California Online Colleges & Universities – Top Online Schools for 2016

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A Guide to Online Colleges in California

In California, many schools now offer distance learning programs as part of their already diverse curriculum. Students have flexible alternatives to traditional post-secondary studies, allowing them to continue their education remotely even with other responsibilities top of mind. The California State University system, for example, boasts an increasing collection of online degree options at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Twenty-three of the campuses manage fully online programs from accountancy and administration to public health and water management.

Private not-for-profit online colleges in California also offer flexible higher education for post-secondary students, as well. The University of Southern California’s USC Online, one of the largest providers, has more than 80 fully online programs in areas such as business and accounting, communication, computer science and education. USC Online focuses exclusively on graduate programs with a majority of degrees and courses at the master’s level. USC’s online wing also places significant emphasis on digital innovation, with new technology and approaches integrated into programs each year.

Another way to explore online college options in California is to examine some of the state’s major cities with a clear academic presence. Let’s take a look at two California metropolitan areas making strides when it comes to online learning.

Distance Learning in Los Angeles: Online Colleges & Courses

For distance learners, there are 331 online degree programs in California, with many available in Los Angeles. The online graduate computer information technology program at the University of Southern California (USC) was named the 2014 top online program by U.S. News & World Report, and the non-profit University of La Verne ranked among the top online bachelor’s degree programs. U.S. News also named UCLA second in the nation for its online graduate engineering program. A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll revealed that nearly 60 percent of students agree that online learning makes higher education more affordable and more accessible. All LACCD colleges offer online courses, and West Los Angeles College has an extensive online learning system, including its hybrid degree program options.

Los Angeles is a magnet for individuals seeking a relaxed life style in a city rich in cultural diversity and entertainment — only 59.4 percent of residents were born there. Educational opportunities, including flexible options for online learning, contribute to the many attractions of the City of the Angels.

Online Learning at San Diego Colleges

Many San Diego schools and colleges offer certificates and degree programs that are wholly web-based or hybrid, blending on-campus and online instruction. San Diego State University, for example, serves up more than 20 certificates and five master’s degree programs entirely online. The University of San Diego offers its Master of Education (MEd) degree program in an e-learning format. “Pause, rewind, replay” is the catchphrase at UC San Diego Extension, which presents more than 30 fully online professional certificate programs. Certificate specialty areas include biofuels, business, computer programming, emergency department nursing, project management and wireless engineering.

San Diegans also have access to private colleges and online schools dedicated solely to delivering degree programs over the Internet. Privately owned Columbia College offers 800 classes and 27 degrees entirely online to some 24,000 students a year. When San Diego students aren’t facedown in the books, they may be hang-gliding off the cliffs at Torrey Pines, careening along mountain bike trails, or driving down to beaches where the waves are steady and strong.

Tuition & Cost of Living in California

Tuition is typically one of the first things potential college students think about when they begin their journey into higher education. Although tuition varies by the type of college, location and state residency, Californians paid an average of $12,550 per year for tuition in 2012. The state’s strong community college and public university systems help make online learning an affordable option for many.

Though tuition has the biggest financial impact, individuals must also consider living expenses when making a college-related decision. The cost of living in California is about 32 percent higher than the national average. Below is the cost of living (COL) for some of California’s largest cities, compared to the national mean (100%):

Urban Area Composite Index Housing Groceries Utilities Transportation Health Care Misc.
Fort Smith 3.4% -1.6% 7.6% 4.3% 11.3% 7.2% 3.1%
Riverside City 12.5% 36.3% 4.9% -0.1% 13.4% 4.4% -0.9%
Sacramento 16.2% 35.7% 14.7% 9.6% 14.4% 10.8% 2.8%
Fresno 17.3% 31.2% 15.8% 23.6% 14.5% 6.8% 5.9%
Palm Springs 21.8% 54.2% 11.5% 12.7% 10.2% 0.8% 6.1%
San Diego 32.3% 94.4% 5.5% 1.9% 13.1% 11.5% 5.8%
Long Beach 36.40% 107.10% 6.00% 1.70% 13.60% 9.10% 7.00%
Oakland 39.10% 98.80% 16.80% -5.30% 13.60% 19.90% 19.00%
Orange County 46.40% 142.80% 4.50% 3.20% 14.60% 11.60% 5.20%
Truckee-Nevada County 46.90% 108.30% 32.20% 14.30% 21.50% 12.00% 20.50%
San Jose 56.10% 160.30% 15.30% 37.20% 14.00% 19.00% 3.60%
San Francisco 64.00% 181.00% 11.90% -5.50% 13.00% 17.00% 24.30%

Accreditation Standards in California

It’s important to research a college’s accreditation, especially if a student plans to receive federal assistance. Most funding sources require that a student’s school meets minimum quality standards verified by an independent accrediting agency. California colleges should hold accreditation from organizations such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the region’s primary accrediting body. In addition, many California universities seek accreditation from specialized agencies, mostly to illustrate quality of schools and programs in a certain field. For instance, Stanford’s School of Medicine holds accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, a national accrediting body for educational programs that lead to an M.D.

Best Online Colleges in California for 2015-2016

A growing number of colleges and universities in California added online programs to their degree lists in 2015-2016. Why? To benefit the hundreds of thousands of students in the state who want or need more flexible class schedules. And while California certainly has online program volume, some colleges stand out from their peers when it comes to quality and service. The colleges below have proven excellence in the online classroom, and continue to help students at all levels (and of all types) learn, earn a degree, and move toward career success.

See who made the list of the Best Online Colleges in California for 2015-2016.

RANK COLLEGE ScoreStudent-Teacher RatioFinancial AidCost MORE INFO
1 California State University-Northridge 98.7324:174%

California State University, Northridge offers degrees and credential or certificate programs for nontraditional students looking to further their careers and improve their education in a flexible online environment. The online curriculum for each program is developed by coordinating the professor's goals for the course with the instructional design assistance of a member of the university's eLearning team. This collaboration results in an effective learning environment for students. Matriculated students work in a cohort format through the duration of their chosen program to encourage a sense of community and building of relationships between peers and faculty members.

2 California State University-Dominguez Hills 98.5023:188%

Claiming to have the largest distance-learning program in California, California State University, Dominguez Hills offers multiple online undergraduate degrees, master degrees and certificate programs. The distance learning program utilizes many different forms of media for matriculated students, allowing for easy access to course lectures and materials. Every week, over 20 hours of lectures and other interactive programming are broadcasted on cable television, the internet and mobile devices. The university's main distance learning channel, DHTV, has an archive of videos that can be found through the DHTV YouTube channel. The main technical platform used by the school for all online courses is Blackboard.

3 California State University-East Bay 98.4725:175%

California State University at East Bay provides opportunities for students to gain a bachelor's or master's degree, or obtain a credential or certificate fully online. Some of the online programs offered include: Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, a master's in education leadership, and a master's of science in healthcare administration. The university offers a wide variety of certificate and credential courses online with a large amount focused on the field of education and teacher's continuing education. The continuing education courses for teachers are required to be completed one year from their start date.

4 Cal State Online – The California State University 98.4220:170%

The online program at California State University Channel Islands is offered through its extended university and international programs department. The university currently offers a Bachelor of Science degree in business. The program is offered in a complete online format for students looking for flexibility in their continuing education, and provides students with general education courses at lower and upper division levels that reach into other academic disciplines of biology, chemistry, education and history. The core courses of the online degree program emphasize business fundamentals and economics. Before completing the program students take a capstone class that emphasizes applying their education to global strategies.

5 California State University-Fullerton 98.2924:166%

There are two online degree programs offered by California State University, Fullerton: a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration. Course materials for each program can be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowing for maximum student flexibility. Additionally, course materials can be reviewed an unlimited amount of times for thorough study. Prospective students can access an online course demonstration through the FAQ page of the university's online degrees and programs website. Applicants are encouraged to contact a pre-application reviewer or advisor at the university to get more specific information about each online program.

6 University of La Verne 98.2017:197%

University of La Verne offers a WASC-accredited distance learning degree in several areas, but courses are offered to California residents only. All prospective students must have completed at least 28 transferrable credit hours from another college before applying to the online program. Freshman composition is not offered by the online program and must be completed before applying. Topics of study include business administration, public administration, organizational management and a master's in business. The University of La Verne offers both Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degree plans. Students in the bachelor's or master's programs will complete and submit all assignments electronically using the Blackboard system.

7 Hope International University 98.0814:198%

Through Hope International University's online degree programs, students can achieve a bachelor's degree with the same one-on-one attention provided in the traditional classroom, plus have 24/7 access to class materials and extra flexibility - allowing them to simultaneously establish their career while handling their busy schedules. Students may choose from library studies, teacher preparation, business administration, Christian ministry, and human development. An online associate's degree is also available for students just getting started with their education. Admission requires completion of the online application; a 250-word essay describing the student's five year plan and how the student will overcome their two greatest challenges while attending HIU; and submission of transcripts.

8 Touro University Worldwide 98.073:1100%

Touro University offers associate, bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees with fields of study in business, psychology, health and human services, and general studies. TUW is WSCUC-accredited and combines technology with experienced faculty in a flexible learning environment. Courses are offered asynchronously, which means students can complete coursework according to their own schedule as long as assignment deadlines are met. Associate and bachelor program applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent level of schooling, pass the math and English placement exams and/or transfer from another college before enrolling at Touro University.

9 California Baptist University 98.0318:195%

The online degree program at faith-based California Baptist University is designed to fit the non-traditional student's needs to balance work and family life while furthering their education and career. Matriculated students are assigned individual advisors to help guide them along as they complete their chosen program for an undergraduate degree, graduate degree or certificate. In addition to their online curriculum programs, CBU offers four different “Online and Professional Studies” physical locations in Brea, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside and Temecula. Students have the option of completing their courses online, in a traditional classroom setting at one of their extensions sites, or a combination of the two.

10 California State University-Sacramento 98.0226:179%

The College of Continuing Education at California State University, Sacramento offers bachelor degree completion programs and certificate programs. Students can customize their education according to their scheduling needs with either a 100 percent online course curriculum or a mixture of online and on-campus courses. Other online programs offered through the continuing education program include American Sign Language and even a special major in fire service management. Coursework is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for maximum student flexibility and accessibility. All of the university's programs and degrees are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

11 Shasta Bible College and Graduate School 97.805:1100%

Students looking to earn a biblical studies, Christian ministry or other theology degree online can do so through Shasta Bible College's online bachelor's and master's programs. With certificates, associate, bachelor's, master's and Master of Divinity degrees available, students can pursue any level of education from the comfort of their own homes. Courses at SBC are offered entirely online, with established deadlines for coursework, so students can maintain a structured schedule while maintaining the flexibility to complete work and review course material at their own pace. Semesters are 16 weeks long and begin in August, January and May.

12 Vanguard University 97.4815:199%

Vanguard University of Southern California offers an online bachelor's degree in early childhood education with a Christian perspective. Designed for adult learners, this degree-completion program requires that students enter with prior college credit. Both early education degrees and individual coursework options are available. Semesters are accelerated, offering coursework in an 8-week format, and courses can be taken in any order. Students will need to provide an application, transcripts and standardized test results as well as a pastoral reference letter before their acceptance into the online program.

13 Concordia University-Irvine 97.0411:1100%

Online students at Concordia University Irvine can complete an educational master's program by utilizing a complete internet based course curriculum or face-to-face traditional classes. The university offers students eight different master's degree options, all in education related areas. Courses in each program are completed in eight week increments and the entire program can be completed in as little as one year - or up to two years. Students benefit from holiday and summer breaks as well as flexibility in course make-up options. Some credits may be considered transferable and prospective applicants are not required to take the GRE for enrollment

14 Humboldt State University 96.5621:174%

Humboldt State University's online bachelor's program provides students with an education in interdisciplinary studies with an option in leadership studies. Business and public sector executives and professionals designed courses for the program with the aspiring leader in mind. HSU also offers two online master's programs: an MA in applied anthropology and Master of Social Work. Both programs were designed for working professionals looking to further their skills in their field. Students entering the MA in applied anthropology program will attend a 5-week on-campus institute, then complete the remainder of the program online. In addition to the degree programs, HSU also offers a variety of certification programs.

15 National University 96.0722:141%

Online classes through National University are specially designed to be interactive and flexible. Class forums, lectures, readings, presentations, evaluations, quizzes and exams are all conducted online, and students are able to complete work on their own schedules. With well over 100 associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees and certification programs available, students can choose to kick start their education, finish their undergraduate or pursue higher education - all from the same school. To apply, individuals can complete the simple application process online. Admitted students will be able to begin classes at any time.

16 Bethesda University 95.736:129%

Based out of Los Angeles, Bethesda University of California's online degree programs offer prospective students the opportunity to gain a Bachelor of Arts in Religion with an emphasis on biblical studies, pastoral ministry or Christian education. The university also offers two post-graduate degrees: a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity. This Christian-based university seeks applicants looking to integrate their faith with their academic course load. The university reviews applicant's academic record as well as their moral character and Christian commitment to ensure that the university's goals and priorities match those of their students.

17 California State University-Chico 94.5024:163%

Students enrolled in the online program offered at California State University, Chico can choose between undergraduate degrees, a master degree or a certificate program. Each of these degrees can be completed entirely online or with a mixture of online courses and traditional on-campus classes. In many of the degree programs, the courses incorporate live video streaming of on-campus course lectures. Students can apply to most programs at the beginning of each semester and there is no time limit for completion of undergraduate degrees. The online program is fully-accredited through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

18 California State University-San Marcos 94.4524:173%

California State University San Marcos extended learning offers certificate courses for students to complete entirely over the internet. The program's most popular courses are in subject areas such as career training and professional and personal development. Some of these courses can be completed in as little as six weeks. Instructors for the extended learning online courses are experts in their field and many are nationally published authors. The university offers assistance in those seeking grants for specific qualified courses through the Workforce Investment Act and the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts - both federally funded job training programs.  

19 Golden Gate University 94.3014:1 N/A

Golden Gate University offers a range of WASC-accredited online programs to students seeking to achieve an associate's, bachelor's or master's degree, or certain career certifications. By taking online courses, students are able to attain the same high-quality education as on-campus students, but have more flexibility to maintain their busy work schedules. Some of the online programs offered include accounting, business and management, finance, human resources, marketing and public relations, operations and supply chain management, and taxation. Students from all states except Alabama, Arkansas and Wisconsin are eligible to apply for any of the online programs, and may submit an application through GGU's website.

20 Brandman University 94.0114:1 N/A

Brandman University's distance learning program allows students to pursue undergraduate degrees, postgraduate degrees and certificates in a flexible and complete online format. Students can choose from programs in arts and sciences, business and professional studies, education or nursing and health professions. Students enrolled in these programs benefit from online accessible services such as financial aid, admissions and registration. Prospective students can view course demos, look up the program's technology requirements and contact current faculty and staff through the university website. The Brandman University online program is accredited by Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

21 Loma Linda University 93.263:1 N/A

Loma Linda University offers entirely online WASC-accredited courses, allowing students to complete their education while still attending work, taking care of family or keeping a busy schedule. Students pursuing a career in healthcare can achieve a high-quality education through LLU, including degrees in nutritional care management, occupational therapy, healthcare administration, radiation sciences and cardiac electrophysiology. Because admissions for the school are competitive, students are advised to send their applications, transcripts and all other application elements as early as possible to increase likelihood of acceptance.

22 Azusa Pacific Online University 91.9617:183%

The online degree programs offered by Azusa Pacific University include bachelor's and master's degrees as well as multiple non-degree, credential and certificate programs. Students can pursue diverse undergraduate degrees including, but not limited to, psychology, health sciences and criminal justice. The university is a leader among the nation's higher education Christian schools. Students in the distant learning program benefit from course load flexibility, allowing them to balance their work, family and school lives. Students in the online program learn from the same on-campus faculty and have full access to the university's on-campus student support resources.

23 Palo Alto University 90.1416:1 N/A

As of fall 2015, Palo Alto University offers online bachelor's degrees in psychology and social action, and business and psychology. Students take three courses each semester: two classes taught in an asynchronous format, and one traditional on-campus evening class that's streamed online. PAU uses Zoom video conferencing, which allows students to watch and hear lectures, view instructors' notes andactively engage in the classroom discussion. Students can choose to take the evening class on campus or online.

24 Antioch University-Los Angeles 89.878:1 N/A

Anitoch University's online offerings include five bachelor's degrees and one master's degree. Students can study humanities, human services administration, literature, management, and clinical mental health counseling in a convenient, online format. Anitoch's diverse academic community helps students to gain leadership skills and diverse perspectives that they can take with them to the workforce. Classes start six times throughout the calendar year in seven- and eight-week sessions. Classes are asynchronous so students may log in to view coursework and participate in discussions when it's convenient for them, as long as they meet course deadlines.

25 Patten University 87.16 N/A N/A

Patten University's 17 online degree offerings are designed to challenge students with real-world knowledge that will help them succeed in the workforce. Students watch a 'trailer' that serves as a preview of what they will learn during the course, followed by a preassessment to gauge prior knowledge. They jump into the course materials, reading ebooks, watching videos and viewing resources curated from the internet. An exam at the end of the course determines whether the student mastered the content and provides a grade. Patten offers support for all students, in the form of one-on-one help from instructors, student advisors and peers.

Search Accredited Online Colleges in California

California students looking for online college options tend to have educational and career needs that stray from traditional. Either they work part- or full-time, have a family, or just want the flexibility to work from the comfort of home. Finding colleges and programs with these opportunities can be difficult without the right data and information. The custom search tool below helps you quickly filter through hundreds of California online colleges and programs by cost, acceptance rate, type and more.

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Deans Talk: Inside California Online Colleges

To get a better sense of the true landscape of online learning in California, we asked each of the colleges on our list to answer a few questions about what makes their programs unique. We heard back from a few of the state’s best institutions. See what they said below:

Online Departments in CALIFORNIA

Brandman University

How would you describe your institution's approach to online learning?

Brandman's approach to online education is to provide high quality, flexible, accessible, and cost efficient degree programs to adult learners. In a spectrum where for-profit universities dominate, we provide a non-profit institution that uses its revenue to better the student experience and not the stockholders.

What makes your online programs so valuable to students?

We provide high demand degrees such as a BSN or DNP in nursing and teacher credentialing. We also provide personal coaching, an advisor for each student, and student services provided by one-stop experts so that students won't need to navigate the phone system to receive the attention they need.

Where do you see your online programs in the next five years? Beyond?

We plan to be an innovative provider of competency based education programs by the start of 2015. Students can enroll in a program that measures "what you have learned" rather than credit hours or classroom seat time. This allows a student a self-paced program that could turn their work experience into a degree once they pass a set of competencies. The cost for a competency-based degree would be significantly less and so would the time it takes to complete the degree.

California State University-San Bernardino

How would you describe your institution's approach to online learning?

We take a measured, intentional approach to online learning, utilizing best practices in instructional design to develop and deliver highly interactive online courses and programs. We provide these courses and programs to enable those who could not physically attend classes to gain the same quality education as our on-site students. Our mission to serve our region and beyond drives our commitment to online learning.

What makes your online programs so valuable to students?

The ability to gain a high quality Cal State education despite challenges of location, job commitments and family commitments makes our programs highly valuable for students. Beyond our regional accreditation, many of our programs are members of an elite group of nationally accredited programs. All of our courses are taught by experienced and world-class faculty.

Where do you see your online programs in the next five years? Beyond?

We expect to continue to expand our offerings beyond our current graduate programs in Education, Criminal Justice, Public Administration, Business, Nursing and Social Work. We anticipate adding undergraduate degree completion programs in social work, liberal studies and other disciplines in the social sciences. We anticipate significant growth in student enrollments in both graduate and undergraduate programs.

Palo Alto University

How would you describe your institution's approach to online learning?

We actually have a hybrid undergraduate program, which combines two online courses per quarter with one course taught one evening per week on campus. We believe in the flexibility and convenience of online learning but also feel it's critical for students to connect with their professors and one another. This creates and solidifies their learning community. Palo Alto University's two-year-long, bachelor degree completion programs are taught using a cohort model, and so students take some 22 course together over a two year period, further enhancing their sense of community and their support for one another. 85% of our students graduate with their bachelor degree in two years. Our masters programs are offered in a hybrid format or all online.

What makes your online programs so valuable to students?

We teach our undergraduate courses online, but all of our students are local. They can meet with their professors or TAs, visit the PAU library, work with tutors, and participate in any campus activities they wish. In our graduate masters programs we have students from across the United States and often all seven continents.

Where do you see your online programs in the next five years? Beyond?

Palo Alto University's bachelor degree completion programs are taught in partnerships with local community colleges. We recruit students who have already completed their freshman and sophomore years at the community college, and they complete their junior and senior coursework with PAU. Currently, PAU has partnerships with De Anza College, Foothill College and the College of San Mateo. Over the next 5 years, PAU plans to develop other partnerships with bay area community colleges. In our masters programs we offer the counseling programs worldwide using the global advancement of counseling excellence initiative: education globally online, train locally on the ground. In PAU's science masters programs, courses are didactic in nature and are offered online to a global student body, however, students have the option to come to Palo Alto University for summer intensives or summits. A big piece of Palo Alto University’s future includes a masters program in partnership with Stanford University at a reasonable cost.

Great Resources for Online Students in California

For students taking an online class for the first time, having a solid collection of free resources at the ready can make a difference. These resources could be strictly devoted to online learning techniques, or go beyond the digital classroom to encompass time management skills, financial aid information, or how to make the transition from California college student to career seeker. The following resources are 100% free, and allow both new online students and seasoned online program veterans find the information they need in one convenient place.

Major California Educational Resources