Online College Classes & Courses

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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.

  • Free Providers


    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.

Featured Online Programs

These schools are accepting applicants for programs starting soon. Learn about upcoming start dates below.

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.

Types of Online College Courses

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:

    Human Biology
    Introduction to Psychology
    Macroeconomics
    Medieval Literature
    Organic Chemistry
    U.S. History

  • Certification/Licensing


    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 Certification

    Electrical Systems
    HVACR System Design and Installation
    Refrigeration Systems

    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.

  • Resume enhancement

    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:

    Business Writing
    Coding, e.g. JavaScript or Python
    Google Analytics
    Microsoft Excel
    Project Management

  • Career change


    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:

    Art History
    Foreign Language
    Parenting
    Photography
    Stress Management

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: 1. Educational development.

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. 2. Workforce development.

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. 3. Personal development.

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. 4. Cost.

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:

  1. Online courses may require more self-discipline because they’re not set to regular class times.
  2. All communication with the instructor and other students is online, so there delays in response times can occur.
  3. 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.

Additional Resources

Accreditation, Colleges & Universities, U.S. Department of Education: Research the types and importance of proper accreditation at the college level. Learn the differences between regional, national, and specialty.

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.

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