List of Accredited Online Colleges & Universities
This list of accredited schools and colleges covers over 40,562 fully online degrees at the associate, bachelor's, master's, doctoral, and certificate levels. All schools are accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and they have an average annual tuition of $24,634. All higher education degrees were provided by the schools themselves or manually researched and verified using the colleges' official websites. Our recommendation rate is based on feedback from former students through our partner site and the largest database of independent online college reviews, GradReports.com. In addition to this list, we provide rankings of the best online colleges for students to explore during their school search.
Comprehensive List Of Accredited Online Schools
|School||Online Enrollment||Annual Tuition||Recommend Rate|
|University of Florida||4,430||$28,659||60% (5 reviews)|
|University of Florida - Community Sciences||4,430||$28,659||Add Review|
|The University of West Florida||4,345||$19,241||80% (5 reviews)|
|Texas Woman's University||4,265||$18,055||100% (2 reviews)|
|Northern Kentucky University||4,157||$20,256||60% (5 reviews)|
|University of North Texas||4,067||$21,172||60% (5 reviews)|
|University of Massachusetts-Lowell||4,064||$33,574||86% (7 reviews)|
|University of West Alabama||4,018||$20,090||60% (5 reviews)|
|Boise State University||4,017||$24,988||100% (1 review)|
|Kent State University at Kent||4,008||$19,478||100% (1 review)|
|Texas A&M University - Commerce||3,977||$21,628||86% (7 reviews)|
|Colorado Christian University||3,877||$33,434||47% (15 reviews)|
|Central Michigan University||3,811||$24,120||50% (4 reviews)|
|Colorado State University - Fort Collins||3,745||$30,622||83% (6 reviews)|
|Texas Tech University||3,742||$19,260||0% (3 reviews)|
|Sam Houston State University||3,682||$18,664||100% (2 reviews)|
|Concordia University - Portland||3,642||$32,230||57% (49 reviews)|
|Washington State University||3,574||$26,419||67% (12 reviews)|
|Concordia University - Chicago||3,573||$32,880||Add Review|
|Eastern Kentucky University||3,573||$19,948||25% (4 reviews)|
|Florida Atlantic University||3,540||$17,324||67% (6 reviews)|
|University of North Carolina at Wilmington||3,540||$21,246||100% (1 review)|
|University of South Alabama||3,533||$16,292||60% (5 reviews)|
|University of Massachusetts - Amherst||3,499||$35,710||60% (5 reviews)|
|West Texas A&M University||3,395||$9,541||Add Review|
|Western Kentucky University||3,376||$26,496||100% (1 review)|
|University of North Dakota||3,351||$15,895||67% (3 reviews)|
|University of Memphis||3,341||$13,752||33% (3 reviews)|
|Florida State College at Jacksonville||3,340||$9,992||31% (13 reviews)|
|Florida State University||3,306||$18,786||100% (1 review)|
|University of North Carolina at Greensboro||3,301||$22,562||60% (5 reviews)|
|University of Missouri||3,258||$28,348||Add Review|
|Baker College Online||3,117||$9,920||60% (93 reviews)|
|North Carolina State University||3,089||$29,220||50% (2 reviews)|
|Radford University||3,051||$23,432||Add Review|
Online Schools by Degree Level
|#2||Weber State University|
|#3||Southern New Hampshire University Online|
|#4||Thomas Edison State University|
|#5||Columbia Southern University|
|#1||University of Virginia|
|#5||SUNY Empire State College|
|#2||University of California - Berkeley|
|#4||Columbia University in the City of New York|
|#5||Johns Hopkins University|
Highlights of Accredited Online Schools
California Coast University
California Coast University (CCU) hosts an online module with 13 undergraduate degree programs, 14 graduate degree programs, and 16 certificate or diploma programs. The fully accredited, fully online degree and certificate programs have no set meeting times or group projects. Students aren’t required to come to campus or take exams on a specific date. The university offers low tuition rates for both undergraduate and graduate programs, along with interest-free payment plans starting at $100 per month. Students can prepare for a variety of professions at CCU by pursuing degrees in business administration and management, criminal justice, health care administration, education, and general studies, among others. Time to degree varies widely because CCU is self-paced—students have flexibility as long as they complete at least one course every six months. The average recommendation rate for this university is a solid 90% based on the reviews of 63 students. CCU also offers academic credit for work experience or training for professionals hoping to earn an undergraduate degree.
Columbia Southern University
Columbia Southern University (CSU) offers 28 online undergraduate degrees and 12 online graduate degrees. Some programs extend across several degree levels — for example, students can pursue an AS, BS, and MS in criminal justice or a BA, MA, and doctorate in business administration. The recommendation rate for this university is 79% among the 174 students who’ve reviewed their experiences. Columbia Southern University offers three schedule tracks to give students maximum flexibility in their education programs. The LifePace Learning option allows students to complete a course at their own pace between four and 10 weeks. Term enrollment allows a degree of self-paced study within a specific nine-week period. CSU also offers Veterans Flexible Enrollment, which is similar to term enrollment but only available to students using Veterans Administration education benefits. Tuition is $225 per credit hour for undergraduates and $300 per credit hour for graduate courses, including textbooks. CSU also partners with over 2,500 organizations to offer a 10% tuition discount for working professionals.
Georgia State University
Georgia State University (GSU) features distance-learning programs at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and certificate levels. The majority of online offerings are at the associate and master’s degree levels, with 21 associate and 14 master’s program choices. In the online format, Georgia State University also offers seven certificates that allow individuals to earn professional credentials, one bachelor’s degree, and one doctoral program. Programs range from fully online to hybrid, with some programs offering students total flexibility in choosing to come to campus or to stay remote if they prefer. GSU offers many education options for students that want to become teachers or for educators who want to advance in their career, including associate degrees in secondary and special education and master’s degrees in educational research, science education, and teaching English as a second language. Online master’s degrees typically offer the most flexibility for working professionals with busy schedules because they’re designed to be completed in six seven-week terms. GSU ranked #1 in OnlineU’s 2020 Best Military-Friendly Online Colleges list and earned a high spot in the 2019 Best Online Colleges for Low-Income Students ratings. Students can apply for federal financial aid and visit the school’s Scholarship Resource Center to pursue additional scholarship and loan opportunities.
Iowa Central Community College
Iowa Central Community College (ICCC) offers nine affordable online associate-level programs in fields including criminal justice, healthcare administration, and accounting. Online courses start on six dates throughout the year, with two 8-week classes comprising one semester. Each program typically takes about two years to complete if full-time students take two classes at a time. There is a full spectrum of support available to ensure student success. ICCC provides tutoring services through a program called Smarthinking, and the school’s Online Enrollment Representatives provide academic advising for the duration of a student’s chosen program. In addition, students can consult Iowa Central Career Services for internship and job postings, networking opportunities, and career coaching. Counselors can also advise students on continuing their education with higher degrees. Tuition is $315 per credit hour plus $30 per credit hour for e-book rental, and students can rent computers and hardware if needed. Because ICCC is accredited, students can apply for federal financial aid along with some state grants for Iowa residents.
Norwich University (NU) has nine online bachelor’s degrees and 15 online master’s degrees, each with several specialized concentrations. The university has a 71% recommendation rate among 17 student reviews. NU is the oldest private military college in the United States, and its dedication to service members helped it secure a high position on OnlineU’s 2020 Best Military-Friendly Online Colleges list. Indeed, two of its bachelor’s degree programs are available only to select members of the military and intelligence communities: the BS in National Security Studies and the BS in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis. Other options include undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice, business administration, and computer science and information systems. Norwich designs programs so that students take only one class at a time, and most students complete their degrees in 18-24 months. Tuition rates vary by program, and active-duty military members receive discounts on undergraduate tuition rates. NU is dedicated to supporting and guiding students through the online experience, providing student service advisers, distance learning librarians, a technical support team, and a Graduate Writing Center for extra help.
Park University (Park) offers 54 undergraduate degrees and 50 master’s degrees online. Programs include a master’s in business administration, two bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice administration, and a certificate in public accounting. The school has a recommendation rate of 79%, pulled from 14 student reviews. All courses are offered in 8-week terms, with five start dates throughout the year for added flexibility. Most full-time students take two courses at a time and all can access course materials when it’s convenient for them, but learning is not self-paced — students need to meet assignment deadlines. Annual tuition is $11,572 for online undergraduate students and $5,917 for online graduate students. Park provides a host of support services for online learners, including remote tutoring, access to research databases, mentoring through the StepUP program, and job-search help from the Career Development Center.
Southern New Hampshire University Online
Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Online features a large selection of online programs, with eight associate degrees, 99 bachelor's degrees and 86 master's degrees for prospective students to choose from. Students can pursue degrees in fields ranging from business to criminal justice to education and liberal arts. SNHU Online has a 64% recommendation rate based on 371 student reviews, and a generous transfer policy that allows students to apply up to 90 credits toward an undergraduate program. OnlineU has this university at #3 on two of our lists: The 100 Most Popular Accredited Online Schools & Colleges and the 2021 Best Online Associate Degrees list (based on a high return-on-investment rating). Academic term start dates are spread throughout the calendar year and all online courses are accessible 24/7 at the student's own pace. SNHU Online also offers specialized online student resources, including an online library, bookstore, tutoring services, and tech support. Tuition is $9,600 per year for undergraduate programs.
University of Arizona
The University of Arizona (UA) offers many accredited online degree programs for prospective students to choose from. There are options at every degree level: 53 bachelor’s and 99 master’s degrees, six doctorates, and 43 certificates in fields as varied as business administration, cyber operations, engineering management, public health, and special education. Arizona has ranked highly in many of OnlineU’s school rankings lists for low tuition and high mid-career salary among graduates, notably in programs like geographic information systems, environmental science, and nursing, among others. It also ranked second in our list of military-friendly online schools for 2020. The university makes online education flexible and affordable, with classes starting every seven-and-a-half weeks and a pay-per-credit tuition model. The rates are identical for all students in the same program, with no in-state and out-of-state distinctions. In addition to federal financial aid, students transferring from community colleges in Arizona can apply for Bridge Scholarships to reduce costs. To help students succeed, the University of Arizona has established a network of support that includes academic advisers, tutors, coaches, and alumni mentors.
University of California - Berkeley
The University of California - Berkeley (UC Berkeley) has developed highly rated online learning programs to supplement its traditional offerings. The UC Berkeley Extension hosts 61 distance-learning certificates for students to bolster skills in fields such as accounting, web design, professional writing, and paralegal studies. Graduate students can pursue online master’s degrees in information and cybersecurity, information and data science, and public health, with specializations including epidemiology and biostatistics. OnlineU rated these programs highly thanks to their excellent return on investment scores. Further, Berkeley earned the top spot in our 2020 Best Online Master’s Public Health Degrees list. Students of this university engage in synchronous and asynchronous learning and benefit from contact with top faculty researchers and alumni networks. The Master of Information and Data Science program offers three tracks for added flexibility so that students can earn their degree between 12 and 32 months. UC Berkeley also provides the iGrad personal finance tool to help graduate students who pursue financial aid or work-study programs manage their education costs.
University of Virginia
Online learning at the University of Virginia (UVA) provides a great return on investment for many students, which is why OnlineU ranks many of its programs highly. The university’s online Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree program features 12 available concentrations and a high tuition-to-salary ratio for alumni, earning University of Virginia the top spot in our 2021 Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees list. UVA is also well represented in OnlineU’s graduate degree rankings, with highly rated master’s degrees in data science and chemical, electrical, and aerospace engineering. The School of Education and Human Development offers the most graduate degree programs, including a doctorate in curriculum and instruction with five possible specializations, and a number of master’s degrees and certificates. Working educators receive special tuition rates on these programs, and all students can pursue financial aid opportunities to help with affordability and academic support through tutoring, Transfer Student Resources, and Career Services. Most of UVA’s online courses are asynchronous, with lecture and class sessions recorded for students to review at their convenience. Course schedules follow the on-campus semester timeline, and online students must complete the same programmatic requirements as in-person students.
Online students at Waldorf University (WU) can choose from 15 associate degrees, 86 bachelor's programs, and 17 master's degrees in criminal justice, emergency management, public relations, and more. The healthcare management program is comprehensive, spanning all three degree levels and featuring four specializations for master’s students. Waldorf also offers online certificates for extra credentials in fields like occupational safety, homeland security, and human resources. Courses start on six different term dates during the year and last eight weeks. Waldorf has a 100% recommendation rate, pulled from 15 student reviews. The school hosts a program called Start Point that allows students ages 15 or older to enroll in online college courses while still in high school. Tuition for undergraduate students is $290 per college credit hour and all textbooks are available for free through the Waldorf Book Grant and Loan-a-Book programs. Because Waldorf is regionally accredited, its students can apply for federal student aid. The school also offers a number of scholarships specifically for online students.
Weber State University
Weber State University (WSU) offers an online learning experience for a number of its accredited degree programs. Online students can pursue any of four associate degrees, 16 bachelor’s degrees, and four master’s degrees, along with two certificates. WSU is ranked #1 in OnlineU’s 2020 Best Online Bachelor’s Computer Science Degrees due to the program’s low tuition rate and high mid-career salary among graduates. Tech-minded students can also pursue an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Science, one of the university’s highly ranked online associate degrees. The Dumke College of Health Professions is also well-represented in WSU’s distance education options, featuring four-year bachelor’s degrees in health administrative services and medical laboratory science, along with master’s degrees in radiologic sciences and respiratory therapy. Ambitious undergraduates can design an interdisciplinary program leading to a Bachelor of Integrated Studies degree, selecting three of the seven areas of emphasis that offer fully online classes. Some online programs follow the traditional semester schedule of the Weber State campus, but others are self-paced modules that students can start anytime for greater flexibility with coursework. Students at this university can seek financial aid regardless of whether they complete their degree through an online or in-person program, but the application process and aid available may differ depending on the program.
Western Governors University
Western Governors University (WGU) is a nonprofit school with regional accreditation, as well as a 74% recommendation rate based on 667 student reviews. WGU offers 23 bachelor's degrees, 31 master’s degrees, and three certificates and diplomas in four broad fields: business, education, information technology, and health and nursing. The university’s competency-based learning policy allows students to accelerate their program if they already have the necessary knowledge or experience, regardless of how it was gained. This leads to students finishing their programs in three years or less, on average. Students take assessments in the form of assignments, projects, or tests to prove their competency and move forward in the program. Online learning is asynchronous at WGU, so students can complete tasks at any time of the day (though assignments still have set deadlines). Tuition for online undergraduate students is $6,670 per year. In addition, a high return-on-investment score (based on graduate salary and debt data) grants WGU a ranking in OnlineU’s 2021 Best Online Bachelor’s Degrees.
School Data Methodology
Our goal in presenting this school data is to create a standardized and trustworthy method to assess institutions based on valuable statistics.
All schools included above were required to offer at least 10 online degrees. Degree coverage was determined based on data from The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and from schools' official websites, collected in 2020. Annual tuition data was collected from the NCES or a school representative. Recommend rates reflect internal data, which is calculated based on student reviews submitted to our partner site, GradReports.com.
The NCES is the primary governmental entity for gathering and presenting data related to education. The NCES data is updated annually as soon as it becomes available. The NCES does not release data into downloadable formats until it has been approved, so the most currently available data will not be for the most recent academic year.
Earning a Degree Online
In addition to creating a sense of accomplishment, earning a college degree can be a stepping stone to interesting jobs that offer higher wages, paid benefits, and more security. But for some students, it can be hard to find the time and financial resources to go to college.
Over the past 30 years, however, the emergence of virtual learning has increased the number of educational opportunities available to prospective college students, making it easier for some to earn their degrees. Many colleges now offer courses and complete degree programs via the internet, and thousands of students have responded by following this path. Data from 2018 shows that 14% of undergraduate students and 30.7% of master's and doctoral students were earning their degrees exclusively online, and that just over 35% of all enrollees were taking some online classes. The flexibility, diversity, and affordability of an online college education make this an attractive option for many.
How Many Online Colleges Are There?
By some estimates, 10% of colleges in the U.S. are entirely online and 34% offer primarily online courses. A 2019 report projects that online education will continue to grow for the next five years, albeit at a somewhat slower pace than the long and fairly steady upward trend that dates back more than a decade. However, it is not yet known whether the high number of online courses brought on by the coronavirus pandemic will remain a permanent part of schools' offering, causing a steeper growth trajectory than this data suggests, or appear as merely a one- or two-year spike in the charts.
By some estimates, 10% of colleges in the U.S. are entirely online and 34% offer primarily online courses.
Can You Go to College Completely Online?
Yes, many colleges and universities offer completely virtual learning opportunities. Some students opt for hybrid programs, meaning that they take some of their courses online and some on campus, while others choose 100% online programs that allow them to complete all of their graduation requirements from a remote location. Programs are available for every level of degree—associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs, as well as shorter certificate and diploma programs. There are also accelerated programs that enable students to earn their degrees faster. A bachelor's degree, for example, can be earned in as little as two years online, and a master's may be completed in one year.
If you're interested in earning a fully online college degree, you'll find there are dozens of subjects you can study. Online bachelor's degrees are available in all of the most popular fields, including business, psychology, biology, and communications. There are some courses within specific majors—social work, nursing, and other health fields are good examples—that require students to conduct in-person learning activities with the supervision of an approved professional. Many schools feature fieldwork coordinators who help online students make arrangements to complete these experiential courses at facilities near their home.
Which Colleges Are Fully Online?
There are a number of colleges that exist entirely online with no bricks-and-mortar campuses. Examples include California Coast University, Grantham University, and Shiloh University, all of which rank high on our list of affordable online schools. Some schools, such as the University of Phoenix and Southern New Hampshire University, were traditional universities that have converted to predominantly online programs. Other notable universities have created separate online colleges, including Purdue University Global and the University of Arizona Global Campus. Some of these schools are non-profit while others are for-profit, and all of the colleges listed on our website are accredited.
Can You Start Online College Anytime?
Start dates depend on the type of online program you've chosen. Many of the exclusively online colleges operate on a schedule that is different from the traditional school schedule. These schools often offer short terms of four to eight weeks in length that run consecutively year round. Thanks to their unique schedules, these schools are able to accept applications and enroll new students on an ongoing basis. New students are usually invited to begin taking classes within the next available term, which is never more than a couple of months into the future.
However, other schools, especially those that have both online and in-person programs, follow the more familiar semester-based model. Applicants may have to wait for an admission decision for several months, and newly enrolled students may have to wait for the next fall, spring, or summer semester to begin their studies. If the program is run on a cohort system, where each new class of students begin together, students assigned to each cohort are generally asked to wait until the next fall term to begin.
How Many Hours a Week Do Online Programs Take?
One of the common misconceptions about online college courses is that they require less time and effort. Although online students enrolled in asynchronous courses are not required to log in to lectures at specific times, they will still need to devote a fair amount of time each week. Most experts agree that a typical undergraduate, three-credit online course will require a minimum of eight hours of work per week. This may include reading assignments, research and paper writing, other homework assignments, discussion forums, collaborative group projects, and studying for exams.
Online School Accreditation
How Do I Know if an Online College is Legitimate?
If you're considering enrolling in an online degree program, you will want to ensure that the school has been accredited by an approved agency, which signifies that the college or university is legitimate. All of the schools listed on our site have been accredited by approved agencies.
It's important to note that there are a few online schools known as "diploma mills" that are not legitimate, which is why they are not listed on OnlineU.com. One way these schools try to disguise themselves is by claiming to be accredited, but often the accreditation comes from a fictitious agency that is not approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Other telltale signs of a diploma mill include promises that degrees are quick and easy to obtain—often for flat fees—as well as a lack of detailed information about programs, courses, faculty, and financial aid.
Are Online Qualifications Recognized by Employers?
With so many respected, accredited colleges now offering online degrees, an increasing number of hiring managers have come to respect the value of virtual education and accept online associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees as the equal of traditional degrees. Ph.D. graduates may be subject to closer scrutiny, but as long as the individual has attended an accredited school with rigorous admissions requirements and respected faculty, the online Ph.D. should be held in high regard.
Unless you attend a school that only has online programs, hiring managers may not know your degree was earned through distance learning, as diplomas do not state whether programs are delivered online. However, if asked, you can explain that you were required to fulfill the same requirements as your on-campus counterparts, including taking equivalent courses, participating in team-building collaborative work, and passing equally challenging exams.
How Do I Find Out if an Online College is Accredited?
The vast majority of colleges and universities undergo a process of evaluation to determine how well all aspects of the school compare to quality standards set by the U.S. Department of Education. If the school meets or exceeds these high expectations, it is deemed accredited. Not only can an entire school become accredited at the institutional level, individual programs within a school may also be accredited by professional organizations.
You'll find that all of the schools on OnlineU.com are accredited by one of the approved accreditation agencies. If you'd like to do additional research, you can search the online databases of the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Another option is to check the school's website. Some schools will have a special Accreditation page devoted to this topic, or it may be shown on the About Us page. Also, school websites often list programmatic accreditation on specific program pages.
What Is the Best Accreditation for Online Colleges?
When evaluating a college or university as a whole, institutional accreditation can come from either a regional agency or a national agency. Regional accreditation is generally the preferred type, indicating that the school has met the highest academic standards. However, because exclusively online schools serve students across the entire U.S., they have often sought accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), which is a national agency. Founded in 1926 to review earlier forms of distance learning, DEAC is recognized as an official accrediting agency by both the U.S. Department of Education and CHEA. The commission positions itself as a reliable expert in the field of distance teaching and learning. When evaluating online schools, it focuses on accountability for meeting student learning outcomes through an effective, competency-based educational model. Many online trade schools and career schools are also nationally accredited by DEAC or other approved agencies.
Accreditation is an important quality to look for in an educational institution.
In addition to institutional accreditation, many online colleges have earned accreditation for individual programs. Programmatic accreditation is usually awarded by professional organizations related to the program field, and signals that a program prepares graduates to meet industry expectations. For example, many schools seek accreditation for their accounting programs from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), or they might obtain accreditation for their engineering programs from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Accreditation is an important quality to look for in an educational institution. Students must attend accredited schools in order to be eligible for federal and state financial aid programs. Institutional and programmatic accreditation may also be a factor when obtaining licensure or credentials for certain occupations or when enrolling in another college or university to earn a higher-level degree. Thus, when considering attending a particular college or university, students may want to consider the effects of the school's accreditation status on their long-term goals.
How Do I Find Colleges Online?
The internet provides an abundance of information that can help you decide which online colleges and universities will best meet your needs. For example, OnlineU.com—which features lists of online schools ranked by ROI—allows you to search by subject and degree level and to filter for other criteria, such as military-friendly schools. In addition to reviewing the information about each school on our site, you may want to visit individual school websites, where you'll find even more details about specific programs, curricula, faculty, student services, and financial aid.
The following are some useful questions to consider that may help you determine which of the many options are right for you:
Do you prefer asynchronous courses that let you complete assignments on your own time each week, or do you prefer synchronous courses that require you to log in for lectures at specific days and times? Which does the school offer?
If needed, does the school provide financial aid? What percentage of the student body receives aid, and what is the average award?
What kind of student services are available to you as an online student? As an alumni?
What is the school's graduation rate?
What is the ROI for graduating from your prospective program or school? How does the cost of the program compare to your potential for increased earnings over the life of your career?
Does the Location of My Online School Matter?
One of the benefits of going to college online is the ability to choose from a larger pool of educational options in a broader range of prices while remaining in the same location. However, there are several benefits to earning an online degree from a local university or college that are worth considering. Some schools charge a higher tuition rate for out-of-state residents—even if they are taking online courses—and some offer additional scholarships for in-state students. Also, some students prefer to develop their professional networks with nearby residents to increase their chances of landing jobs with local employers. Finally, opting for an online program at a nearby college creates an opportunity to take some courses in person, if you wish.
Applying to an Online School
In general, the admissions requirements and application process are identical for online college programs and on-campus programs. To begin, you'll submit an online application, either directly through the school's website or through a universal college application portal, such as the Common App. Many schools charge an application processing fee, which can range anywhere from $25 to $90. Some schools only charge you the fee if you are accepted, and some are willing to waive the application fee for low-income students.
After submitting the application form, you will be given some additional time to submit the rest of your application materials. When applying to an associate or bachelor's degree program, these additional items usually include:
- high school or GED program transcripts,
- SAT or ACT test scores (not required at all schools),
- one or more letters of recommendation from former teachers or other adults, and
- a personal essay or statement.
When applying to transfer into a bachelor's program or to a master's or doctoral program, you may also be required to submit transcripts of your previous college coursework and a resume. In rare instances, such as when applying to a fine art or computer programming degree program, you may be asked to present a portfolio of recent projects.
If you are applying to enter an online program at a traditional bricks-and-mortar school, you will probably need to submit your application by a specific deadline, and you may need to wait several months for a response. If accepted, you may be able to begin with the next term, although some schools may ask you to wait for the next fall term. However, if you're applying to a fully online school, especially one that offers accelerated programs featuring multiple short terms throughout the year, you may be able to apply anytime and, if accepted, start within a matter of weeks or months. Application deadlines and timeframes are usually listed on each school's website.
Financial Aid for Online Students
As long as they're attending accredited colleges and universities, online students are eligible for all types of financial aid. Like their on-campus peers, students enrolled in online programs should begin by filling out the FAFSA form to determine what types of funding and how much financial aid they may receive.
Most exclusively online colleges offer many forms of financial assistance, including federal financial aid (such as Pell grants and student loans) and work-study programs, and they usually accept employer tuition reimbursement programs. They also frequently offer tuition discounts for select groups of students, such as military service members, law enforcement officers, and employees or members of partner organizations. Many offer payment plans that make paying for college easier for some. However, they generally do not fund their own scholarships or grants, nor do they offer financial aid funded by state governments. These types of aid are typically only available to students enrolled in online programs at state-run and private non-profit schools.
Most exclusively online colleges offer many forms of financial assistance.
As much as possible, students at all levels should search for grants and scholarships—or fellowships for graduate students—because these types of aid do not have to be paid back. When available to online students, work-study programs are another good option because they allow students to earn part of their tuition. However, if you're enrolled in a school that is not within driving distance, a work-study program is probably not going to be possible for you, a situation that becomes more significant at the doctoral level. Many on-campus Ph.D. students receive full tuition and possibly a stipend or other compensation in exchange for teaching and/or contributing to research projects at their schools' research facilities. Logistically, this is simply not possible for online Ph.D. candidates who cannot easily get to campus.
Are There Free Online Colleges?
A quick online search will lead you to a few online colleges and universities that claim to offer tuition-free degree programs, but read the fine print carefully. These schools typically charge other fees—often referred to as enrollment fees, assessment fees, and other similarly named fees for utilizing their services—that can add up to a considerable amount of money. The total price for attending "tuition free" colleges may be approximately the same as the tuition costs at some of the more affordable online schools, giving you more low-cost options to choose from.
Is an Online Education Right for Me?
Attending college online can be an ideal choice for many students. One 2019 survey of current and former fully online students showed that 84% agreed that their online education was worth the cost. Virtual learning gives students the flexibility to get a college education on their own schedules. In many cases, it also gives students more opportunities to find a program that aligns with their goals and price range without having to relocate. Depending on the program, distance education may even allow students to earn their degrees faster so they can get out into the workforce sooner.
Despite the many positive qualities, online college is not for everyone. Those students who need or want greater structure and in-person connections with their peers and instructors may prefer a more traditional college experience. Many younger college students also look forward to living on or near campus, where they can develop essential life skills and build lasting friendships.
If you're thinking about earning a college degree online but you'd like to get a better feel for what it entails, you may want to take a free online course. Quite a few schools offering online programs provide free trials and sample courses that simulate the experience. With minimal time and effort, you will get a clearer picture of how well online learning fits your personal style and preferences.