Best Value Online Colleges - Optimal Choice

By OnlineU Team | Updated 11/2/2021

Our online Optimal Choice list highlights primarily online universities that offer students the best value for a bachelor's degree, meaning low tuition and high salaries. Each of the schools included on this list has an above-average Salary Score and a manually researched tuition rate that is below average. See our methodology for additional information.

Key insights

  • We looked at schools with over 50% online enrollment to determine which have high Salary Scores and low tuition.
  • Union Institute & University has the highest Salary Score at 97.8.
  • Columbia Southern University has the lowest tuition at $7,050 and a Salary Score of 87.

Read our full analysis below


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Optimal Choice

Optimal Choice Online Colleges

27 Primarily Online Colleges that Offer High Alumni Salaries and Low Tuition

Union Institute & University $16,350 97.79
Excelsior College $15,300 96.51
Thomas Edison State University $9,278 94.20
Capella University $16,065 90.97
American Public University System $11,150 89.54
Colorado State University Global $10,500 88.90
Columbia Southern University $7,050 86.76
Linfield University-Online and Continuing Education $15,919 86.63
University of Massachusetts Global $15,000 86.04
University of Maryland Global Campus $14,970 85.66
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide $13,410 84.38
Western Governors University $7,150 82.02
Fisher College $14,688 81.25
Waldorf University $9,300 79.62
Trident at AIU $12,450 78.81
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The Optimal Choice for College is Often Online

Two of the most important factors in the college decision-making process are affordability and strong student outcomes. Our data shows that the colleges that can often satisfy both criteria are primarily online.

Our list of Optimal Choice colleges was determined via Salary Scores, which represent the employment outcomes and salaries of recent graduates combined with annual tuition fees. By looking at the data from two perspectives — first with an emphasis on Salary Score and then on low tuition rates — we identified 27 schools that offer students the best overall value. This report highlights the top nine primarily online schools that offer affordability and promising employment prospects.

The Top Online Schools for Salary Score

On the Optimal Choice list, five schools had Salary Scores of 90 and above, which means that graduates earn starting salaries similar to the alumni of well-known universities, such as Dartmouth, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. The difference is that these comparable schools have annual tuition fees that hover around $56,800, according to IPEDS, while the most expensive options among the five Optimal Choice schools are less than one-third of that price at $16,350.

Top School for Salary Score
Salary Score
97.79
Annual Tuition
$16,350

Topping our list is Union Institute & University, a very small, private non-profit school with a nearly perfect Salary Score of 98. Four of the six bachelor's programs we studied have individual Salary Scores over 90 — including criminal justice and homeland security, each with perfect scores of 100. The only program that fell far below average was public health. Union Institute's Salary Score is on par with notable schools, such as Dartmouth College (98.8), Georgetown University (98.7), and Carnegie Mellon University (97.7). However, while graduate salaries are similar, Union Institute's annual tuition fee of $16,350 falls well below the average annual tuition fee for these three schools, which amounts to $56,938.

Top School for Salary Score
Salary Score
96.51
Annual Tuition
$15,300

Excelsior College is a medium-sized, non-profit school that ranks second on our list with an overall Salary Score of 97. Two of its bachelor's programs — history and psychology — have perfect program-level Salary Scores of 100, and the five other programs score in the high 80s and 90s. Excelsior's Salary Score is comparable to Stanford University (97.5), Boston College (96.6), and Barnard College (96.4). Compared to these schools with respective tuition rates of $53,529, $57,910, and $57,668, Excelsior's annual tuition rate is only $15,300.

Top School for Salary Score
Salary Score
94.2
Annual Tuition
$9,278

Coming in third place for salary is Thomas Edison State University, which has an overall Salary Score of 94. Among the many individual bachelor's programs with high Salary Scores are two healthcare-related programs: registered nursing and health professions. A total of seven bachelor's programs scored 85 or above, and the lowest-scoring program was accounting with a Salary Score of 38. This small, public non-profit university's score is similar to Trinity College (94.7) and Colgate University (94.4), but its annual tuition fee is about one-sixth of what they charge. Specifically, Trinity's fee is $59,050 and Colgate's is $58,045, while Thomas Edison's annual tuition fee is $9,278.

Optimal Choice

Capella University

Minneapolis (MN)
Top School for Salary Score
Salary Score
90.97
Annual Tuition
$16,065

Offering exclusively online programs, this medium-sized, private for-profit university has an overall Salary Score of 91. Five of the eight bachelor's programs we reviewed have Salary Scores of 86 and above, with computer/information technology administration earning a perfect program score of 100 and computer and information sciences earning a score of 99. The bachelor's in accounting program is the only one below average, with a Salary Score of 19. Well-known schools with similar Salary Scores include the University of Chicago (91.8) and Vanderbilt University (90.5). Their tuition fees are $60,552 and $52,070, respectively, while Capella charges an annual rate of $16,065.

Top School for Salary Score
Salary Score
89.54
Annual Tuition
$11,150

The largest of the five schools on this list, American Public University System is a private for-profit university with more than 45,000 students and a Salary Score of 90. We collected data on 22 of the school’s bachelor's programs and found six with perfect Salary Scores of 100: criminal justice, health and physical education, history, international/global studies, liberal arts, and political science and government. This school's Salary Score is comparable to those of Wake Forest University (90.4) and California Polytechnic State University - San Luis Obispo (90.2). Yet, the American Public University System’s annual tuition rate of $11,150 is about half that of California Polytechnic State University at $23,833 and about one-fifth of Wake Forest's rate of $55,440.

The Top Online Schools with the Most Affordable Tuition

Our Optimal Choice schools with the lowest tuition rates each cost under $10,000 annually and have Salary Scores above 75. This list is diverse in terms of enrollment numbers and types, but all five scored well above average for alumni salaries compared to other schools. It's important to note that when colleges are compared by tuition percentile, the lower the percentile number, the lower the school's tuition fees.

Top School for Salary Score
Annual Tuition
$7,050
Salary Score
86.76

Columbia Southern University has the lowest tuition percentile of all the reviewed schools, coming in at the 13th percentile. Yet, this private for-profit school has an overall Salary Score of 87. Some of the high-scoring bachelor's programs that contribute to its positive score are criminal justice and corrections, natural resources conservation and research, and quality control and safety technologies. However, even its lowest-scoring program — computer and information sciences — has earned a Salary Score of 49, which is average among the other schools offering this program. Columbia Southern's Salary Score is similar to those of Pepperdine University (88), the Georgia Institute of Technology (86.35), and Brown University (86.3).

Top School for Salary Score
Annual Tuition
$7,150
Salary Score
82.02

The private non-profit school, Western Governors University, ranked only slightly higher than Columbia Southern in the 13th percentile. The second-largest school on our list with nearly 120,000 students has a Salary Score of 82. Three of Western Governors business-oriented bachelor's programs have graduates that report high first-year salaries, contributing to the school's healthy overall score: business administration, general sales and merchandising, and marketing. Only one of the school's programs — teacher education — falls well below the average, with a Salary Score of 22. Other schools with similar Salary Scores include Drexel University (83.6) and the University of Texas at Austin (83.2).

Top School for Salary Score
Annual Tuition
$9,278
Salary Score
94.2

This small, public non-profit university's tuition rate lands in the 20th percentile compared to other colleges we reviewed. Quite a few of its bachelor's programs contribute to its Salary Score of 94, which is the highest of all schools on this list. These diverse programs include nursing and health professions as well as biological sciences, physical sciences, business administration, and social sciences. Only one of Thomas Edison's programs falls below average, which is accounting at a Salary Score of 38. The school's impressive overall Salary Score is similar to those of Notre Dame University (94), the University of California - Berkeley (93.8), and Northwestern University (93.6).

Top School for Salary Score
Annual Tuition
$9,300
Salary Score
79.62

In the 20th percentile, just above Thomas Edison University, is Waldorf University, a private, for-profit school with an overall Salary Score of 80. Two high-scoring bachelor's programs that contribute to Waldorf's standing are criminal justice and corrections as well as HR management. Communication and media studies is the only program with a below-average Salary Score of 26. Other colleges that have Salary Scores similar to Waldorf's include the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor (81.1), Brandeis University (81), and the University of Virginia (80.9).

Top School for Salary Score
Annual Tuition
$9,600
Salary Score
74.67

The largest private non-profit school on our list with more than 135,000 students is Southern New Hampshire University Online, with tuition fees placing it in the 21st percentile. Bachelor's degree graduates may have provided the most data among these five schools, allowing us to identify several high-scoring programs that contributed to its overall Salary Score of 75: business management, health services and sciences, and liberal arts. Conversely, some of its lower-scoring programs include public health, education, and computer software. Its Salary Score is comparable to those of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (76.3), the University of Washington - Seattle (75.4), and the University of Wisconsin - Madison (74.6).