Online Degrees: Programs by Subject and Salary Potential

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As universities have launched a comprehensive selection of undergraduate and graduate programs, they have also concentrated on expanding their menu of online degree concentrations. In 2014, students had access to more than 36,000 unique degree programs online, ranging from associate degrees in nursing to doctoral degrees in education administration.

Explore Online Degrees In Top Fields
Subjects Degree Programs Online Schools accreditation 2014 median pay
Accounting 2,695 900 AACSB $65,940
Art 1,347 437 NASAD $58,250
Biology 98 67 ASBMB $71,940
Business Management 13,838 1,558 AACSB $74,090
Communications 1,921 775 ACEJMC $50,950
Computer Science 7,437 1,108 ABET $108,360
Construction Management 69 49 ACCE $85,630
Counseling 797 293 ACPE $68,900
Criminal Justice 3,080 920 National/Regional $79,870
Education 3,679 742 CAEP, CEA, MSA-CESS $51,843
Engineering 1,462 503 ABET $75,780
English 203 147 National/Regional $60,160
Environmental Science 234 98 EHAC $71,290
Finance 912 532 AACSB $115,320
Graphic Design 97 43 NASAD $45,900
Healthcare Administration 279 121 CAHME $92,810
History 315 156 National/Regional $55,870
Hotel Management 298 146 ACPHA $45,180
Human Resources 187 98 National/Regional $102,780
Information Technology 398 259 ABET $88,890
Interior Design 87 39 CIDA $48,400
Journalism 476 256 National/Regional $37,200
Law 187 76 ABA $113,360
LPN to RN 156 102 CCNE, NLNAC $66,640
Marketing 1,488 685 AACSB $116,490
MBA 2,664 821 AACSB $105,060
MBA in Accounting 279 256 AACSB $115,950
MBA in Healthcare 103 97 AACSB $92,810
Medical Assistant 297 187 CAAHEP/ABHES $29,960
Medical Billing & Coding 276 149 AHIMA/CAHIIM $34,410
Nursing 1,945 721 CCNE, NLNAC $66,100
Nutrition 321 213 ACEND $56,950
Paralegal 469 349 ABA $48,350
Photography 26 7 DEAC $30,490
Physical Therapy 54 34 CAPTE $82,390
Political Science 714 430 National/Regional $104,920
Psychology 1,095 351 APA $70,700
Public Health 289 129 PHAB $65,360
RN to BSN 67 45 CCNE, NLNAC $66,640
RN to MSN 189 127 CCNE, NLNAC $95,350
493 322 CACREP, CSWE $45,500
Theology 67 37 ATS $41,220
Vet Tech 39 29 AVMA $31,070


Earning a degree requires a significant investment of time, money and effort – an investment that can result in serious long-term gains. Students may ask the question: “Is college worth it?” Although not a straightforward answer, everyone considering higher education – whether campus or online – should understand the numbers before taking the first step. The following list of online degrees takes a special look at return on investment (ROI). It combines salary data from Georgetown University’s, “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” and cost data of online degrees from more than 100 institutions across the country. The goal here is to estimate how much a student could make in four years after earning a specific online degree – minus the cost of that degree. For example:

  • Four years of salary in field (median)
  • – Four years tuition for online program (average)

Estimated 4-year tuition ROI

Of course, the cost of pursuing a degree (online or campus) includes more than just tuition. Room and board, food, parking and other fees enter the equation. Yet by looking at program costs devoid of these non-academic factors, we can more accurately compare the ROIs of online degrees in specific educational fields. Let’s see how the different subjects stack up:

1MBA $284,369 $313,200 $28,831
2Computer Science $284,369 $313,200 $28,831
3Engineering $284,369 $313,200 $28,831
4Nursing $208,839 $240,000 $31,161
5Accounting $206,461 $252,000 $45,539
6Finance $205,780 $260,000 $54,220
7Business Management $197,276 $232,000 $34,724
8Political Science $191,122 $236,000 $44,878
9Marketing $181,953 $232,000 $50,047
10Art $173,721 $220,000 $46,279
11Criminal Justice $155,817 $200,000 $44,183
12Communications $151,981 $200,000 $48,019
13English $149,370 $192,000 $42,630
14Psychology $134,988 $180,000 $45,012
15Education $129,459 $168,000 $38,541


For students considering an online education, whether currently enrolled in a campus-based program or a working professional, developing an understanding of online learning, what it requires, and how it can impact future career decisions is an important step before making a decision. There are a number of reasons why students transition to an online program, including a desire to improve their employment situation, dissatisfaction with their campus-based situation, a preference to study online, flexibility and convenience, accelerated courses, diverse curriculum options and more.

The type of online student is as varied as the reasons students have for choosing an online degree program. The online learner can range from the new freshman (high school graduate) to a returning adult student, a transfer student from a community college to a working professional seeking industry-specific credentials. Whatever the reason for attending and the type of student, every prospective student shares the same common concerns and questions about online learning, degree requirements, and more. Below is a guide to three types of online learners that sheds light into how the type of student impacts the factors that should be considered prior to selecting an online degree program.

High School

The vast majority of high school students aspire to complete a post-secondary education of some kind; however, not all high school students have the same access to higher educational opportunities. The flexibility and customization of online degrees — at private, for-profit and public universities — are two major reasons why online learning evens the playing field for students coming from nontraditional backgrounds. There are different types of non-traditional student, including students living in rural settings, students educated via home school — and international-based students — each of which have different needs and support systems to transition from high school to earning a degree.

Student Profile #1: The Rural Student

Online distance education is a reality for the rural student, which the National Center of Education Statistics defines in three categories: Fringe, Distant and Remote.

  • Fringe. A fringe rural student lives 5 miles or less from an urbanized area or 2.5 or less miles from an urban cluster.
  • Distant. A distant rural student lives between 5 and 25 miles away from an urbanized area and 10 or less miles from an urban cluster.
  • Remote. A remote rural student lives at least 25 or more miles away from an urbanized area and is at least 10 or more miles away from an urban cluster.

High school students residing in rural settings face a special set of educational challenges, including access to local degree programs, isolation and lack of a higher education learning community, and a lack of advanced courses of instruction in high school. For these non-traditional students who cannot attend a physical campus location, online education is a flexible, feasible way to complete — or prepare for — a degree program.

Student Profile #2: The Home Schooled Student

According to a 2013 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), approximately 514,000 students in grades K-12 participated in home schooling. Parents choose to home school their children for a variety of reasons. NCES survey respondents disclosed the three most common reasons for home schooling included the following:

  • Desire to provide religious instruction: 64%
  • Concern of environment at other schools: 91%
  • Dissatisfaction with academic instruction: 74%

Despite the reasons, online degrees offer a number of benefits to home school high school students. First, they provide the opportunity to earn degree credits remotely, getting a jump start on their higher educations. Second, making the transition to a campus-based setting can be challenging. An online program allows students to complete their degrees in familiar surroundings.

Student Profile #3: The International Student

The advent of online education has allowed for educational programs to create a global network — connecting international students to degree opportunities in the United States. For the international student unable to attend a campus-based program due to prohibitive costs or other mitigating factors, online learning programs allow them to attend a U.S.-based university. Prospective international students should keep the following in mind when research potential online degrees:

  • Most universities require a proof of English language proficiency
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • Certified copies of secondary school records are required
  • Some schools may require examination results (e.g., French Baccalaureate, CCE, CXC, etc.

Can I earn a degree entirely online?

Yes. Depending on the specific institution and program, students can finish their entire associate or bachelor’s without stepping foot on campus. For students seeking more personal contact, blended or hybrid degree formats are available. In hybrid/blended degree programs, students complete a portion of their coursework through online and on-campus courses.

What does the online classroom look like?

Today’s online classroom is a bedroom, the park, the coffee shop — it is wherever the student has a computer and Internet connection. Institutions with online degree programs typically use a centralized learning platform that serves as a virtual classroom and allows students to complete and submit their assignments, interact with classmates, email and chat with instructors and more.

How flexible is online learning?

Flexibility depends on the instruction format — asynchronous or synchronous. Asynchronous programs offer a greater level of flexibility, allowing the student to study at times convenient to them. However, students are expected to complete their coursework, examinations, and assignments within the confines of scheduled due dates. Typically speaking, online courses last anywhere between 12 and 15 weeks.

How long does it take to finish an online degree?

That answer is entirely dependent on the student. Time to graduation has numerous factors: the degree level, the program of study, and the course load students take each semester. For example, bachelor’s degree programs typically require between 120 and 128 credit hours to graduate. That means the online student must take 15 to 18 credits each semester to graduate in four years.

Who teaches the online courses?

Online courses are taught by the same faculty that teach on-campus classes. In most cases, online degrees are mirror images of their campus-based counterparts.

Should you go from high school graduate to online student ?
Are you comfortable researching, studying and communicating online ?
yes no
yes Can you set your own study schedule and stick to it ? no
Have you spoken with an academic advisor about online learning options ? yes no
Have you researched specific colleges and their online programs to make sure they’re a good fit ? yes no
It looks like you’re ready to get serious about an online degree. Once you have a short list of online degrees from accredited institutions, find the one that best fits your needs.
Perhaps you should start your post-secondary education with a campus-based or hybrid program.
Speak to an academic advisor at your high school and return to this step.
Start exploring different college options and their online programs in detail. Community colleges, four-year universities and private schools have a wide range of options to consider. Try to narrow down what might make sense to your academic and professional goals.

Community college

Community college provides students with multiple educational and professional avenues to pursue: 1) professional, industry-specific training and 2) a transitional degree designed for bachelor’s completion programs. For community college students nearing the end of their associate degree programs, they might think about completing a bachelor’s degree online. Prospective community college transfers to online programs, should keep the following five points in mind prior to selecting a program:

Step 1
Check Articulation Agreements

Approximately 80% of online students at the undergraduate level have completed credits at other institutions, and the transfer of credits is of paramount importance. Prospective online students should ensure their community college has signed an articulation agreement with the target school prior to enrolling. An articulation agreement signifies that all credits from the community or junior college automatically transfer to the target school.

Step 2
Request a Transcript Assessment

In tandem with Step 1, transfer students should ask their destination school for a transcript assessment. An admissions representative will review the transcript to provide the student with an estimate about the number of associate-level credits that will (or won’t) transfer and why.

Step 3
Check for Tuition Discounts

Some universities offer tuition discounts to students at community colleges with which they an articulation agreement. Prospective students should review the tuition policies of their transfer institutions prior to enrolling. Identifying a tuition discount could save an online student thousands in the short- and long-term.

Step 4
Check Transfer Privileges

Transfer requirements may vary based on a student’s community college degree, whether an Associate of the Arts or an Associate of Science. Depending on the transfer institution, students may be able to enroll directly into upper-student standing, clearing core class requirements with their AA or AS degree. On the other hand, some institutions may require a course-by-course transcript review to clear course requirements.

Step 5
Check for Community College Scholarship Programs

Four-year public and private institutions typically form partnerships with community colleges, offering an array of scholarship options to qualified students. Prospective students should inquire about these opportunities with their destination institution.

Does transferring from community college to an online program makes sense to you?
Are you OK Communicating with students and submitting materials to professors online ?
yes no
yes Are you self-disciplined with your school work ? no
Have you started researching online degrees ? yes no
Have you narrowed your search to a specific online degree program? Does the program accept your community college credits ? yes no
It seems like you may have found one or more online degrees that work. Now is the time to research financial aid options to make your online degree as affordable as possible.
Maybe a campus-based four-year degree is your best bet. Or, try a hybrid program to test the online learning waters.
See what’s out there. Call schools, talk to counselors, and then resume your path once you better understand your options.
When narrowing down, make sure your target schools that accept your community college credits. Now is also the time to explore financial aid opportunities.


Working while earning a degree may sound daunting, but it’s not impossible, especially when pursuing an online degree. An online degree program can be ideal for any and all students, but many are full- or part-time working adults who can’t pursue a degree on a traditional brick-and-mortar timeline. As a result, online class schedules and timelines are typically designed with the non-traditional student in mind, meaning students have the flexibility to take classes whenever and wherever they can. Additionally, some degree-granting institutions also offer accelerated programs or award credit for existing professional or military experience. This type of flexibility lets working students customize their online degrees, allowing them to work at their own pace, which can be much more manageable when one also has to juggle work and family at the same time.

Career Advancement

While working and pursuing an online degree simultaneously is no small task, it can have big impacts on your career. The main benefit for already-working individuals to return to school is that the higher the education level, the more marketable you become to employers. At a time where middle-aged Americans are delaying retirement for an additional 10 to 20 years, staying relevant and competitive in the job market is an increasing concern.

The primary advantages for working individuals returning to school are earning promotions and salary increases within a current occupation, and switching job functions or industries altogether. As a general rule, the higher degree attained, the higher potential salary earnings. On average, individuals holding a bachelor’s degree earn $2.3 million across their lifetime, while their counterparts with only a high school diploma can expect $1.3 million. The take-away? Earning a higher degree can help you increase salary within your current occupation, but if you aim to change jobs, choose your field and degree wisely.

Lifetime Earnings by Educational Attainment
There are many people who make more.than their more highly-educated counterparts.

Source: The College Payoff Study (2014) by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Is it time for you to further your education with an online degree? Ask yourself these questions to determine your next move.
Are you ready to juggle work and family life to continue your education online?
yes no
yes Do you have 9-12 hours a week that you can dedicate to each of your online courses? no
Are you comfortable submitting work online and communicating with instructors and peers in chat rooms, email, and digital forums? yes no
Have you researched online programs that allow you to transfer existing credit or earn credit from your work and life experience? yes no
Sounds like pursuing an online degree while working is right for you. Time to consider your tuition payment options and set realistic goals for adjusting your work and life schedule.
Try rearranging your work and family schedule to make time for continuing your education online. Or, assess your goals to see if you have the time to complete your degree at a slower pace.
Consider your options to take courses at a traditional school. Many adult degree programs offer night classes and weekend schedules for working individuals.
Start digging into your prior work and education experience to see what credits you are eligible for. Then find degree programs that fit your career goals and your previous experience.
Diving in to an online degree program doesn’t have to be daunting. Follow these steps to stay organized and keep your priorities in check.
Select a program

Online schools offer a variety of degree programs and fields of study on par with that of traditional schools. Choosing between the various degree levels from certificate up to doctorate requires taking a look at your current professional path and planning your future career goals. Knowing if you want to move up in your current industry or switch directions entirely will help you choose a field of study, as well as decide how advanced a degree you’ll need.

See what existing credits you can transfer

There are two main ways to gain credits towards an online degree from previous experience: transferring existing credits earned through prior education, and earning credit for the knowledge that you have attained from work and life experience. The former involves transferring eligible credits course-by-course or applying an associate’s degree towards a bachelor’s degree. The latter includes demonstrating college-level knowledge that you have acquired through professional and personal life such as military training, industry certifications, and work experience. This usually involves a Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) portfolio, where you present a resume and work examples to demonstrate your knowledge. Both will reduce the overall cost of an online education and place you on the right track for your experience level.

Check if you are eligible for reduced tuition

Aside from traditional scholarships and grants, working professionals seeking online degrees have several other possibilities for reduced tuition available to them. Military personnel are eligible for federal tuition assistance and living stipends. Many employers also offer reimbursement for continuing education or online degree program costs. Check with your manager or human resources department to see if these benefits are available to you.

Create a plan with your employer

Just as you would with your family, be open with your employer. Let your boss know that you’re planning to pursue an online degree while working, which means you may occasionally need to scale back on certain work responsibilities or adjust your working hours. Work with your boss to understand your priorities and areas where you may be able to scale back and help your boss find a reliable back up person, in case of emergencies. In addition to helping you juggle everything going on, this also shows your boss that your job is still a top priority, one that you’re still taking seriously despite the changes.

Set realistic goals and timelines

Earning an online degree requires a lot of time and commitment, as does a full- or part-time job and balancing the two can be challenging for anyone. Don’t overload yourself all at once. Before committing to an online degree program, take a couple online classes first to get an idea of how things work, how your life would be as a working student, and to find out what you’re capable of taking on. Understand – and accept – that it may take a little more time to complete a degree and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you stay on track. Discussing your goals with an academic advisor—yes, many online schools have them too—can get you on the right path towards earning your degree.


Many online degree programs also serve international students, usually defined as an applicant living outside of the US, a non-US citizen, or US citizen who earned a high school diploma, undergraduate degree, or completed some undergraduate degree coursework outside of the US. Some colleges offer international students benefits such as reduced tuition, application fee waiver, and no admissions test for some degree programs. These benefits, however, vary by institution, so be sure to speak with an admissions counselor to learn about the benefits that are applicable to your online degree program of interest.

Admission requirements will vary from college to college and even online program to program, but, in general, international students can expect to submit the following:

  • TOEFL, IELTS, or other English language proficiency test scores
  • All academic records and transcripts, typically in the original language and accompanied by a certified line-by-line English translation
  • Statement of purpose
  • Resume
  • Completed application form
  • Non-refundable application fee

Student Visas

Colleges offering online degrees are not authorized to grant student visas for international students who wish to study in the US; however, those who wish to complete a degree program entirely online from outside the US may enroll in as many online classes as desired for academic credit towards a degree without a student visa. Fully online programs do not require international students to enter the US so a visa isn’t necessary. Some international students, however, are subject to restrictions. Below is a breakdown of things international students should keep in mind before enrolling in an online degree program.

Visa Type Academic Restrictions / Guidelines
F or M Required for academic and vocational studies. For non-immigrant F visa holders, only three credits per semester in an online course or distance education course can be counted towards a degree. F1 and M1 visa holders must travel to the US. Additionally, F1 visa holders must maintain full-time enrollment and typically cannot take online or distance courses for credit; therefore, cannot earn a degree online.
J Required for participation in an approved exchange program. For non-immigrant J visa holders, only three credits per semester in an online course or distance education course can be counted towards a degree. J1 visa holders must maintain full-time enrollment and typically cannot take online or distance courses for credit; therefore, cannot earn a degree online.
B Required for taking short, recreational, non-credit courses in the US. Not required for fully online courses.

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