Best Online Colleges – Really!

The best online colleges are popular. They offer things students want – such as interesting, affordable courses. They are also open to all kinds of people.

The top 20 list shows online colleges offering value for money.

  • Colleges were ranked by 3 things: popularity, affordability and graduate-degree completion rates.
  • By choosing one of the top colleges, you can do the online course you want, not pay too much, and have a great chance of finishing with an accredited degree.
Western Governors University
57,821 online students | $9,105 a year | 58% completion rate

Western Governors University is the number 1 ranked online college. WGU is one of the most popular universities and offers highly affordable degrees. WGU is even cheaper than indicated above if you study full time (since there is a flat fee per term).

The university is organized into 4 schools: Teachers College, College of Business, College of Information Technology, and College of Health Professions. WGU has strong accreditation arrangements and is a safe choice if you want a professional degree in teaching or nursing.

University of Maryland University College
38,409 online students | $7,056 a year | 56% completion rate

University of Maryland University College offers flexible online degrees across all broad fields. The university is especially strong in the area of IT and computer science. Most UMUC students are online learners and many are military. UMUC has a high graduation rate for an exceptionally affordable online college.

American Public University System
55,466 online students | $6,880 a year | 47% completion rate

American Public University System is a private, purely online university. It is composed of American Military University and American Public University, which essentially offer the same programs. APUS has online schools for arts and humanities, business, education, health sciences, STEM, and security and global studies.

University of Phoenix
183,251 online students | $10,554 a year | 40% completion rate

The University of Phoenix is easily the largest online university. Its popularity is due to competitive fees, a wide selection of courses, an open admission policy and effective marketing. Online students study collaboratively with classmates. Discussion forums and group projects are essential parts of the learning process.

Ashford University
49,2947 online students | $10,720 a year | 46% completion rate

Ashford University is a distance education specialist, with all students online. It is one of the largest colleges and has competitive tuition fees.

Ashford has 4 schools: Forbes School of Business; College of Education; College of Health, Human Services, and Science; and the College of Liberal Arts. The liberal arts program is one of the best for subject variety.

Columbia Southern University
21,163 online students | $5,175 a year | 48% completion rate

Columbia Southern University is a specialist online university with cheap degree courses and a strong business program. CSU gives students what they want. It accepts transfer credits and has flexible study arrangements. CSU's degree completion rate is high for a college with an open admissions policy and low enrollment costs (which means students lose little from dropping out).

Arizona State University
12,714 online students | $8,565 a year | 61% completion rate

Arizona State University has opened its campuses to distance learners through ASU Online. Online students have access to an impressive range of courses. These are adapted, interactive versions of on-campus classes.

Grantham University
12,492 online students | $6,500 a year | 53% completion rate

Grantham University is a very affordable online college which offers degrees in business and finance, arts and sciences, nursing and allied health, and engineering and computer science. Units are completed in 8-week blocks, allowing for year-round study. Grantham achieves solid graduation rates. Student reviews indicate many of the Grantham students who drop out have (i) failing grades and (ii) unrealistic expectations of how easy online courses should be.

Colorado Technical University
21,455 online students | $11,656 a year | 50% completion rate

CTU is a mostly online university which offers degrees in business and management, engineering and computer science, healthcare, information technology, nursing, project management, and security studies and criminal justice. Distance education students can take advantage of CTU Fast Track. This allows you to essentially skip parts of a course by passing mini-modules which test your existing knowledge.

Good Colleges Best Value award.

Online college ranking method

Online colleges were ranked statistically using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The methodology avoids common errors in ranking online colleges (such as using data for on-campus students). It is also consistent with the preferences of online students.

  • Extensive research into student ratings and opinions was undertaken before the technique was developed.
  • The rankings exploit the capabilities of national datasets to show which colleges are better from the perspective of a typical online learner.

Popularity (student numbers)

Each college was assigned a score out of 100 for popularity, calculated using a declining exponential function of total online students enrolled. Popularity is an indicator of course depth, accessibility, reputation and value for money.

Affordability (tuition fees for completed year)

Each college was assigned a score out of 100 for affordability using the NCES tuition fee estimate. Online students show a strong preference for lower fees.

Graduation rate (% receiving a degree)

A measure of online learning success was constructed using statistics on graduate enrollments and degrees awarded. A complex cross-sectional formula was developed which produces an almost contemporaneous measure. The graduation rate is an indicator of course satisfaction and return on investment for the college's online program.

Ranking system performance

The methodology is different and, we would argue, much better than others you may come across. The top 20 list is consistent with independent student ratings.

  • The same large online colleges which perform best in also appear towards the top of our statistical rankings.
  • Other ranking systems produce less logical results. You may see obscure or campus-based colleges at the top. At the same time, popular online colleges – the online learning specialists – may miss the cut.