US Online Degree Programs

Current statistics show that nearly 8 million Americans are studying online degree programs, so what are they and is an online degree for me?

Online degree programs are, as you would expect, degree courses that you study wholly or partly online rather than at a physical campus.

They can be offered by both campus colleges as well as purely online organizations with no physical campus in America.

The choice is enormously varied both in number of organizations which offer courses and the number of courses you can choose from; literally hundreds of different organizations offering tens of thousands of subjects. 

So where do you start?

1. Quality

The number one priority has to be quality. It’s no use studying online for a degree if on completion, you find you’ve either not learnt very much or the degree has little value on a CV and with employers.

The main accrediting body for online degree programs is the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. You can search this website to see what they say about your online school. If you’re considering an online degree program from an unaccredited source, it doesn’t mean that the content will be of less worth.

You just need to ask yourself, if you want to study further e.g. a masters or a PhD, will an accredited institution accept this prior online degree as sufficient entry requirements if it’s not accredited?

Regardless of whether it’s accredited or unaccredited, ask the institution directly about the qualifications, rigor and academic expertise of their tutors as well as delving into the details of exactly what you’ll study on all the course modules.

They should also provide you with data on success rates for your online degree from previous years. Success rates should cover both retention rates and pass rates as attrition rates are notoriously high on online programs.

Quality can also be indirectly determined by the employment rates of graduates from your online degree. Don’t just take the headline stats but find out what jobs they’ve progressed into, in which industry sectors.

This is an online course so use the web to check out reviews from past students about the degree; what they liked and didn’t like and also review online comparison sites.

League tables are not the only definition on quality but if you look at several you will start to get a flavor of where your course sits in comparison to others.

It’s worth checking out the best schools ranking, Guide to Online Schools and U.S News rankings as a starter for ten, as well as our own guide to College Rankings.

2. Cost

With very little travel or transport costs and lower housing costs, an online degree can be a great answer for those struggling to afford to study at college.

You’re also less likely to have to spend hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on textbooks and study aids, using digital books and online cloud based data instead.

However, tuitions fees will still be quite expensive and can often be the same fees as a physical college degree (or more occasionally).

In addition, depending on the technology used, fees can be charged for this.

Although your course may be online, through the year there could be a requirement for a few weeks in residency or a summer seminar etc. for which travel, accommodation and living expenses will need to be budgeted.

3. Scholarships and student support

If your online degree is with a college that has a U.S campus, then you should find that all the student support services available on campus such as pastoral support, mentoring, counselling etc. are available to you online.

You should also be able to apply for a scholarship for your online degree program.

For those organizations purely offering online degrees these scholarships and student support services may still be available but you’ll need to check directly with the provider. Our guide to scholarships has more comprehensive scholarship advice.

4. Learning independently

You will receive the same degree as if you studied at a physical college campus, but you’ll need to be very independent and a self-starter to complete a degree program online. 

Your main classroom will be a laptop and an internet connection, and you’ll have the flexibility to go online at 2am in the morning if you want.

This is not for everyone but some shift workers may find this time of day perfect! Most of the time you’ll be online either at home, where it is very easy to be distracted by everyday family life or online at work during rest times and breaks…when your mind can be on solving work problems.

For many this flexibility can be an attractive option but you do need to stay focused and have the tenacity to continue when you may not want to.

Learning online will involve live online lectures, live chats, lecture podcasts and email exchanges with students, to name but a few activities. This virtual world will become your life for the next several years.

5. Work/life balance

Fitting your degree around your working life, rather than having to give up your working life to study at a campus, move away from a home and area you love, can be an enormous incentive to study a degree online.

If you love the experience of meeting new students face-to-face and feel the adrenaline from a lecture hall full of students exchanging ideas and discussions, then you may want to carefully consider an online program.

You can still exchange ideas and discussions online though via facetime and other real-time video programs.

Don’t forget that you can study your degree online, module by module over a longer time period that the standard 3 to 4 years of a college campus degree, though paying for a course in this fragmented way can work out quite expensive.

Still not sure?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), are a great first step to take. MOOCs are often units or modules of an undergraduate online degree but not an actual full degree and act as standalone courses in their own right.

The MOOC list is probably the best place to start to search for courses or read our blog post on MOOCs to find out more.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying to college, please see: