continue their education, or retain that option in the future, may choose to attend a non-profit institution.
  4. Some employers have a negative perception of degrees earned at for-profit institutions.