Arizona Online Colleges & Universities – Top Online Schools for 2014

Arizona has nearly 140 accredited post-secondary schools with a combined enrollment of more than 1.25 million students. Arizona learning institutions are a powerhouse for enrollment, which has continued to grow over the years. The state ranks 6th for student volume in the various certificate, undergraduate and graduate degree programs. In fact, in 2013, one in 23 students in the U.S. chose to study at the post-secondary level in the state.

Arizona Cities with Most Colleges & Students

Arizona’s diverse landscape brings with it a variety of choices and areas for college students. The state is home to a number of small rural schools, large urban universities and everything in between. From the deserts of Tempe and Tucson to the forests of the north, the following locations boast the largest numbers of colleges and college students:

Highest Student Populations (Total)

  • Phoenix (520,000) – Includes large population of University of Phoenix online students
  • Tempe (129,000)
  • Tucson (99,200)
  • Mesa (46,800)
  • Glendale (36,600)

Locations with Most Colleges (Total)

  • Phoenix (50)
  • Tucson (22)
  • Tempe (12)
  • Mesa (9)
  • Scottsdale (7)

Focus on Phoenix: Colleges and Universities

Phoenix is known for an educational landscape that has to be one of the most diverse in the country. In the greater Phoenix metro area, students can choose from traditional universities, a university medical school, several Native American or Christian colleges, schools of oriental medicine, the nation’s largest for-profit online university, and a downtown community college founded in 1920 -- among the first established in the nation. Other options include the Phoenix campus of Arizona State University, a giant of higher education based in neighboring Tempe. The extensive Maricopa Community College District (MCCD) operates ten community colleges and two skill centers. MCCD's flagship school, Phoenix College -- located in Encanto Village -- offers 130 degree programs and three online degrees.

Private entities include the Barrow Neurological Institute, the world’s largest neurological research and treatment facility. The Thunderbird School of Global Management MBA program was ranked second worldwide for international business schools by U.S. News & World Report in 2014. At this nonprofit university, the Garvin Center for Cultures & Languages reflects Thunderbird's focus on world business. Independent institutions in the Phoenix area include Grand Canyon University, a private Christian school, and the Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry University.

Phoenix Colleges and Online Learning

For students seeking a distance education: welcome to the digital heartland. The state colleges making up MCCD are all about reaching non-traditional as well as traditional students. Mesa Community College has created more than 500 online classes and a selection of 20 online degrees and certificates. Rio Salado College emphasizes web-based, customized studies, serving adult learners through online certificate and degree programs. Two-year Phoenix College has developed a PC Online program, delivering hybrid and fully online programs through its Canvas interface. Degrees include the Associate in Arts, Associate in General Studies and Associate in Applied Science-Administration of Justice. PC also offers an Arizona General Education Curriculum (AGEC) Certificate for students wishing to transfer to public community and four-year colleges.

Among private schools, Thunderbird School of Global Management, located in nearby Glendale, has interactive distance learning programs for MBAs and beyond. Grand Canyon University offers more than 100 web-based bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs. The University of Phoenix, known as the largest private online university in the United States, offers degree programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels wholly online and at a number of campus centers.

Students, snowbirds and retirees flock to Phoenix for desert landscapes and weather that includes sunny days 80 percent of the time. They come for the myriad golf courses, water parks, riding trails, lakes and recreational opportunities -- and the flexible educational options at local schools.

Online Schools in Arizona

Online colleges have been popular across Arizona and the country, especially among private for-profit colleges. The University of Phoenix continues to be the largest single post-secondary educator in the United States. However, more traditional colleges in Arizona have incorporated distance learning into their curriculum recently. Arizona State University, for instance, through ASU online, offers nearly 100 fully online programs to students at the certificate, undergraduate and graduate levels. The online school also dedicates tremendous time and effort orienting new students to distance learning via web-based and in-person tutorials. And planning sessions, document management and extensive use of multimedia allow students to work toward a degree conveniently.

Understanding Cost: Room and Board, Tuition and Other Fees

Cost is usually at the forefront of prospective students’ minds when looking for their college of choice in Arizona. Tuition is typically the largest item on the college price tag, and it differs depending on the type of college, location and whether or not the student is a resident of the state. In 2012, those qualifying as residents of Arizona paid about $10,100 each year for tuition.

In addition, there are often added costs associated with individual colleges and universities as well as specific academic programs. These include special fees for labs and technology, parking, recreation centers, application and enrollment fees, and others. Including fees, the total cost of college for the average undergraduate student in Arizona was $10,600 in 2012.

Though tuition is the biggest cost related to college, students must also consider living expenses when deciding where to attend. The cost of living in Arizona is about 4 percent higher than the national average. Below is the cost of living (COL) for some of Arizona’s largest cities, compared to the national mean (100%):

Urban Area Composite Index Housing Groceries Utilities Transportation Health Care Misc.
Tucson -3.5% -8.1% -2.8% -13.3% 4.6% -0.8% 0.5%
Sierra Vista -2.1% -0.3% -3.5% -2.8% 4.0% -3.9% -4.5%
Phoenix 0.7% -9.6% 8.1% -3.4% 8.9% 8.8% 4.6%
Yuma 1.2% -3.6% 7.4% 12.2% 4.6% 7.8% -2.4%
Prescott-Prescott Valley 3.7% 18.1% -4.8% -8.2% 0.3% -2.2% -0.3%
Lake Havasu City 11.8% 39.3% -7.1% 4.1% -6.5% -2.0% 1.7%
Flagstaff 14.9% 49.3% 6.6% -7.5% 5.5% 0.0% -0.5%

Students and parents exploring colleges should also think about return on investment (ROI). This metric takes tuition and fees into consideration, but also looks at earnings potential after graduation. The following Arizona colleges have a documented ROI higher than their peers. In this equation, ROI is measured by subtracting the total cost of college from the average lifetime earnings of the graduate:

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – Prescott, AZ
  • Arizona State University
  • University of Arizona
  • Northern Arizona University

Sources of Funding: Financial Aid, Scholarships and More

Students looking to reduce the out-of-pocket cost of college have quite a few national, state and school-based assistance opportunities in Arizona. For example, federal financial assistance can make a huge impact for students, no matter what degree level they’re seeking. The first step in applying for federal aid is filling out the necessary FAFSA forms so need-based funds can be distributed. About 62 percent of Arizona’s undergraduate students got federal aid in 2012.

Another form of financial assistance is scholarships, which students can pair with federal aid to further reduce the cost of fees and tuition. Scholarships can come from the individual learning institutions, non-profit organizations, private companies or the government. Here are some of the major establishments that offer scholarships in Arizona:

  • American Quarter Horse Association
  • Arizona Business & Professional Women’s Foundation
  • Arizona Nurses Foundation
  • Arizona Small Business Association
  • Arizona Society of CPAs
  • Arizona State Savings & Credit Union
  • Buzz Sands Chevrolet
  • Central Arizona Project
  • E. Blois de Bois Foundation
  • Flinn Foundation
  • Italian Catholic Federation
  • John C. Lincoln Hospital
  • Medical Group Management Association

Accreditation: Value and Importance

No matter the funding source for college, every Arizona student must research the accreditation of the school before enrolling. Funding programs generally require that colleges meet specific quality standards, as determined by regional or national accrediting agencies. The North Central Association of Colleges and Schools is the main organization that accredits colleges in Arizona. However, certain schools and degree programs within Arizona's colleges and universities may receive accreditation from specialized entities, such as the University of Arizona's law school, which received accreditation from the Association of American Law Schools and American Bar Association. These unique stamps of approval ensure that schools and programs pass review from a board with clear and demonstrated experience in that field.


There are many factors that current and hopeful college students in Arizona must consider, including which college to pick, whether to attend online or in-person, and how to finance the degree. The information presented here should give students a place to begin their search. For more information about specific schools in Arizona, and primarily the available online programs and degrees, take a look at the profiles below.

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Arizona’s list of online learning opportunities is almost as expansive as the Grand Canyon itself. Arizona takes pride in the number of four-year colleges offering quality, full online degree programs. These accredited institutions give students an opportunity to earn the same degrees that their on-campus peers seek and these online colleges are unsurpassed in their flexibility and convenience. Degree opportunities, admission requirements, and course curriculum are all factors in choosing the right program. These top Arizona online colleges are ordered from lowest tuition to highest, so that cost can also be easily factored. Please enjoy all of the wonderful educational opportunities that online schools in Arizona present.

Click here to see our methodology.
Northern Arizona University
Tuition and fees: $7,332 Enrollment: 22,975 Accredited: YES Website: Northern Arizona University

Northern Arizona University offers hybrid, real-time and non-real-time, or asynchronous learning, through its distance-learning programs. In most cases, online college students receive instruction through the online Blackboard course management system and can pursue wholly online bachelor's and master's degrees. Subject areas include but are not limited to English, the health sciences, interdisciplinary studies, and public administration.

University of Arizona
Tuition and fees: $9,286 Enrollment: 33,190 Accredited: YES Website: University of Arizona

The University of Arizona's distance-learning program, "Outreach College," provides both non-credit and credit learning to students. This includes online college degree programs at the master's and doctoral levels that may be available in subjects such as engineering, information systems and management as well as graduate-level certificates. Non-credit online certificates are offered in a diverse range of subjects.

Arizona State University
Tuition and fees: $9,720 Enrollment: 65,501 Accredited: YES Website: Arizona State University

Arizona State University Online College offers a wide range of bachelor's and master's degrees in subjects such as curriculum and instruction, criminal justice, project management, and more. A number of graduate-level certificates are also available through distance learning programming in areas such as social entrepreneurship and clinical research management. The school is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges.

Ottawa University-Phoenix
Tuition and fees: $10,440 Enrollment: 954 Accredited: YES Website: Ottawa University-Phoenix

Ottawa University offers online undergraduate minor and major degrees in fields such as accounting, English, management, nursing and sundry others. Graduate degrees at the master's level can be found through e-learning in the business, counseling and education fields. Ottawa University provides distance-learning students with 24/7 access to coursework and lectures and is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission.

Thunderbird School of Global Management
Tuition and fees: N/A Enrollment: 2 Accredited: YES Website: Thunderbird School of Global Management

The Thunderbird School of Global Management offers post-MBA education online, leading to a Master's of Global Management degree. The online format features access to coursework anytime from anywhere and includes online lectures, and interactive chats and bulletin boards. The program typically takes 15 to 19 months to complete and requires 30 credit hours of coursework.