Many students have increasingly chosen to earn their degree online in recent years. Nearly 2.5 million undergraduate students in the United States exclusively took online classes in 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) . For graduate students, an online degree seems to be even more popular, with 42 percent enrolled in an online program in 2019 .
And those numbers keep growing. As of the spring 2021 semester, enrollment in online colleges grew by 2.2 percent . The number of prestigious colleges and universities, including Ivy League schools, offering online programs has also expanded since online colleges first appeared in the 1990s .
Attending an online college—whether that's an institution completely online or a brick-and-mortar university with online programs—can be beneficial. Not only does it broaden access to education for students who are unable to relocate, but the schedule can be more flexible so it's easier to keep working. In this article, we’ll go over the degrees you can earn from an online college and other key factors to consider when determining whether it's the best option for you.
An online college is an institution that awards degrees earned virtually. There tend to be two common types:
Non-profit institutions that primarily serve as a brick-and-mortar campuses, with some online degree options
For-profit institutions that exist primarily as portals for online learning
For-profit and non-profit colleges and universities typically have different kinds of accreditation: non-profit schools have regional accreditation, while for-profit schools tend to have national accreditation. While you should be able to apply for the FAFSA when you attend either one, you may experience greater restrictions if you try to transfer credits from a nationally accredited school to a regionally accredited one.
Depending on your educational needs, you can earn a number of different degrees online—and even certain professional degrees.
An associate degree takes around two years to complete. With it, you can either transfer into a bachelor’s degree program, or begin working in a number of different professions, including registered nurse, web developer, dental hygienist, or paralegal.
A bachelor’s degree takes around four years to complete, though thanks to the self-paced nature of some online degree programs, you may be able to speed up that timeline. With an online bachelor’s degree, you can either seek out a more advanced degree, such as a master’s, or enter the workforce and begin a career in a number of fields.
A master’s degree takes between one and three years to complete. Similar to the major you choose for your bachelor’s degree, you can expect to focus almost exclusively on a particular subject or area, such as applied data science, international business, and mechanical engineering.
Learn more: Is a Master’s Degree Worth It?
A doctorate, or PhD, is a terminal degree in many disciplines, and generally takes between four and seven years. While it’s less common to earn your doctorate degree online, there are some programs available to explore, though certain disciplines may be limited.
A law degree, or JD, is a professional degree that takes around three years and is the primary credential for people who wish to practice law. As with a doctoral degree, it’s possible to earn your law degree from an online university, though less common, as there aren’t yet a wide variety of options available.
Education at any level has benefits. Associate degree holders earn $157 median more per week than high school graduates, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) . That figure jumps to $524 per week with a bachelor’s degree. Out of the occupations BLS tracks, around half require an academic degree, meaning you may qualify for more jobs .
There are numerous other benefits associated with attending an online college or degree program:
The costs associated with studying at an online college may be lower than attending an in-person institution, especially since you won’t be responsible for expenses like commuting to campus. Tuition and fees differ by institution and even program, but US News estimates that online bachelor’s degree students will pay a total cost of between $38,496 to $60,593 . The average total cost of attending an in-state public college is $103,456 when accounting for additional costs like room and board .
Online classes tend to fall into one of two categories: synchronous classes (meaning you and your classmates meet with your instructor at a set time) or asynchronous classes (meaning you do not meet with your instructor, but instead work through lessons and assignments individually). With either one, you can decide your learning space, studying where it’s most comfortable or convenient for you. Online classes also tend to be more flexible than in-person classes, which can be helpful if you’d prefer to keep working while attending school.
Earning your degree from an online college often necessitates greater time management and self-discipline than attending in-person classes because sitting down to learn, study, and complete assignments is up to you. While attending an online college isn’t for everyone because of those demands, it can help you refine important transferable skills, like working independently, that employers value.
As with an in-person institution, there are certain factors to consider when determining whether attending an online college or university is the best option for you. It’s a good idea to research which degree programs are available in the subject or discipline you’d like to study, and spend time reviewing what learning in each program will look like.
Let’s go over a few ways you can explore your options:
There are many college majors available to study online. Spend time figuring out what you’d like to study, and what type of degree you’d like to earn in that subject, and then verify which online colleges offer degree programs in that discipline. Start keeping a list of programs that sound like they’d be a good potential fit.
Once you’ve found potential degree programs, verify the type of accreditation each online college or university holds. Accreditation means that an online institution has been vetted by an independent accreditation agency for quality assurance. Online-only colleges tend to hold national accreditation, while in-person colleges that offer programs online tend to hold regional accreditation. For example, all eight Ivy League schools are regionally accredited.
Transferring credits: Finding an accredited program can be especially important if you’re interested in transferring your credits or degree into another program, such as applying to a bachelor’s degree program after earning your associate degree. Every college sets its own transfer standards, but it can be harder to transfer a degree you earned from a nationally accredited program to a regionally accredited program.
Financial aid: Confirming that a school is accredited is also important if you intend to apply for federal financial aid because the United States government does not provide funding—in terms of grants or loans—to non-accredited institutions.
Learn more: When is FAFSA Due? Important Dates
Once you have an idea about what you’d like to study, where you can do that, and how each school is accredited, you should spend time researching the programs on your list and pay attention to the following factors:
Coursework: Embarking on a degree program is an exciting choice, but it’s important to ensure it’s the right one for you. Review the coursework you’ll be expected to complete for each program and make sure the course descriptions match the outcomes you hope to achieve. Look to make sure the general scope of the program aligns with your educational goals, and that you’ll walk away having gained new knowledge or strengthened your skills.
Types of classes: When you take your classes fully online, you may have the option of synchronous or asynchronous classes. Look at what types of classes each program offers, and whether it aligns with your needs. For example, if you intend to keep working full-time while going to school, it may be helpful to find a program with asynchronous classes—or synchronous classes offered in the evening.
Faculty: Spend time reading faculty bios for each program, and pay attention to the credentials and experience each professor or instructor has to offer. Depending on what you want to study, you may want to seek out faculty with more professional experience—or a more pedigreed academic background.
Location: Even though an online college can provide more location flexibility because you can learn from anywhere there’s internet access, you may want to investigate in-state options because, as with in-person public institutions, tuition may be lower than if you study out-of-state. But typically, online colleges are designed with a wide variety of students in mind, not just local attendees, so their pricing reflects that geographically diverse study body.
Non-profit vs. for-profit: When they first appeared in the 1990s, online colleges gained a reputation for being much less rigorous about the students they admitted, which contributed, in part, to the idea that online education is less valuable than one achieved in person. That perception has shifted over the years, but for-profit institutions are more likely to be nationally accredited, which may mean the degree you earn isn’t always as transferable as regional accreditation.
There are a number of ways you can strengthen your educational credentials—or learn about a specific subject—without enrolling in a longer degree program. Let’s go over a few.
Many colleges and universities offer certificate programs designed to teach you skills in a number of professional areas, like copyediting, commercial property management, financial planning, and more. On Coursera, you can enroll in beginner and advanced Professional Certificate programs from industry leaders such as Google, IBM, and Meta. Each certificate program takes between five and seven months to complete, and can help you develop important job-ready skills.
If you’d like a more in-depth, but ultimately shorter, dive into a subject or field, bootcamps can be a helpful alternative to degree programs. Generally designed for professions in the tech industry, you can gain job-ready skills in areas like computer science, data science, and UX. Bootcamps are designed to be completed in a concentrated amount of time, so you can accelerate your learning.
Without enrolling in a full degree program, you can take independent courses on Coursera from a number of renowned university partners. Learn about statistics from Stanford University, financial markets from Yale University, or gain an introduction to user experience (UX) design from Georgia Tech. Explore more on Coursera.
There are a number of bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees from top US universities that are regionally accredited, such as the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois, on Coursera. You can also find an array of prestigious European universities. With each program, you’ll learn from the same faculty members who teach on-campus for their respective institutions.
1. National Center for Education Statistics. “The NCES Fast Facts Tool, https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80." Accessed January 28, 2022.
2. The College Board. “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2021, https://research.collegeboard.org/pdf/trends-college-pricing-student-aid-2021.pdf." Accessed January 28, 2022.
3. EdScoop. “Online College Enrollment Growth Outpaces Real-World Institutions, https://edscoop.com/online-institutions-enrollment-outpaces-real-world-college-thanks-part-time-students/." Accessed January 28, 2022.
4. University of Denver. “Distance Education and the Evolution of Online Learning in the United States, https://digitalcommons.du.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=law_facpub." Accessed January 28, 2022.
5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education Pays, 2020 : Career Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/data-on-display/education-pays.htm." Accessed January 28, 2022.
6. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Projected Openings in Occupations That Require a College Degree : Career Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/careeroutlook/2021/article/projected-openings-college-degree.htm." Accessed January 28, 2022.
7. US News and World Report. “3 Costs Online Education Saves Students, https://www.usnews.com/education/online-learning-lessons/articles/2017-06-02/3-costs-online-education-saves-students." Accessed January 28, 2022.
8. Education Data Initiative. “Average Cost of College : Yearly Tuition + Expenses, https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college." Accessed January 28, 2022.
9. Coursera. "Drivers of Retention in Online Degree Programs, https://about.coursera.org/press/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/Courseras-Drivers-of-Retention-in-Online-Degree-Programs-Report-1.pdf." Accessed May 26, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.