Online College Degrees

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In 2018, nearly seven million college students took online classes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This number continues to grow amid the pandemic. But why do so many students choose an online college degree? Online programs offer key benefits, including flexibility and convenience. Online students can enroll in top-ranked programs without needing to relocate or quit their job. Many online programs design their format for working students.

This guide introduces some of the best online college degrees, including how to enroll in online college. It also discusses what to expect during an online program and the earning potential with different degrees.

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Starting Your Online Degree



Beginning your college degree online is easier than ever before. Learners can explore more options for online degrees than at any time in the past. Online enrollees can earn degrees in various fields, including business, healthcare, information technology, and education.

Before enrolling in a program, students should research the earning potential for prospective careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers data on median pay and projected job growth.

What Online Degrees Pay Most?

The highest-paying online college degrees include accounting, information technology, business administration, and engineering. The following table includes a small sample of the projected earning potential with different degrees.

Subjects 2020 Annual Median Pay
Accounting $73,560
Biology $69,760
Business Administration $87,660
Engineering $83,160
Information Technology $91,250
Public Relations $62,810

Source: BLS

What Online Degrees Are Available?

Online Associate Degree


A two-year associate degree introduces learners to academic and vocational subjects. An academic associate degree blends coursework within a major with general education requirements. Vocational programs train students for careers in healthcare, manufacturing, personal care, and legal services.

Most associate programs require at least 60 credits. Associate degree-holders can transfer into a four-year college to complete a bachelor’s degree. An academic associate degree often meets the general education requirements for a bachelor’s degree.

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Online Bachelor's Degree


A bachelor’s degree prepares graduates for entry-level roles in diverse fields, including business, technology, education, social services, and healthcare. During an online bachelor’s program, learners complete courses in their major, general education requirements, and electives.

Most bachelor’s programs require 120 credits and take full-time students four years to complete. Transfer students or those who enroll in accelerated programs may earn the degree sooner. Bachelor’s degree-holders can enter the workforce or pursue a master’s degree.

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Online Master's Degree


A master’s degree offers graduate-level training in a focused area. Many online colleges offer master’s degrees in several in-demand areas such as business, nursing, education, and technology.

Earning a master’s degree typically takes two years. Enrollees complete coursework, including a specialization, and pass master’s exams or write a master’s thesis. Graduates often move into decision-making and leadership positions. They may work as managers, school administrators, nurse practitioners, or clinical social workers.

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Online Ph.D


A doctorate prepares graduates for leadership positions and academic roles as the highest-level academic degree. Earning a doctorate requires a substantial commitment. Most programs require 4-5 years, often after enrollees earn a master’s degree.

During a doctoral program, graduate students take courses in their specialty area, pass comprehensive exams, and write a dissertation. Graduates can work in a variety of roles, including as tenure-track professors, researchers, psychologists, nurse practitioners, and CEOs.

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How Do I Enroll in Online College?

Online colleges often use the same enrollment procedures as brick-and-mortar schools. This section details the enrollment process.

Research Online Programs
Start by searching for accredited schools with online programs. Public colleges typically offer tuition discounts to in-state students. Make sure to also check the school’s online student services.
Choose a Degree
Narrow your focus to a particular degree or field. Consider your interests, strengths, and career goals when choosing a degree. Then check which programs offer programs in that area.
Apply to Schools
Check the admission requirements before applying. Make sure to plan ahead to request transcripts, write personal statements, and ask for recommendation letters. Many online colleges have admission counselors who walk applicants through the process.
Apply for Financial Aid
Submit the FAFSA to apply for federal financial aid and research other forms of aid, including scholarships and grants. Contact your school’s financial aid office to ask about institutional support.
Choose a School
Once you receive acceptance letters, choose a school and register for classes. Make sure to submit official transcripts for a transfer credit evaluation and start making progress toward earning a college degree online.

Online College Basics


  • How Does an Online Degree Work?

    Students earning a college degree online attend lectures, complete group projects, and take exams. However, the delivery method differs for online classes. Online learners complete coursework using a virtual learning platform. They connect with instructors and peers through video chat, discussion boards, and other virtual platforms.

    At many schools, the online curriculum closely follows the on-campus curriculum. Programs with in-person requirements typically let online students complete a practicum, internship, or lab in their local area.


  • When are Classes Held?

    Online colleges offer several flexible enrollment options. Many schools offer both synchronous and asynchronous courses. In synchronous courses, students meet at a set time for live lessons. Some synchronous courses include in-person students. Asynchronous courses maximize flexibility by letting students complete course requirements without required login times.

    Some programs also offer hybrid courses, which combine synchronous and asynchronous learning.


  • Are Online Degrees Credible?

    Accredited online degrees meet the same high standards for educational excellence as in-person degrees. Many top-ranked colleges offer on-campus and online programs that use the same curriculum, instructors, and graduation requirements. These online colleges often grant an identical degree to online and in-person graduates, with no distinction on the diploma for students who earn their degree online.

    Many employers hire job candidates with an online degree. Graduates who earned an online degree from an accredited institution also qualify for professional licenses and certifications.


Online Guide to Accredited Colleges and Universities

Earning Credits Online


  • Can You Transfer Credits to an Online College?

    Yes. The best online colleges accept transfer credit from other institutions. Credits from regionally accredited institutions are most likely to transfer. Prospective applicants should contact an admissions advisor or transfer advisor to ask for a transcript review. The review will provide feedback on which credits transfer toward an online college degree.


  • Can I Get College Credit for Life Experience?

    Yes. Many online colleges offer credit for work experience, military service, or a professional license. For example, a prior learning assessment portfolio evaluates applicants based on a collection of their work. Incoming students can also test out of certain requirements or receive credit by exam.


College Learning and Resource Center

Online Degree Costs and Financial Aid


  • How Much Do Online Degrees Cost?

    Tuition for an online college degree varies widely depending on the school and program. For example, two-year colleges typically offer the lowest tuition rates, followed by four-year public, in-state universities. Private institutions and graduate programs often cost more. Finally, the number of credits per term influences costs.

    In addition to tuition, online learners should also budget for technology and textbook costs as well as any other program-related expenses.


  • Can I Get Financial Aid for Online College?

    Learners enrolled in accredited online colleges qualify for the same financial aid options as in-person enrollees. Distance learners can apply for federal student aid by completing the FAFSA every year. Applicants complete the FAFSA to receive federal grants, loans, and work-study aid. Online students can also apply for scholarships, grants, fellowships, and other forms of financial aid.

    When researching financial aid options, make sure to check the minimum number of credits to receive aid, whether a full-time or part-time enrollment status affects eligibility, and school accreditation.


College Cost Calculator: Tuition and Fees



How much can you afford to spend on a college degree? Use the ACO college cost calculator to calculate your budget for tuition and fees. The affordability calculator uses your monthly income, monthly expenses, and anticipated financial aid to determine an annual budget for college costs.

College Affordability Calculator

Break down your current financial situation, and receive a college tuition estimate you can afford to pay.


Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

See articles by Genevieve

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