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Online Degrees

Part of Western Governors University

Online University—A Comprehensive Guide

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The world is changing. Online technology has made it possible to not only attend an online college but to achieve a high-quality education anywhere in the country.

We’ve seen the effects of online colleges everywhere. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all public universities offered some sort of learning online. In 2019, the University of Pennsylvania became the first Ivy League school to offer a bachelor’s program entirely online.

Millions of students have used online colleges to improve their career prospects, grow their knowledge, and obtain a degree. But why are online colleges so popular, and how do you know which might be best for you?

We’ve put together a comprehensive and valuable guide all about online colleges and universities. Here’s everything you’ll need to know before applying online:

Online colleges and universities in a nutshell: the statistics.

Let’s look at online colleges and universities by the numbers:

  • Enrollment. Over six million Americans are currently pursuing an education online. And the numbers are climbing. Of the 19.7 million students enrolled in undergraduate programs in 2017, about one-third had enrolled in some form of remote learning. Over three million had enrolled exclusively in online programs.

  • Demand. Demand for online programs is on the rise. According to one trends report, 98% of administrators reported that online education demand has either stayed the same or increased in recent years.

  • Demographics. It’s never too late to get started. The average online college student is 32 years old and 84% of them are already employed. Older students flock to online colleges for their flexibility in scheduling, location, and course offerings.

  • Going back to school. Just 5% of online college entries are first-time students. Online colleges and universities are fast becoming a top choice for people who have already entered a career and need new skills, want to go back and finish their degrees, need a credential to move up in their careers, or people who want to change fields.

  • Health and business are popular. Together, health and business studies make up about 61% of the pursuits for those in online colleges. 

  • Many colleges offer a hybrid experience. Does the experience have to be completed online, and online only? In many cases, a hybrid experience works as well. One survey found that 47% of students reported a completely online experience. 

  • Part-time students. The majority of online college students—56%—are studying using a self-paced model. This is a necessity for people who have to work to support themselves while getting their degrees.

Why are so many people moving to the online model? It’s not only thanks to the benefits of remote learning. It’s because…

Online colleges and online universities offer world-class education.

True, not every online college or university is built the same. It helps to know what separates “degree mills” from the best online colleges. But once you know how to choose your online college the right way, you’ll find that the education will be well worth the investment.

Many online students are going back to college for the second time.

These people often have full-time schedules, families to take care of, and other obligations. In many cases, an online university degree is the only option for career advancement.

Job placement and career opportunities.

Many online universities know exactly why students are coming back to school: they want to change their careers or improve their career prospects. That’s why the best online colleges emphasize career-focused degrees to help students be prepared for a job and career opportunities. This also fits well with the results-first mindset of younger generations who need an education that’s worth the investment.

But even these statistics and lessons don’t tell the full story. That’s why we’ve assembled a resource that explains everything you’ll need to know about online colleges and online universities:

What are online colleges and online universities?

Let’s start with a definition.

What makes a college or university “online”? After all, the lines are blurring these days. Many long-established in-person universities now offer online degrees. Many online colleges include in-person programs. What separates the two?

  • Our definition: An online college or university refers to universities that primarily cater to online-obtained degrees.

There are “hybrid” universities that mostly offer online programs. (Oakland University, for example, is an in-person university that has mostly online programs). But for the purposes of our discussion here, an online university refers to one that focuses primarily on its online offerings.

The top online colleges and online universities.

Now that we have our definition, let’s look at specific examples of online universities. Here are some of the names by enrollment:

Other universities with online offerings may boast similarly large enrollment. But in those cases, only a portion of this enrollment is online. For example, University of Central Florida has a large number of online students, including 10,000 of its approximate 68,000 enrollment.

How do online courses work?

Close your eyes and picture the standard university classroom experience. It’s simple: chalkboard, rows of students, and a professor holding court.

The online experience is less intuitive if you haven’t tried it out before. But it’s surprisingly simple. Here are some of the ways online technology make online courses work for remote students:


Even in-person testing is often subject to electronic processing these days. Remote testing is especially easy because it allows students to log in from home. Students can send in essays remotely or fill out online forms to complete their examinations.


Classrooms and lectures work via video. It’s also possible for students to download PowerPoint presentations on computers. Students can listen to lectures any time. They can supplement the lectures with PowerPoint presentations and other files. And they can take notes on their computers.


Any assignments—such as reading assignments—that take place outside of the classroom are as easy to handle at home as they would be in the university setting. The student simply has to complete the assignments at their own pace. This is ideal for students who work full time.

Course materials.

Course materials are available for download and viewing at any time. This can offer a significant advantage. There is less note-taking for students and it’s easier to find course materials at a whim. Students can perform coursework at home or even on a laptop in a coffee shop.

Technology requirements for online degrees.

Given these technology requirements, should students prepare themselves for a hefty bill at the local electronics store? Not necessarily. 

A public library, for example, can furnish almost everything a student would need to complete an online degree. Here are some of the technology requirements to expect:

  • A computer with a recent operating system, such as Windows, Mac, or Linux. 

  • Office software. Students may have to open files such as PowerPoints. The good news is it’s easy to access these files online (for example, by opening PowerPoint with Google Docs). 

  • File storage. Students will also need storage space for files. Online services such as Google Drive and Dropbox offer free storage options.

  • High-speed internet access. This is an obvious requirement. But the good news is that this isn’t difficult to find in the U.S. Over 110 million households meet this requirement. Public Wi-Fi is another option. 

  • Interactive tools. A web camera, speakers/headphones, and a microphone make it possible to interact with people remotely.

  • CD/DVD drive. Some courses may include software readable on CD/DVD drives. It’s important to have a computer that can facilitate these needs. However, if your computer doesn’t have one, you can use a portable CD/DVD drive that plugs in via USB.

  • Antivirus software. Remote students will do a lot of downloading through the course of an online education program. Antivirus software can scan incoming files for viruses and shut them down to prevent data loss. The good news? There are plenty of free options for antivirus software these days.

An online degree is easier to obtain when you have everything you need right at home. But even on a budget, it’s possible to leverage free and public technology for much of the online university experience.

Why take online college courses?

Now that you know what online college courses will look like, we get to an even more important question: Why?

Why take online college courses at all? When you review the surveys, you’ll find that students have a lot of different things to say. According to one survey:

  • 36% of students are switching industries. This career change late in life can be difficult to manage while still supporting oneself or a family. Online education is often the only affordable option.

  • 32% of students want a career boost. Some people may have obtained a job right out of high school and need to obtain a college degree to advance in their career track. Others may want a solid résumé-booster.

  • 16% are “academic wanderers.” There is, after all, nothing wrong with learning. It enriches us, it emboldens us, and it makes us more rounded individuals. A large number of online students consider themselves academic wanderers. Others may not have a specific direction in mind but know the value of a degree for their long-term future.

  • 7% are aspiring academics. To move to the next academic level, a college degree is an absolute necessity. Some online college students are looking to start a career in academia. For these students, online universities represent a foot in the door.

  • 7% are starting their careers. Job placement is about more than switching industries or building up a résumé in the middle of a career. Many students attend online colleges because they want to get started on the right foot. 

There are also specific benefits to taking an online course that everyone should consider.

The benefits of an online education.

Benefit #1: Personalization. One of the defining traits of a high-quality education is the degree of personal attention. In elementary school, for example, a lower student-to-teacher ratio is a great way to ensure that students get individualized attention. At the collegiate level, the best online colleges also make this a priority.

An online education can also be beneficial for professors, who can enjoy a flexible schedule. They’ll be free to offer that attention. This kind of individualized feedback is invaluable for students who struggle to navigate their academic careers.

Benefit #2: Cost. For starters, taking courses online means you won’t pay for meals and housing associated with attending a university in person. You’ll have the same fixed costs you would otherwise have. This means lower personal expenses.

Undergraduate online costs can be as much as 50% less than traditional undergraduate studies. This is especially true when factoring in extra tuition costs like books, housing, and transportation.

Benefit #3: Flexibility.  The average age of students in online colleges is 32. There’s a reason for that: flexibility. People need to fit college into a schedule full of familial and employment obligations.

Downloadable courses make it easy for students to complete work in their free time. And the timing may be even more convenient when it moves quickly. Programs that let students take advantage of their pre-existing knowledge can help students move faster.

Benefit #4: Location independence. You don’t need to buy a car or a bus pass to attend an online university. You won’t need to uproot your family. Perform online courses at home in your free time, at the local library, or wherever you feel most comfortable.

Benefit #5: High rates of career placement. People who go back to school often have to think practically. Their investment in education is a true financial investment. It’s a bet on the future that takes both time and money. And if you’re going to make a similar investment in yourself, you need confidence that your degree is going to provide you with a career.

Placement rates are difficult to measure. But many online colleges and universities know that their students want to find work soon after degree completion. That’s why they create programs that focus on networking and that have a strong alumni network that can help students find jobs post-graduation.

How do online colleges work?

Online colleges don’t have to adhere to outdated paradigms. But let’s get specific. What are some of the reasons online college courses differ from the in-person experience?

In the familiar college structure, the process is simple. It’s a semester-by-semester approach. It’s one-size-fits all, primarily focused on lectures and exams. This doesn’t allow for any wiggle room. What if a student already has some mastery over the material and can proceed at their own pace? For example, some online universities have flexible schedule systems that don't require logging attendance hours or even completing homework on an assigned schedule. 

And that’s just one way that online colleges differ from the in-person experience. Here are some other ways:

Competency-based education.

Some online colleges call it “competency-based” education because it focuses on skills and learning rather than time spent in the course. Once a student demonstrates their mastery over the material, they’re ready to proceed forward. They don’t have to wait for the lectures to catch up. This is a more tailored approach to student learning that doesn’t rely on arbitrary timelines.

Student and alumni distribution.

Look for an online college with students from all 50 states, as well as U.S. territories. That means they have an alumni network that sees a similar distribution. This is not always the case for in-person schools, which may have a wide network of distribution but can also tend to be more local or regional in their reach

Program Mentors.

The online college education system can be confusing for first-timers. Look for a program that pairs incoming students with a Program Mentor. This is a member of the faculty who can provide direct, one-on-one guidance to a student throughout the course of their studies. These mentors help the students create a course plan. They help guide them through university policies. And they also assist with the overall vision necessary to complete the degree.

Are online colleges legitimate and accredited?

In a sentence? They can be. But not all universities are made alike. The top universities are prestigious institutions. Other universities may not even be “universities” at all, lacking proper accreditation.

The good news is that it’s possible for online universities to quickly prove their worth via accreditation. 

What is accreditation?

Simply put, college/university accreditation is a process of legitimizing the educational value of an institution. Independent accrediting agencies will examine the offerings of each given school. Their goal? Verifying the quality of education so students can make more informed decisions.

The best way to gauge accreditation is to look at the agency providing the accreditation. Even they have to have a reputation for quality! The Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the U.S. Department of Education can help recognize which agencies can handle the accreditation process.

To learn more, you can visit a list of legitimate accrediting agencies here. And this list includes the specific names for quick cross-referencing with the university you’re considering.

What is the best online university?

There are different ways to rate the “best online university.” But we think it’s helpful to take a step-by-step approach to evaluate the option that best fits your needs.

Step One: Check for Proper Accreditation

Using the section above, do a quick cross-reference to make sure that the online university you’re considering isn’t only accredited, but properly accredited by a reputable agency. 

Step Two: Look for Other Sources Beyond Accreditation

You can find other indicators of quality from legitimate awards and reviews, so look for the accolades the online college has received as well as student testimonials.

Step Three: Read Student Reviews and Success Stories

Accreditation is one of the most powerful ways to gauge whether an online university is going to give you a good experience. But what if accreditation isn’t enough? What if you’re weighing multiple universities against each other? Turn to student reviews and success stories to help you delineate between two fully-accredited online universities.

If you already know the path you have in mind, you can even look for former students who were similar to you. Were they able to make the career jump you want to make? Did their online education help them achieve the same goals you have? 

Step Four: Look at the Career Track Placement Record

Since so many people in online education are looking for returns based on their career choice, it’s important to evaluate this aspect of online education. Look for a career placement record and for key statistics like the average increase of salary four years after graduation. Those are solid figures you can use to evaluate your educational choices.

You should also look for two things when it comes to job placement:

  • Emphasis on career and job placement. Does the college place an emphasis on career placement with career webinars and events? Do they help people prepare for post-college life? If not, you may find that an online institution lacks the support necessary to help you achieve your goals.

Ultimately, track the record of the university. Look at their history, their numbers, and the experience of their students. 

Just because online colleges are relatively new compared to centuries-old universities doesn’t mean they can’t help you. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t find a track record to help you make your evaluations.

How affordable is an online university?

Sometimes the bottom line is this: Can you afford it?

A mason jar filled with cash labeled "college."
  • For many students, cost is the primary concern. According to an online education trends report, many students report that cost is a chief challenge. They have to think about funding sources and navigating the financial aid process. Because of this reality, affordability becomes a central issue.
  • Feel comfortable in your expectation that if a university is online, it should cost less. That’s what students should expect. CNBC reports,  “More than 93% of U.S. college students say tuition should be lowered if classes are online.” That was in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the same assumptions extend to online universities. You should look for an online university to be an affordable alternative to the expensive in-person experience.

Don’t forget to consider value, either. Is it really worth it if you choose only a low-cost option but your career prospects don’t improve?

Because so many students are using online education to make a career move or to build up their résumés, it’s perfectly valid to think about a degree as an investment in the future. And a low-cost education isn’t truly “affordable” if it doesn’t provide a return on that investment.

Here are some other ways to think about cost in education:

Start with tuition.

 This is the simplest way to evaluate the cost. But remember that tuition costs can vary on a case-by-case basis, depending on degree. So when you compare tuition costs between colleges, compare them by the specific field of study. Find out, for example: Are classes charged per six-month term instead of per credit?

Student loan debt.

Student loan debt in 2020 reached about $1.5 trillion. It’s a genuine crisis. The average student loan debt is $32,731—but keep in mind that this includes student loan debt across the board. With 44.7 million U.S. borrowers with student loan debt, it’s important to think about tuition in terms of debt incurred.

Long-term earnings potential.

Affordability isn’t just about what an online college does for you now. It’s about the return on investment. But if you can find both? That’s the sweet spot.

Cost isn’t just about comparing flat rates for tuition. It’s about what you expect to get for the money you put down. But even better? Finding an online university that slashes your expected education costs while expanding your earning potential.

How do you tell which online university is best?

“Best” is a difficult word here. But there are certainly ways you can evaluate which online university is best for you.

When people try to evaluate what’s best for them, they often turn online. 38% will read reviews from online students. 36% researched the websites of the colleges they’re considering. 31% contact schools directly. 28% went to rankings websites, while 20% reached out to students and graduates to see what they had to say about their alma mater.

In other words, there’s more than one way to judge.

Your best bet is combining the ways that are most credible to you. And you can especially do this if you know what factors you should look for.

Here are a few “green flags” that should give you an idea of whether an online college is going to be a good experience:

  • Proper accreditation. If you paid attention to the steps above, you’ll have no trouble finding out whether a college is properly accredited. You can also use the National Center for Education Statistics because it includes a navigator for quickly looking this up. Generate a list of potential online colleges. Then consult the navigator to perform a quick double-check on proper accreditation.

  • Healthy independent reviews. Look for more than glowing reviews. Look for a large enough sample size to give you confidence that these reviews are legitimate and genuine. 

  • Independent student experience. Asking around or looking for student experiences that highlight the quality of a college experience should give an idea of what it’s like. There’s a lot of money on the line; prospective students should be willing to reach out to learn what they can expect.

Does it matter which green flags you seek out? No. But it’s not too difficult to handle most of this research in a single sitting, just to give yourself some information about what the student experience is like. Do this a few times for your top online college candidates, and you’ll have quickly vetted a few colleges.

But that still leaves us with another issue. What about potential red flags? Beware of the following:

  • Lack of reviews. A smattering of poor reviews is a major red flag. You might want to simplify things by breaking the reviews down. What seems to be the problem? Are there not enough reviews? If not, keep browsing until you learn more.

  • Negative reviews. Keep in mind that anyone online can post whatever they want. You may read a review from a former student in a bad mood. There may be something nefarious going on. Negative reviews—just like positive reviews—should be taken with a grain of salt. But when all you see are negative reviews? The sample size starts to take on greater importance.

What kinds of online college courses are available?

It can be easy to weigh online colleges against each other. But perhaps even more important is understanding whether an online college offers the right courses for your career track.

This is something that varies from college to college. Different online colleges may not only have different specialties, but may tailor themselves to specific types of students. 

For example, an online college might focus on its nursing program. If you want to study business, you might like the low cost of their business program—but find it much more rewarding to study at an online college that makes business its priority.

How to find which online courses are available.

You can start evaluating which college courses are available by looking at the online degrees available at a prospective college’s website. 

If you want to do further research with other online colleges, you can always look up the domain of that college.

  • A quick tip: To do some fast research here, you can use Google’s domain search to bypass difficult online navigation. Copy the domain of the online college or university you’re researching. Then enter “site:www.[insertdomainhere].edu online degrees and programs” into Google. 

Will a college with an online degree help my résumé?

For many students, this is a bottom-line question: Does an online degree really boost the résumé? Or do HR executives and employers review that line in your résumé and look for something else?

Let’s first consider some of the statistics:

  • 77% of schools report that students are looking for the rates of placement and employment. Bottom line? People want to know that an online degree is going to help them get a job. It isn’t the same as attending an in-person college right after high school. Many students come to online universities with specific goals in mind, and they want to be sure that their degree will be an essential highlight in their résumé.

  • According to the same source, students are also looking at completion rates and post-graduation salaries when evaluating whether to attend a specific online university.

  • Students often research employment information before enrolling. For example, 35% explored professional associations that would relate to their fields. 38% talked to employers in that field to get a sense of whether they would look to hire someone with an online degree.

Aspiring online college students need some confidence that their online degree is going to be a résumé-booster. After all, they’re the ones who are going to commit to the school for three or more years.

When it comes to résumé-boosting in particular, consider following tips:

Man searching for a job using a laptop

Be confident!

Make no apologies for a great online university experience. Over six million Americans are now pursuing an education online—and climbing. There’s no reason you should present your online degree as anything less than valid, accredited, and foundational to your formative experiences. If you took the time to select the right college experience for you, feel proud of your accomplishments. And when asked, be forthright about the experience and what it did for you.

Job interview

Format an online degree the same way you’d format any in-person degree.

Not sure how to present your online degree in a résumé? Here are some of the formatting tips that could apply to any academic degree you might have attained as well as how it should look. Under education, include your achievements in the following fashion:

  • [Name the University]

  • [Degree, Year Graduated]

Then, if you had any honors throughout, you should include those in their own section. Title it “Academic Honors” in this case, and list any honors you achieved in a bulleted list.

You can also use your experience to list your strengths in interviews. For example, consider that in 2011, 74.% of college graduates were employed during the same year they graduated

Did you attain your degree while working a full-time job? Use that prior experience to show HR managers and employers that you’re hardworking, diligent, and capable of taking on anything that comes your way. Use this experience as a way to demonstrate your organizational skills. It’s anything but a detriment. It’s a point in your favor.

How do I weigh different online college programs?

We’ve already talked about weighing different college experiences as you look to gauge which one is right for you. But how do you know how to weigh different online college programs? How can you tell if one MBA is different from another?

Your first step should be to define your parameters.

Create a post-college plan. Start with the end in mind. Since so many people in online colleges are already working full-time jobs, it’s important to enter college with a specific plan for making your income after graduation. Yes, education alone will enrich you. But it’s also important to be specific about where future income will come from and what kind of job you want. 

Consider that 61% of college students would change their major if they could go back to school. That means the majority of people don’t settle into what they really want to achieve in education until they’re already into their journey. Don’t be one of those students unless academic enrichment alone is your goal. Otherwise, know what you want before you start

Look at all of the available programs in your preferred online schools.

When you start with your goal in mind, you should have an idea of which online colleges are appropriate. Are there specific courses, majors, and degree programs that match precisely with these goals?

Review the program’s courses.

Finally, look at the specific courses offered at the university. The online university should explain what’s part of the course, and these courses should line up exactly with the sort of education you need to achieve your goals.


Online colleges and universities made simple.

The world is changing in many ways. But in online education, it’s changing for the better. 

Online colleges are becoming a primary option for people who want more flexible living situations and to extend their education dollar for maximum value. 

In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people are seeing what they can achieve through remote work. But ask anyone who’s been to an online college and they’ll tell you it’s still a valid college experience, and that means work.

If you take the time to research the best program for you and you give that program everything you’ve got, you can find online college to be as rewarding an experience as any in-person university can ever offer. In many cases, it can even be better than the traditional paradigm.