Accredited Non-Profit Online Colleges & Schools
When pursuing higher education, prospective students may find it helpful to understand the differences between for-profit and non-profit online universities and colleges. For-profit schools are owned and operated by private businesses. Therefore, most of the profits earned from tuition are used for non-educational purposes and go back to investors. Non-profit schools exist to serve the public good rather than to make a profit.
On this page, we provide a comprehensive list of accredited, non-profit institutions offering online programs and highlight six non-profit schools that feature in many of our rankings. The list is ordered by the number of students enrolled online which is obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). We'll take a deeper look at both non-profit and for-profit colleges and the differences between the two. We'll also talk about the value of accreditation, financial aid options, and finally, help you decide whether to choose a for-profit or non-profit online college.
Highlights of Non-Profit Online Schools
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.
Columbia University in the City of New York
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.
University of Southern California
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.
University of Virginia
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.
What Is a Non-Profit College?
Non-profit schools are governed by a board of trustees that is tasked with making sound financial decisions for the institution while also meeting student needs. Non-profit colleges are not designed to generate investment returns for investors. However, the institution must utilize its funding to cover current and future operating expenses. Both private and public non-profit colleges receive funding from the government through student financial aid awards, contracts for goods and services, and research grants. Additionally, all non-profit universities rely on private endowments, donations, and the revenue college sports generate to fund academic programs and activities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are 3,285 public and private non-profit colleges in the United States.
Non-profit schools are governed by a board of trustees that is tasked with making sound financial decisions for the institution while also meeting student needs.
Two-year non-profit colleges — including community colleges — allow students to earn an associate degree and complete certificate programs. Many students transfer these credits to a non-profit four-year university to complete a bachelor's and possibly go on to earn a graduate degree. Most non-profit institutions offer distance education and online learning, which may be more convenient for students who want to attend part-time while juggling other responsibilities. Non-profit public colleges and universities also offer more academic programs than non-profit private colleges, which often focus on liberal arts or other disciplines, such as business or law.
What Is a For-Profit College?
The NCES reports that there are 697 for-profit colleges in the U.S. that are privately owned and funded by companies and investors. Most profits don't go back into the school but instead go to various stakeholders who have invested in the school. While non-profit schools must invest revenue back into academic programs, sports, and scholarships, for-profit schools aren't required to reinvest as much in operations. Instead, they invest a large portion of their money in marketing, advertising, and lobbying against funding restrictions. According to the NCES, non-profit schools rely on tuition and fees to account for between 20% to 32% of their total revenue, while private, for-profit schools rely on tuition and fees to make up 91% of revenue, which may explain why they often cost more to attend. Students can apply for financial aid to fund a for-profit school education and may qualify for federal loans and Pell grants, but are not eligible for federal work-study programs or many scholarships.
|According to the NCES, non-profit schools rely on tuition and fees to account for between 20% to 32% of their total revenue, while private, for-profit schools rely on tuition and fees to make up 91% of revenue.|
Prospective students often find for-profit colleges attractive because many offer both on-campus and online certificate and degree programs in growing fields like information technology, business and human resource management, and healthcare. Many also offer accelerated programs where you can finish your education in a fraction of the time it usually takes. Some for-profit schools also allow you to enter a program at any time throughout the year and take as few or as many classes as you'd like.
What Is the Difference Between a Non-Profit and a For-Profit College?
In addition to having different ownership and funding structures, one of the most significant differences between non-profit and for-profit schools is affordability. The NCES found that from 2012 through 2019, tuition and fees plus room and board cost an average of $18,383 at public, non-profit universities and $27,040 at for-profit colleges. Because for-profit schools cost more, students are at greater risk of defaulting on student loans. According to the Brookings Institute, only 10% of students are enrolled in for-profit schools, yet they account for half of student loan defaults. In addition, 71% of students enrolled in for-profit degree programs take out federal loans compared to only 49% of non-profit degree-seekers.
|The NCES found that from 2012 through 2019, tuition and fees plus room and board cost an average of $18,383 at public, non-profit universities and $27,040 at for-profit colleges.|
Employers may perceive online non-profit and for-profit colleges differently, which may reflect on your ability to find a job. Some for-profit colleges are considered "degree mills" with a reputation for churning out dubious diplomas. Employers may be skeptical of a for-profit school's academic standards because they aren't required to reinvest their money back into their programs. A study conducted by think tank New America found that most Americans still don't trust for-profit colleges and universities to use revenues wisely and don't believe they are worth the cost. While most employers accept online degrees and certificates, they may be wary if you earned it from a for-profit institute.
Should You Choose a Non-Profit or For-Profit College?
Whether an online for-profit or online non-profit college is better depends on the specific degree or certificate program. Students looking for a broader, theoretical education with opportunities to engage in student activities with their peers may appreciate attending a non-profit college. Students who want to learn specific job skills to enter the workforce more quickly may opt to enroll in a for-profit college. Many employers in industry-specific trades such as auto repair, massage therapy, medical and dental assisting, value the education received at a for-profit school. Some companies even partner with these programs to assist with instruction and provide internships and job placement opportunities. These factors make some for-profit programs a good choice for those pursuing a specific career path.
However, many argue that a for-profit college education is too risky. Administrative staff at these schools often use sales and marketing tactics to recruit students. There may also be a lack of transparency that can be off-putting and confusing for students, and can ultimately be financially detrimental. According to Business Insider, more than 200,000 students have filed fraud claims since 2015 due to sudden and unanticipated closures of for-profit schools. Always vet the school you are interested in attending by checking their accreditation status, graduation and retention rates, and student reviews before making a final decision.
Ultimately, the choice between enrolling in a for-profit or a non-profit online university is yours. As with any degree program, it's only worth it if your expectations as an online student are met, and the program helps you fulfill your educational and professional goals. Here are some additional factors to consider when deciding between a non-profit and for-profit school.
Accreditation for Non-Profit Colleges
Accreditation signifies excellence in education that meets high academic standards and legitimizes schools and programs. It is awarded by commissions that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Institutional accreditation can be awarded at the national or regional level and is necessary for a school to receive federal funding or for students to receive federal financial aid. While one type of accreditation isn't necessarily better than the other, it can be difficult to transfer from a nationally accredited college to a regionally accredited college and vice versa. Programmatic accreditation is awarded to specific academic programs within a school.
Institutional accreditation can be awarded at the national or regional level and is necessary for a school to receive federal funding or for students to receive federal financial aid.
Private and public online non-profit universities and colleges are usually regionally accredited by one of six accrediting commissions. The Higher Learning Commission and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities are two examples. When awarding accreditation, these commissions evaluate a school's academic offerings, governance, mission, finances, and resources. Schools can lose their accreditation if they fail an evaluation, and if this happens, they may also lose government funding.
You can find accredited schools by searching the Department of Education's Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.
Financial Aid for Non-Profit Colleges
Students enrolling in online programs at accredited non-profit colleges are eligible for federal financial aid, including loans, grants, and work-study programs just like their on-campus peers. The best place to start is by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine eligibility. However, some restrictions may apply, such as maintaining a minimum number of credits or a certain GPA. Slipping below a minimum requirement may result in forfeiture of aid and early repayment. Always contact the school's financial aid office if you have any questions about your financial aid package or eligibility.
Financial assistance can come from other sources, including schools, non-profit organizations, fellowships, employer tuition reimbursement benefits, and the GI Bill for those currently or previously in the military, and in some cases, family members. Students can also apply for loans through a private lender, but this should be done with care as private loan repayment can be more restrictive, and interest rates are usually higher than a federal loan.