Online College Courses Key Providers, Types of Courses, and the Best Colleges for Your Buck
According to a Babson Survey Research Group report on higher education, more than 30% of college students enrolled in an online course in 2016. To meet this demand, more colleges and universities are making online courses available to both traditional and non-traditional students. Not all of these courses are created equal, however. Some require admission to the college and have standard tuition and fees, while others come from third-party vendors and are completely free of charge. If you have your eye on an online college course, make sure you know the types available, the leading providers (and the differences between them), and why accreditation means everything. Use the following guide to get started.
Key Online Course Providers
Before enrolling in an online course, it’s important to learn about the schools and other entities that offer them. And not only their basic characteristics, but also their similarities and differences and how each could help you meet your educational and career goals. See how today’s most popular online course providers break down.
A growing number of top colleges, universities, and industry experts are partnering with online course providers to deliver quality education to students. Coursera, Udemy, and edX make advanced learning available via Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), designed to accommodate dozens, hundreds, and sometimes thousands of online students. Most free online courses require internet access only, so users from different educational and geographical backgrounds are able to join. Courses cover a wide range of topics, including traditional college subjects, tech skills, and personal development. Keep in mind, while it’s often free to participate in the online course, the provider may charge a fee for grading papers and exams, and for a certificate of completion.
Public Colleges & Universities
Many public colleges and universities, which are state-funded institutions, offer online courses to enrolled students as part of their degree program. The number and type of courses often vary depending on the school and the program. There are admissions requirements for acceptance into a degree or certificate program at public schools, and many online courses require prerequisite courses before a student can enroll. However, some public colleges and universities may offer stand-alone continuing education and certification courses online that don’t require admission to the school.
Private Non-Profit Colleges & Universities
Private non-profit schools are funded by private organizations rather than by taxpayers. These include well-known universities such as Harvard and Johns Hopkins, liberal arts colleges, as well as smaller schools focused on career training. Online courses at private non-profit colleges and universities are usually part of an online or on-campus degree or certificate program, and the school may require admission to a program before a student can enroll in a course.
Fully Online Schools: For-Profit or Non-Profit
A number of schools, including Western Governors University and Capella University, are completely online and do not have a brick-and-mortar campus. Online schools can be non-profit or for-profit, and offer vocational, certificate, undergraduate, and/or graduate degree programs. Admission requirements depend on the school and program. Fully online schools don’t always follow a traditional semester or quarter-based schedule, so students may be able to complete courses at an accelerated pace.
Public Colleges Offering Online Courses
We’ve compiled a list of public four-year institutions with at least 50% of students taking classes online. The schools on this list don’t require submission of SAT or ACT scores, and they have a graduation rate of at least 12 percent. Most public schools are offering online courses, whether it’s only a few classes or dozens of programs. Check directly with your school of interest to see what online courses they offer.
The California State University-East Bay (CSUEB), part of the California State University System, has campuses in Hayward, Oakland and Concord, in addition to several online degree options. Students can pursue both online undergraduate and graduate degrees in areas such as ethnic studies, human development, business, education, hospitality and tourism, recreation and health care administration. Courses are offered in hybrid or fully online formats and delivered through the Blackboard learning management system, where students will access materials, discussions, groups and lectures. Online programs are geared towards working adults and can be completed within 2 years after pre-requisites and with full-time enrollment. With a liberal transfer policy, students from California community colleges and other accredited colleges can transfer in up to 105 quarter transfer units and can in turn transfer CSUEB's online courses and degrees to other colleges and universities. Full-time students at CSUEB may qualify for 1 free online course every term.
Chadron State College has a variety of online program options at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Also offered online are degree completion programs designed for working adults with previous college credits, such as transfer credits, or those earned through advanced placement and CLEP exams, course challenges and the International Baccalaureate program. Some of the programs are partially online and include areas of study such as geoscience, family and consumer science and education. Fully online programs include bachelor's degrees in interdisciplinary studies, business, math and psychology, and the MBA and master's in organizational management. Many courses are available in 8-week, accelerated blocks, and course delivery is through Sakai, in asynchronous format. Although online students can work at their own pace, they will still have specific assignment due dates, along with active and regular participation in each class. Students also have access to a 24/7 help desk for technical and other online course-related questions.
SUNY Canton Online offers over 450 online courses, and 13 fully online undergraduate programs at the associate and bachelor's degree level. Since some programs are available both on-campus and online, students can choose to combine the two and create their own blended program, depending on individual needs. Curriculum may include writing intensives or internships, as with the agribusiness management and veterinary service administration programs. Classes are accessed through the Blackboard online course management system and students can connect with faculty and peers through discussion boards, chat, video conferencing and social media. Online student resources include advisement and first-year programs, library services, virtual career fairs and tutoring. Transfer credits through life experience and study abroad courses are also available to online students. To help with costs, students with families making up to 110,000 may qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship, which is a tuition free college plan for those attending a public New York State college.
Peru State College is a public, 4-year liberal arts college with several online degree programs, including undergraduate degrees in psychology, criminal justice, business, management and marketing. Also available online are the master's in education and master's in organizational management degrees, which have internship and thesis/research projects. Some programs can be accelerated, as 8-week courses are offered in addition to 16-week courses. To further shorten degree completion time, students can transfer in up to 90 credits from an accredited college or university, or up to 66 credits from a two-year college, and may also qualify for prior learning/life experience credits. Peru State College is a member of the Nebraska State College System, so students can take advantage of joint enrollment, and easily transfer in or out credits earned through another member institution. Online students will be assigned an academic advisor and are required to attend an online orientation to help ensure success with online courses.
Online degree-seeking students have plenty of options at Fort Hays State University, as FHSU's Virtual College currently has 50 online degree programs. The majority are bachelor's and master's degree programs; however, certificates and associate degrees are also available, along with doctorate in nursing and post-master's education specialist degrees. Admission requirements vary per program and as an example, students interested in a bachelor's degree in medical diagnostic imaging must meet FHSU admission requirements, along with specific program requirements. Programs are fully online, with exception of the master's in school counseling, school psychology and clinical mental health, which are in a hybrid format. Several have internship components, which can be completed near the student's home. Most courses follow a 16-week schedule, and may include use of online discussion boards, videos, presentations, team or individual projects, labs and exams. Online students looking for additional involvement can run for Virtual Student Senate, earn membership to the FHSU Honor Society and participate in faculty lead and study abroad courses.
University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI), one of 7 public colleges in the University of Maine System (UMS), offers online degrees in English, history and psychology, along with several individual courses. These are 120-credit programs, which can be completed in 3-4 years, since courses are offered 12 months out of the year for increased flexibility. Also available is an online elementary teacher preparation program, which is offered through a partnership with the University of Maine at Augusta and designed for students seeking a bachelor's degree in elementary education and/or teacher certification that are unable to attend an on-campus UMS program. UMPI students can apply for several university-specific scholarships and statewide UMS scholarships and may also qualify for UMS tuition waivers. Another financial perk for UMPI students is the Opportunity Maine-Educational Opportunity Tax Credit, which is available for graduates of Maine colleges that live and work in Maine and are paying off eligible student loans.
West Virginia University at Parkersburg, the largest community college in West Virginia, offers both associate and bachelor's degrees, with several online, hybrid and blended online options. Online degree programs include an RN-to-BSN program for working RNs, a BAS degree in child development and a BAS in supervisory management, geared towards AAS degree graduates that are planning a career in management. Programs may have on-site requirements, as is the case with the RN-to-BSN program, which has a proctored major field test, practicum and field experience. Students will be assigned an advisor at enrollment, and after 30 credits, will work with one in their program department to make sure program requirements and degree plans are being met. Students attending online programs are eligible to pay in-state tuition, as are Ohio residents. In addition, WVU Parkersburg only charges tuition for up to 12 credits, rather than for every credit hour, for further savings
Idaho State University (ISU) is a Carnegie-classified public, doctoral research and teaching university with several bachelor's, master's and doctorate programs available online. Areas of study include education, business, family consumer sciences, leadership, instructional design and technology, athletic training and physical therapy. Also offered are post-master's education specialist programs. Online courses use Moodle for asynchronous and Zoom for synchronous course delivery, and some courses will use both these technologies. Zoom is also used for online appointments with academic advisors, who can also meet with online students via telephone. ISU is a member of the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE), which provides additional opportunities for eligible ISU students to take courses at one of WUE's 14 participating colleges at a reduced out-of-state tuition rate. Idaho residents may also qualify for the recently created tuition lock pilot program, which keeps the tuition rate at a set price while students are earning their bachelor's degrees.
Students interested in distance education at the University of Maine at Machias (UMM) can earn a bachelor's degree in psychology and community studies, college studies (BCS) or business and entrepreneurial studies online. BCS students build their own bachelor's degree completion programs and can choose an area of focus such as health professions or special education. Business students have several concentration areas to choose from or can design their own business major. Also available online are postbaccalaureate certification programs in areas such as entrepreneurship, human resources management, marketing, special education and psychology for high school teachers. Some programs may require internships and field work, which can be arranged in a location convenient to the student. UMM offers a "Mainers in Exile" program which allows previous students now living out of state who want to complete an online degree at UMM to pay in-state tuition. Adult learners out of school for at least 3 years may also be eligible for the Adult Degree Completion Scholarship
Montana State University-Billings (MSUB) has over 240 online classes and a large selection of online associate, bachelor's and master's degrees, plus several undergraduate and graduate certificate programs. MSUB's College of Business offers Montana's only fully online marketing degree, which is a bachelor's degree also available on-campus. Career-focused certificate and two-year degree programs are also available online through MSUB's City College division. Online Students can go at their own pace but may also have assignment deadlines and weekly check-ins with faculty and other students. Transfer students can have credits evaluated prior to admittance and may receive credits for previous college credits and approved previous life experience, can challenge a course through testing and can also earn dual credit while still in high school through the High School Connection and University Connection programs. Online students have access to all on-campus resources, including career services and counseling, academic advisors, tutoring, library resources and the online book store.
Online degree programs at Cameron University range from fully online to partially online/hybrid, depending on the major, and include associate, bachelor's and master's degree programs. As an example, an AAS or BS in criminal justice is available 100% online, while the BS in psychology is offered 83% online, and the MS in educational leadership is 64% online. Other fully online programs include an AS or BS in interdisciplinary studies, and a BS in organizational leadership. Students also have the option to take pre-requisite courses online for majors that are only offered on-campus. Program admission requirements vary depending on the type of program, and some will have field work, capstone, thesis or internship requirements. Online course delivery is through Blackboard, and some use ITV technology so students off-campus can view lectures in real time. Students also have access to online library resources and can request materials not found online to be delivered to campus or home.
Western New Mexico University has over 400 online courses and a large selection of online degree programs at the associate, bachelor's and master's degree levels. Programs such as the AA in liberal studies is designed for students planning to transfer to a 4-year college, while others are designed for students with a specific educational background such as the BSN, where students must be working registered nurses to be admitted, or the MA in educational leadership, which is geared towards education professionals and teachers. The online course delivery system is Canvas, and most courses allow students to work at their own pace, but with specified deadlines for work. Scheduled web-conferencing, on-campus labs, clinical time or field work may be required, depending on the program. Students can work with online student advisors and can access online 24-hour tutoring and tech support. Online student may also qualify for WNMU's Tuition Guarantee, which keeps tuition at the same rate throughout the program.
The University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) has campuses in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, along with a variety of associate, bachelor's and master's online degree programs. Also offered online are certificate and occupational endorsement certificate programs. Areas of study include fisheries technology, Alaskan native language and studies, business, economics, education, government, HR management, public administration, sociology, liberal arts and management information systems. Admission requirements for UAS's e-Learning programs are the same as for on-campus students, but credit requirements for each program vary, depending on degree type and major. Course delivery uses a variety of technology, such as web, audio or video conferencing and satellite broadcast, and students can communicate with classmates and faculty individually or in group meetings. In addition to online academic advisement with an assigned advisor or faculty, e-Learning students can use online resources such as mental health counseling, tech support and career services.
Kent State University Geauga, in Burton, has a satellite campus in Twinsburg and is one of several regional campuses within the Kent State University System. This campus offers online undergraduate degrees such as the associate business degree in office technology, or the bachelor's degrees in public health, with areas of concentration in allied health, clinical trials research, health promotion and education and health services administration. Other areas of online study include respiratory care, insurance studies and nursing. Programs do have on-campus requirements for the first two years, which include university required courses and 36-37 credits of Kent core courses. Kent bachelor's degrees also have writing intensive and experiential learning requirements, which take form as capstones, practicum or internships, and may also be a senior research paper, depending on the individual program chosen. Both lower and upper division courses are available online in accelerated 3, 5 or 8-week blocks during the summer.
SUNY Empire State College has over 400 online courses and several online undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates, including an online BSN and several master's degrees in areas such as business education, policy studies and liberal studies. Undergraduate students can design their own area of concentration much like a major, which can range from traditional to unique. Online graduate students may have opportunities for retreats and residencies built into the curriculum, such as the required executive retreat for MBA students, and field work for education and social work majors. The college's online peer tutoring program is quite helpful to online students and provides tutoring and academic coaching, plus students will work with a faculty advisor when creating a degree plan. Another great student resource is the free Health and Wellness Initiative, which provides face-to-face or 24/7 telephone mental-health counseling, legal/financial assistance, a health-related e-magazine, help with finding health insurance and health and wellness programs.
Kent State University at Trumbull students have several options for completing undergraduate degrees online. 3 online associate degrees are available, along with the Bachelors of Technical and Applied Science (BTAS) degree, which serves as a design-your-own degree. BTAS students can choose from 9 optional areas of concentration, such as business, environmental management, office technology, fraud examination, fire and EMT administration, industrial security, non-profit human services and several in computer technology. This degree works well for first time students, transfer students and those who have already earned an associate degree. Transfer students must complete at least 36 credit hours at Kent State, with 120 credits required overall for degree completion. The degree plan is somewhat flexible, however there are a few courses that must be completed during a specified semester. Students will work with academic advisors to create a degree plan based on individual needs to ensure successful degree completion.
Nevada State College, located just outside Las Vegas in Henderson, is a 4-year public state college within the Nevada System of Higher Education with 3 main areas of study, offered through the School of Nursing, School of Education, and School of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Several hybrid courses are available along with a RN-to-BSN program, which can be completed 100% online. The 36-credit, CCNE-accredited BSN program is for working RNs and can be completed in as little as 12 months. The program offers multiple start dates and 7-week courses, plus students have the flexibility to enroll part-time or full-time. On-line student resources include academic advisement, the bookstore, library services, tech support, the peer-assisted writing center and tutoring. For extra support, students can participate in college prep programs such as NEPANTLA, TRIO and GEAR UP. Students looking for experiential learning can take field courses, for-credit internships and project-based courses that take place within the community.
The University of Hawaii-West Oahu offers online lower-division courses, certificates and partially online degree programs for eligible Hawaii residents, in the areas of business administration, public administration, social sciences, early childhood education, political science and psychology. Students planning to earn a bachelor's degree partially online must first complete lower-division course requirements on-campus or in blended format through UH-West Oahu, another University of Hawaii System (UH) institution or one of the partner community colleges. Students can then complete upper division courses for their chosen degrees online, which are delivered through Laulima, UH's online course management and collaboration system. Other technologies that may be used are Blackboard Collaborate, ITV, UH System e-mail and various organization apps such as Google Docs. Courses are typically self-paced, and students can enroll part-time or full-time. Students work with faculty advisors specific to their area of study throughout the programs and have access to online student support services through the Office of Distance Learning.
Minor, certificate, associate, bachelor's and post-baccalaureate programs are available at the University of Maine at Augusta, with popular choices being in the areas of business administration, computer information systems, justice studies and information and library science (ILS). The undergraduate ILS degrees offered at UMA are somewhat rare opportunities, as most ILS degrees are at the master's level. The ILS program, along with UMA's other online degree programs, will have major-specific requirements for degree completion, such as practicum, capstone, internship or advanced research projects. As an example, bachelor's program ILS students are required to complete a practicum, advanced research requirement or hybrid of the two, while the computer information systems program requires an internship. Pre-admission evaluations can be done for those planning to transfer in credits, which can help in degree planning and cost determination. Qualifying online students may also receive a reduced out-of-state tuition rate, and some may even be eligible for a zero-tuition plan through the Pine Tree State Pledge.
Kent State University at Salem, along with the East Liverpool campus, makes up Kent University Columbiana County. Students at both campuses have access to the same online degree programs, which currently include an associate in office technology, and bachelor's degrees in insurance studies, respiratory care, nursing and public health, which offers 4 areas of concentration. Some of these programs are offered as either online or on-campus programs, while others are available only online, such as the BS in respiratory care and the BS in nursing programs. Technically these online programs are partially online, as the undergraduate university and Kent core requirements must be completed on-campus, with the major courses available 100% online. Online students can apply for several types of financial aid, including scholarships and grants specific to the Salem campus. To further cut costs, high school students can earn free college credits while still in high school through the College Credit Plus program.
Every student is different. Some want credit toward a degree, others want to gain experience and grow within their current career path. Others still may want to learn a new skill in the interest of self-improvement. If you’re looking to take a college course online, which reason speaks to you?
For college credit
Online college courses for credit are geared toward students looking to earn an associate, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree. For-credit courses include general education classes, as well as major-specific classes in areas such as:
Introduction to Psychology
While most undergraduate programs require students to take general education classes, certification and licensing programs typically focus their curriculum on subjects relevant to the field of study. A variety of online certification and licensing programs are available. Here are a few examples of programs and typical courses:
HVACR System Design and Installation
Real Estate License Course
Fair Housing Laws
Appraisal and Value
Real Estate Law
Six Sigma Yellow Belt Certificate
Six Sigma Fundamentals
Six Sigma Tools for Define and Measure
Six Sigma Tools for Analyze
In addition, some fields require continuing education to maintain licensure, including many medical, education, insurance, and social work/counseling careers. Online college courses can provide the flexibility licensed professionals need so they can learn around their work schedules.
Some professionals use online college courses to develop workplace skills to boost their resume. They also take courses to increase their employability or advocate for a raise or promotion. A few in-demand skills that can be obtained through online classes include:
Online college courses can be invaluable for someone considering a career change, whether it’s within the same industry (such as a registered nurse looking to transition to nursing management) or to a different industry (an accountant seeking to become a firefighter). In these cases, online college courses help someone already in the workforce pursue a career change while still employed in their current role.
General knowledge or interest
Many adult learners from all educational backgrounds have found that online college courses can help them learn more in-depth about a specific subject or learn new skills for personal development. College courses taken online for personal interest rather than as part of a degree program can also give learners access to experienced professors and field experts outside their immediate geographic location. Popular courses for general learning include:
Online College Courses for Credit vs Courses Not for Credit
For credit or not for credit, that’s your first question. Taking an online course for credit allows you to receive a letter grade and apply the credit hours toward your chosen degree program. If you take a course for no credit, you may forego a letter grade as well as progress toward the credit quota for your degree. But that doesn’t mean a no-credit course holds no value. Here are four ways you can still benefit:
To move forward in your degree program, you may need to acquire a skill that your fellow students already have. And doing so with a traditional class can mean tuition money you just can’t spare. A no-credit course outside the normal school routine can be a great solution.
Build job skills needed for employability, help secure a promotion, or explore a career change. No-credit classes are an excellent way to show initiative, and to learn outside of your often-busy business hours.
Reading a book can be enough for some, but others prefer a classroom (real or virtual) with instructions to guide them and fellow students to push them. Online courses for no credit, especially when free, offer a zero-commitment way to learn new things.
Most online college courses taken not for credit are very low-cost (and may even be free) compared to courses taken for college credit. This keeps the real commitment relegated to the time spent learning and completing coursework.
FAQs: Online College Courses
Is taking an online course hard?
Online course material can be as difficult or as easy as the same course conducted face-to-face. Three aspects of an online class that may be more challenging than a traditional class:
Online courses may require more self-discipline because they’re not set to regular class times.
All communication with the instructor and other students is online, so there delays in response times can occur.
Online courses can involve more individual reading or study time than traditional classroom courses.
However, many students find the time and place flexibility, the lower cost associated with online courses, and the ability to take courses while working a full-time job or managing other priorities outweigh the challenges.
Do online college courses transfer?
Transferring college courses for credit to a degree program depends entirely on the school accepting the transfer credit. Each college and university has specific guidelines for transferring credit that must be followed. It is important to confirm course transferability with the admissions office or registrar of your target school before you enroll to ensure the course will transfer to both the institution and degree program you intend to pursue.
Are online courses cheaper?
Online courses can be less expensive per credit hour than traditional on-campus courses, but fees vary widely by institution and program. Students can save money on transportation costs such as gas and parking fees, and for students already in the workforce and/or raising families, online courses allow the flexibility needed to maintain their work schedule to preserve their paycheck. Also, some online programs allow out-of-state students to pay in-state tuition for courses, which can be a huge cost savings in addition to saving on room and board.
How much does it cost to take an online college course?
Course fees depend on the provider, but a recent USAToday survey of online bachelor’s degree programs at public schools for the 2017-2018 school year found that in-state tuition ranged from $92 to $595 per credit hour with an average of $305.
How can I tell if an online college or university is legitimate?
Any college you consider should be accredited by one of the six regional accrediting bodies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. If the college advertises national or another level of accreditation, further your research and proceed with caution.
Can I get a completely online degree in any college subject?
Almost. There are some degree programs that have lab, clinical or field requirements that cannot be met by online college courses alone. This includes some in the medical, education, or social work fields. However, hybrid degree programs that combine online college courses with classroom training and/or field work may be offered.
Do online college courses qualify for federal financial aid?
If you qualify for federal financial aid, you can receive federal financial aid for an online college course taken at a regionally-accredited institution. Check with your school’s financial aid office for more information.
Do I need to own a computer to take an online college course?
No, but you do need regular and reliable access to a computer with internet access to complete assignments and communicate with your instructor or other students. Many online schools offer apps that allow access to course materials from a smartphone or tablet, which can be helpful for streaming video lessons, reading course content, or contributing to discussion boards. Also, typing up an essay or research paper on your smartphone could be incredibly tedious and time-consuming.
Coursera: Partners with ~150 colleges and universities to help 33 million online students learn and grow across more than 250 specializations.
edX: Founded by Harvard University and MIT, edX provides hundreds of online learning opportunities to students around the world. From credit courses to recreational learning, the portal allows access to some of today’s greatest minds in a variety of fields.
Foothill College: Offers a wide range of non-credit online courses, as well as a lengthy FAQ section for potential students who wish to read more about the learning option.
Online Learning Consortium: Dedicated to quality digital learning in a new academic age. Its five pillars of success include learning effectiveness, faculty satisfaction, student satisfaction, scale, and access.