Online College Courses

Online courses are a great way to earn credit, begin an education, or continue learning. Here, we outline top questions and resources for taking online classes.

Updated March 21, 2024 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Find Flexability in Online College Classes

Online college classes and courses provide flexibility and convenience. Learners can complete coursework from anywhere while managing family and work responsibilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 37% of postsecondary students took at least one online course in 2019.

Students taking online college classes watch recorded lectures at their convenience. They attend class through video conferencing software. Enrollees can post to discussion boards and submit their work through online learning platforms. Some programs require in-person internships that students complete locally.

The best online colleges offer various degree subjects at all levels. This page provides information about online college classes and courses. Read on to learn where students can take online classes and the benefits of distance learning.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online College Courses

Taking online classes allows students to further their education at their own pace. Learners receive the same quality education as their on-campus peers but with more flexibility. The section below answers common questions about online learning.

Are Online College Classes Cheaper?

Students can save money by taking online college classes. Distance learners do not commute to campus or pay for meal plans. Learners who live with financially supportive families may save on various living expenses, such as rent and food.

Online students can enroll in the most affordable programs without relocating. Some schools charge online learners in-state tuition regardless of where they live. Other institutions offer tuition discounts to online degree-seekers.

Are Online Courses Transferable?

Like on-campus credits, online course credits may transfer to other schools. However, regionally accredited schools only accept credits from other regionally accredited institutions. Course content may need to match equivalent courses at the new school. Transfer students usually apply to new schools at the beginning of their final semester at their current school.

How Do I Know If an Online Course is Credible?

Learners should only apply to accredited schools. Accreditation means schools completed a third-party review process to demonstrate their academic quality. Accrediting agencies approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation evaluate various factors such as curriculum rigor and faculty credentials.

Regionally accredited schools meet more rigorous academic standards than nationally accredited schools. Most colleges and universities respect the credibility of any online courses or degrees from regionally accredited schools.

Can You Get Financial Aid for Online College Classes?

Yes. Online learners at nationally or regionally accredited schools may qualify for federal financial aid. Students can begin the process by completing the FAFSA. The Department of Education (ED) uses FAFSA results to determine students' financial aid eligibility.

Online learners may receive federal grants, loans, or work-study offers. Students with strong grades or financial need may qualify for scholarships. Nonprofits and for-profit companies offer scholarships of varying amounts. Some scholarships support learners from historically excluded or underrepresented groups. Unlike loans, students do not repay scholarships. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Top Online Programs

Find a program that meets your affordability, flexibility, and education needs through an accredited, online school.

Where Can I Take Online Courses?

Students can explore many options for taking online college classes and courses. See below to learn about some online course providers.

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    Free Providers

    Students seeking lifelong learning for personal enrichment often take online classes from free online providers. Top universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT developed massive online open course (MOOC) platforms such as Coursera and edX. Learners can access these platforms for affordable learning opportunities. These easily searchable platforms offer online courses in most subjects.

    Some colleges provide tuition waivers to local residents. For example, City College of San Francisco and City University of New York allow qualifying residents to enroll for free. Some online-only schools provide free courses. Our tuition-free online colleges guide outlines all the options. Learners who are not sure what they want to study can take courses from free providers before enrolling in a paid program.

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    Public Colleges and Universities

    Some public institutions offer in-state tuition rates to all online learners. As of August 2021, students at in-state schools spend an average of $9,580 on tuition each year. Learners attending out-of-state schools spend $27,440.

    Enrolling in one of the nation's top public colleges gives learners access to experienced faculty and rigorous curricula at an affordable price. This option makes sense for learners who seek accredited degrees.

    Two-year, in-state colleges offer the most affordable tuition. Enrollees pay an average of $3,370 annually at community colleges. Learners interested in earning a bachelor's degree can save money by completing associate coursework or other prerequisites at a community college before transferring to a four-year school.

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    Private Nonprofit Colleges and Universities

    Attending a private institution usually costs more than taking courses at a public school. However, enrollees gain access to elite alumni networks. In addition, smaller private schools can provide an intimate learning atmosphere. These schools offer lower student-to-teacher ratios and more individualized attention than large public universities.

    Nonprofit private colleges and universities often cost less than for-profit private institutions. This is because nonprofit schools receive funding from grants and private endowments. Well-endowed private universities may offer more generous scholarships than public universities.

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    Fully Online Schools: For-Profit or Nonprofit

    Some learners take classes at fully online schools, like University of the People. This nationally accredited, nonprofit institution provides free college degrees in health and computer sciences.

    Fully online schools sometimes offer the most time-tested and cutting-edge online learning practices and platforms. However, quality varies by school. Prospective students should carefully evaluate newer online schools. They should also check accreditation standards and performance data.

    The best online colleges possess regional accreditation. However, some possess national accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.

Reasons to Take Online College Courses

Many students take online college classes and courses to get specialized knowledge or fulfill degree requirements. Online classes can help enrollees qualify for career advancement or transition. See below for common online course benefits.

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    For College Credit

    Online courses can help learners earn college credits. Students may use these credits to complete college degrees or fulfill prerequisites for undergraduate or graduate programs. College credits transfer to schools with similarly rigorous accreditation standards.

    Many careers require professionals to complete continuing education (CE) credits every few years to maintain credentials. Professionals can fulfill these requirements through online college classes and courses.

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    To Obtain a License or Certificate

    Health professionals, accountants, and engineers need professional licenses to practice. Many schools offer online degree or certificate programs that prepare graduates for licensure.

    Students with unrelated degrees can take online courses to fulfill education requirements for professional certification. Many vocational schools offer online certificate programs in trades such as auto mechanics and cosmetology.

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    To Enhance a Resume

    Some working students take online college classes and courses to hone professional skills and improve their job prospects. Learners in skills-based fields such as computing may benefit from single courses in programming languages or software. Companies such as Oracle and Microsoft offer online classes and courses for their software.

    Working learners can boost their resumes through coursework that builds in-demand skills. For computing professionals, these may include cybersecurity or data analysis skills.

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    For a Career Change

    Working students may enroll in online college classes and courses to help them enter new fields. Learners can pursue online certificates in fields such as real estate, digital marketing, or construction management.

    Associate degree holders sometimes pursue online bachelor's degrees in new fields. Bachelor's graduates can take graduate-level online classes to help them qualify for career changes. Both bachelor's and graduate programs usually offer concentrations that prepare graduates for specific fields or careers.

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    To Gain Knowledge or for Personal Interest

    Students take online courses for practical purposes. They may want to complete a degree or advance their career. Some learners take online classes for personal reasons. They may be curious about a topic, or they may want to learn a new hobby.

    Some distance learners become experts by taking many online classes in a given field. Others take courses occasionally to gain exposure to new subjects and ideas.

Online College Courses: For Credit vs. Not for Credit

Students seeking college degrees or certifications must complete various for-credit elective and core courses. For-credit courses require enrollees to complete tests, projects, and papers. Students receive grades for their work and must pass their courses to receive credit. For-credit college courses usually cost several hundred dollars per credit. Enrollees must formally apply and gain admission to the college to take these courses.

Learners who want to satisfy their curiosity or learn new skills often choose not-for-credit courses. Less demanding and more affordable than college courses, these classes may not use grades. Enrollees can take these courses without meeting college admissions criteria. Learners can find many free not-for-credit courses online. These offerings make lifelong learning possible.

Professional license renewal may require for-credit college coursework. Some licensure boards accept non-credit professional development workshops and courses as CE credit.

Additional Resources

The ED approves various accrediting agencies to evaluate higher education institutions' educational quality. Online students can use the ED's database to browse accredited schools. Stanford University computer science professors started this global online learning platform in 2012. Coursera features online courses and degree and certificate programs from top universities and companies. Most employers recognize Coursera's accredited, university-backed certificates and online degrees. Some courses include a free auditing option. A joint creation of Harvard and MIT, this MOOC provider hosts university-level online courses for learners worldwide. Users can access some courses for free. The platform grounds its approach in learning research and offers diverse learning tools and interactive features. Since 1992, this nonprofit has advanced digital teaching and learning practices that engage learners. OLC's community of higher education providers and innovators offers online programs, conferences, and workshops. The organization conducts online learning research and offers consulting services to learning organizations. An extension of edX, provides innovative online programs and over 3,000 online courses in various subjects. These free online courses offer flexible, affordable education to users seeking lifelong learning, practical skills, or career advancement.

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