Distance learning is here to stay. Initially on the fringes of formal education, online colleges, courses and degree programs have quickly become mainstream. Even traditional campus-based institutions have incorporated online learning into their curricula. In 2013, seven million college students — nearly 50 percent of all those enrolled — took at least one online class, with an estimated 20 percent earning an entire degree program remotely. The Sloan Consortium reports that 74 percent of today's academic leaders rate the educational outcomes of online learning as equal to or superior to those of face-to-face systems. More recruiters than ever before are embracing online credentials. Read More
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The Most Affordable Online Colleges
When looking for the right place to pursue their higher education goals, students often examine a variety of factors. One of the most important tends to be affordability. Those colleges that create a rigorous educational experience for a reasonable, affordable price are obviously quite attractive to fiscally-minded students. The schools below have met that goal of blending a high-quality education with a manageable cost. Our ranking of the Most Affordable Online Colleges takes into account which schools provide the most programs, financial aid options with lower rates and services necessary for online students while also keeping tuition and fees at a reasonable level.
- Accredited public or private not-for-profit institution
- At least 3 online associate degrees or certificate programs (2-year schools)
- At least 3 online bachelor’s or master’s degrees (4-year schools)
- Annual in-state tuition below $3,000 (2-year schools)
- Annual in-state tuition below $12,000 (4-year schools)
Colleges receive a total score based on performance in the following categories:
- Average in-state net price for first-time/full-time undergraduates
- Count and breadth of online programs available
- Student-teacher ratio
- 6-year graduation rate (4-year schools only)
- % of beginning, full-time undergrads receiving scholarship/grant aid from the college
- Average $ of financial aid students receive directly from the college
- Availability of academic/career counseling services
- Availability of job placement services for students and graduates
- 3-year loan default rate
- AC Online Peer-Based Value (PBV)*
*PBV: is a proprietary metric that compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or a similar) qualitative score. It also compares the qualitative score of the program to the score of other programs with the same (or similar) cost. In short, the PBV calculation denotes the overall value – or 'bang for your buck' – of an online degree.Data Sources
Our college rankings are backed by data collected and analyzed from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a program managed by the National Center for Education Statistics. Surveying over 7,500 colleges annually, it is among the most longstanding and trusted providers of U.S. postsecondary information.
- Most recent “Final Release” data available as of October 2017
Find Online Colleges by State
Many of America's top colleges have launched online degree programs. Investments in technology have allowed colleges to create affordable and flexible programs for students. Online classes have significantly improved over the past 10 years and are more respected and accepted by top academics. Universities such as MIT and UC Berkeley now offer a wide variety of classes online. Find programs by clicking your state below.
- AL Alabama
- NHNew Hampshire
- NJNew Jersey
- NMNew Mexico
- NYNew York
- NCNorth Carolina
- NDNorth Dakota
- RIRhode Island
- SCSouth Carolina
- SDSouth Dakota
- WVWest Virginia
Search Online Colleges by Subject
Although many online colleges provide learning options in a variety of disciplines, some excel in a certain area or have special resources to facilitate the educational process. For example, institutions with strong art programs often have custom tools designed to organize, send and receive multiple types of digital media. Furthermore, online colleges that concentrate on healthcare and nursing establish strong relationships with hospitals and other medical facilities to ensure that students get the on-site, hands-on training they need to successfully transition from college to career.
When searching for online learning options, doing so by subject helps students more easily find opportunities in line with their career goals and within the fields that interest them.
Average student debt
$12,500 In 1996
66% of students with loans
Affordable Colleges Online helps students find affordable college options and provides information about financial aid and college rankings.
The Benefits of Online College
Distance learning has a wide appeal to a diverse population of Americans. It offers students a number of advantages, many of which dovetail with other social or lifestyle needs. Online courses and degree programs suit working professionals who are looking to move up to management roles, often with their employers paying part or all of their tuition. It's a powerful option for stay-at-home parents who are preparing for a new or re-entry career when they head back to work. Pearson Learning Solutions Senior VP Todd Hitchcock reports:
"Learning is no longer limited to four walls – learning can happen anywhere – and it already is happening everywhere, everyday. The growth of online learning underscores this need for quality, flexible education programs that meet the demands of our 21st-century workforce."
Flexibility frequently leads the list of online education benefits cited by students and educators. A list of top-five online degree benefits includes:
Time and location are factors that can limit education for students with family/work commitments. Online colleges and their programs break down time and distance barriers, providing classes, course materials and discussions with 24/7 accessibility.
No matter where they live, students can participate in an online degree program tailored to meet their professional goals. Students have access to subject-matter experts and many top-notch professors. The development of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, has introduced students to world-renowned scholars from top-tier universities.
According to Wired Magazine, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York tallies the nationwide student loan debt at $902 billion. After factoring in lack of commute time, parking and related fees, the cost of online classes stack up to those taken in-person. Furthermore, many traditional campus-based colleges that have established online degree components are able to provide digital course materials, cutting textbook sticker-shock to students.
Who is Best Suited for Online Learning?
Any learning experience should be enjoyable and enriching. The question to ask is not, "Can I learn online," but "Should I learn online?" Prospective online students need to consider how they like to learn, because a thoughtful assessment of priorities, strengths, and goals will lead to the best decision.
Online learning benefits each student differently. Some students may need the time flexibility, where they can hop online and submit materials after hours or early in the morning before work. Others gravitate toward the location flexibility, being able to work from home, a coffee shop or anywhere else that fits into their lifestyle. And for those who need a hands-on element to their education, many online programs have the best of both worlds, allowing for remote coursework but including campus-based or other on-site laboratory experiences.
"Some students think online courses will be easier, but they're sadly mistaken. Online students shouldn't underestimate the need for self-discipline and structure."DAVID SCHEJBAL Dean of Division of Continuing Education, Outreach, and E-Learning UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN - EXTENSION
Like classroom learners, online students need to be motivated. Beyond the desire to learn you need to be self-disciplined, have good time management skills, and be comfortable in an environment where it's just you and your computer. You need to be proactive and access the course frequently so you stay on top of the work. You’ll also need to be at ease communicating and interacting with other people without face-to-face contact.
Choosing an Online College or Program
Finding the right online learning opportunity may seem challenging. Whether new to distance learning or a seasoned veteran, it's important to identify the situation that meets your education, professional and financial needs. One starting point is to research and review a ranking of top online colleges. Browsing schools with demonstrated online learning excellence can give students a great place to start.
Second, make sure all target schools have been accredited by one of the six regional accrediting agencies and/or, if it's an online-only school, by the Distance Education and Training Council. Accreditation means potential colleges and its target programs have been thoroughly vetted by an independent higher education agency endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education (check out the best accredited online colleges of 2016). Finally, make sure you know exactly what you need from an online degree. The flexibility offered by many programs is great, but the curriculum, professors and resources should have the same quality as their campus counterparts. Don't be afraid to call up counselors and talk to current and former students.
"Accrediting bodies are starting to require that schools offer the same services to online students as they do to those on campus."BETHANY BOVARD Instructional Designer SLOAN-C INSTITUTE
Once you've created your short list of schools based on the above criteria consider other factors that are important to you. For example, another aspect to think about is student support. Online learners have unique needs and it's important to select a program or school committed to serving those needs through various resources and support tools.
Lastly, assess how well, or even whether, the school trains its faculty to teach online. Not every professor is cut out for online teaching. He or she needs to be comfortable with technology and be able to engage a virtual audience. Looking at a school's faculty website pages might give you a sense of the resources and training related to online teaching that are available to faculty, as well as the school’s expectations of faculty who teach online.
Applying for Financial Aid
Meet FAFSA®, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If you’re applying for financial aid, and you should be regardless of whether you attend a traditional program or an online college, it’s your new best friend. Don’t quake in your boots at the thought of having to complete a federal form. Compared with doing your taxes, the FAFSA® is a piece of cake. Millions of people have gone through the process and survived. You will, too.
This site is not affiliated with or endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education. The content or any information posted on this site does not reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Education. FAFSA® is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.