Pennsylvania's first college, The University of Pennsylvania, predates the Declaration of Independence, and if the number of colleges and degree programs that exist in the state are any indication, Pennsylvania is as committed as ever to developing and educating the next generation of workers. As of 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator database includes 421 separate institutions of higher learning in Pennsylvania, including 140 schools that offer Bachelor's degrees. Pennsylvania's Department of Education, meanwhile, lists more than 500 institutions of higher learning at all levels, including private specialty schools, public two- and four-year institutions, private not-for-profit institutions, and others. Among the most common types of credentials these schools offer:
- Technical and postsecondary certificates and diplomas
- Associate degrees
- Bachelor's degrees
- Master's degrees
- Doctoral and professional degrees
- Continuing education certificates
What has prompted Pennsylvania to invest so much in higher education? There are dozens of good reasons to prioritize education, but an ever-growing demand for educated workers certainly ranks near the top. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of May 2013, 5,616,820 workers called Pennsylvania home. Among its largest industries, by employment:
- Trade, transportation and utilities
- Education and health services
- Professional and business services
While not all of these jobs demand higher education, many do, and that share is growing quickly. According to a 2010 report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, about 1.8 million jobs are expected to be available to Pennsylvania residents between 2008 and 2018 -- and one million of them will require a college degree. Many of the careers mentioned in the state's 2014 list of High-Priority Occupations require at least an Associate degree. While this spells good news for Pennsylvanians who graduate from college, it puts those who have not at a disadvantage. The Lumina Foundation reports that as of 2012, only 39.7 percent of Pennsylvania's working-age adults (ages 25-64) held a degree. Pennsylvania needs to find ways to close this education shortfall if it hopes to excel economically. Online colleges in Pennsylvania are an important part of the solution.
Thanks to the rise of online education, today's students now have more access to more postsecondary training programs than ever before. With their convenience and flexibility, online colleges in Pennsylvania offer numerous advantages over traditional campus-based instruction. Not surprisingly, many well-known colleges in the state have already begun offering online learning options. For example, the University of Pennsylvania offers online degrees in healthcare fields, such as dentistry and nursing, as well as free, non-credit versions of a number of its traditional courses through MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) provider Coursera.
Private institutions in Pennsylvania also feature online degrees that help prepare students for the state's changing economy. Arcadia University has several online degree programs, including Bachelor's degrees in Liberal Studies and Business Administration, and Master's degrees in Creative Writing, Special Education and Instructional Technology. Carnegie Mellon University, meanwhile, developed the Open Learning Initiative, or OLI, which is an online platform that allows students to take courses taught by professors from all over the country.
There are also a number of national online colleges that offer a broad range of online degrees to students in Pennsylvania. Some, such as DeVry University, University of Phoenix, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, even have physical campuses in state. These schools may offer both fully-online and blended learning options, allowing students to split their time between virtual courses and on-campus instruction.
Most Affordable Colleges in Pennsylvania
The following list ranks the 10 schools in Pennsylvania that offer online degrees at the lowest tuition costs. This ranking is based on a number of factors that are important to prospective students such as the actual degree programs that are taught online, and information on tuition fees, accreditation and notable alumni. Tuition figures are sourced from the National Center for Education Statistics (2014-2015) and reflect in-state tuition (when in-state tuition is available) for all students, including online students. See our Methodology section for more details on the ranking methodology.
Kutztown, with its four colleges in business, education, liberal arts and sciences, and visual and performing arts, has a rich and diverse student body, and that diversity is also reflected in its online classes. Online classes require formal admission to the university, but many of the same rigorous courses taught on campus are also taught online by the same faculty.
Lock Haven, accredited through Middle States Commission on Higher Education, offers not only online courses, but also web-assisted courses and Interactive TV courses from its physical campus in Lock Haven. Like other colleges, Lock Haven uses Desire2Learn for is online learning management system, which offers online learners access to instructors and fellow classmates.
In addition to a wide range of online courses, Slippery Rock University also offers fully online graduate programs as well as an undergraduate nursing program. Slippery Rock's graduate programs range from master's degrees in history; teaching English; and park and resource management to a doctorate in special education. Several certificate programs are also available.
Mansfield has been a pioneer in online learning, with the distinction of being the first school in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to launch an online graduate program. Today it offers an associate degree in criminal justice administration as well as bachelor's degrees in art history; liberal studies; nursing; and nursing education. Its online master's degree programs are in nursing; nursing administration; organizational leadership; and two concentrations focused on special education.
California University offers certifications as well as undergraduate and master's degree programs online. Its 26 graduate programs online include an array of sports performance and sports management programs, including fully online degrees in performance enhancement and injury prevention; rehabilitation science; sports psychology; wellness and fitness; wellness coaching; intercollegiate athletic administration; sports counseling; sport management; applied mathematics; and cybersecurity. For undergraduates, it offers six online degree programs in Arabic language and culture; land management; legal studies; nursing; sociology; and wellness and fitness.
In terms of enrollment, the University of Phoenix is the largest university in the United States, serving nearly half a million working professionals each year. As with DeVry, the University of Phoenix is a major national player in the world of online education, but offers additional, classroom-based training across Pennsylvania. Students can earn certificates, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and even doctoral degrees in a wide range of disciplines, 100 percent online. The school also offers special programs for working professionals accruing continuing education units and military service members.
In addition to its physical campuses in Lancaster, York, Harrisburg and Philadelphia, Millersville University offers a variety of online courses in dozens of disciplines. Working entirely online, students can also earn master's degrees in emergency management and special education, as well as certificates in gifted education and nursing education.
Temple University's Online Learning (OLL) program prides itself on its scope of programs and its flexibility. Students can complete undergraduate, graduate and even continuing education courses online. As of 2014, students can complete a handful of degree programs entirely online, including a Doctor of Physical Therapy; an Ed.M. in educational psychology; a Clinical Doctorate of Occupational Therapy; and an MBA. Note the U.S. News & World Report ranked Temple's online graduate business programs among the top 10 in the nation in 2014.
DeVry University in Pennsylvania is an excellent example of large, national online school that also offers campus-based programs in the Pennsylvania cities of Ft. Washington, King of Prussia, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Because DeVry is so large and so experienced in the realm of online education, it offers courses, certificates, undergraduate and even graduate degrees in an exceptional diversity of disciplines. Programs tend to be accelerated: classes begin every eight weeks.
Penn State offered its first distance education courses in 1892, which used the U.S. Postal Service to relay student work. Today the institution's distance learning programs look much different, but are every bit as progressive as they were then. In 1998, Penn State became one of the first major accredited colleges in the nation to offer online education options to its students. These offerings have evolved into the school's World Campus, which is among the largest online schools in Pennsylvania, serving students from 50 states and 60 countries across all seven continents. Students can complete more than 120 accredited certificates, associate degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctoral degrees, all completely online, from the comfort of home.
Pitt Online says its goal is to provide its students with the same "superb" education they would receive in the classroom, which means classes are lead by the same faculty, both on- and off-campus. Online students also have access to a number of helpful services, including a comprehensive digital library, academic advising and a wide range of instructional materials. Penn Online primarily offers master's degrees and postmaster's and graduate certificates in areas like education, nursing, business and the information sciences. In 2014, U.S. News & World Report ranked Pitt Online's graduate-level education and engineering programs among the top 50 in the nation, and its online graduate nursing program ranked 56th.
Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh prides itself on offering online degree programs that have a professional focus, and the classes are useful to anyone trying to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree or to complete a degree program they've already started. Undergraduate programs are offered in writing; psychology; organizational leadership; nursing; hospitality & tourism; health services administration; English; cyber forensics & information security; and business administration. Master's degrees are offered online in organizational leadership; nursing education; nursing; business administration; Internet security assurance; Internet information systems; instructional leadership; human resource management; higher education; health services administration; engineering management; competitive intelligence systems; and business education.
Duquesne offers 10 graduate and undergraduate degree programs that are fully online. These online degree programs focus on three major areas: nursing, leadership and education. The undergraduate programs are in nursing; behavioral science; computer systems technology; organizational leadership; and professional communication. The graduate programs are in forensic nursing; nursing education; nursing practice (a PhD program); leadership; and instructional technology.
La Salle University says that when it comes to its online programs, it prioritizes academic quality, flexibility and convenience. Students can enroll in 100 percent online undergraduate and graduate programs (and graduate certificates), or blended programs that combine classroom and web-based instruction. Key online disciplines include computer science; forensics; business; education; speech-language pathology; and nursing.
Saint Joseph's University says it has been developing minds for more than 160 years -- a mission it extended significantly with its enthusiastic adoption of online learning. Today students can earn online Bachelor of Science degrees in professional and liberal studies and Bachelor of Science in professional and liberal studies with a concentration in Autism studies. Master's degrees are offered in business intelligence; criminal justice; health administration; instructional technology; organizational development & leadership; secondary education; special education; deaf education and graduate certificates in a plethora of fields, including business, leadership, education and more. It also hosts an online resource center designed to support its online learners.
Lehigh University offers master's degrees in biological chemical engineering; chemical engineering; chemistry; healthcare systems engineering; management science and engineering; manufacturing systems engineering; mechanical engineering; molecular biology; polymer science; engineering; educational leadership; globalization & educational change; international counseling; and an MBA. Its doctoral degrees include educational leadership and comparative & international education. All of these programs, including a host of certificates, are offered through its global online degrees & training program. According to U.S. News & World Report, Lehigh is home to some of the best online graduate programs in the country, especially in the fields of business and engineering.
Villanova is a leader in online education in the state of Pennsylvania, offering dozens of certificates, undergraduate and graduate degrees 100 percent online. The schools offers an undergraduate RN-BSN program and two master's programs in human resource development and public administration. The school also offers a number of not-for-credit master certificate programs in areas like Six Sigma; software testing; intelligence and more. U.S. News & World Report ranked Villanova's online graduate business and engineering programs among the best in the country.
In addition to its wide range of nearly 60 online graduate degree programs, Drexel in Philadelphia also offers 10 online undergraduate degrees in business administration; communication; criminology and justice studies; education; general studies in both individualized studies and business; health services administration; and nursing. Mix in its sprawling selection of certificate programs, and Drexel boasts more than 100 online programs for distance learners and local learners who like the convenience of studying at home.
The University of Pennsylvania is one of the nation's oldest universities, but its online courses, certificates and degrees are anything but traditional. Students can complete online courses in a number of traditionally hands-on fields, such as medical, nursing and dental education. Meanwhile, its Wharton Executive Education program ranks perhaps among one of the most respectable online MBA programs in the country. Penn is also one of the major institutions contributing to Coursera, a provider of massive, open online courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs are free, non-credit courses available to anyone, anywhere, any time.
Carnegie Mellon offers master's degrees partly online in information technology management; information security and assurance; business intelligence; and data analytics. Its master's degrees in medical management and public management are also offered partly through online courses. It also offers a wide range of executive education and certification programs. The School of Computer Science offers distance learning classes in systems engineering; enterprise architecture; and global software engineering.
Q. Can you tell us a little about the online programs offered at The University of Pittsburgh?
The University of Pittsburgh's online programs offer graduate professional programs of the same quality, taught by the same faculty, with the same level of support services as their counterparts offered to resident students enrolled on the Pittsburgh campus. Right now, there are graduate programs offered or planned in Education, Nursing, Gerontology, Information Sciences, Engineering, Public and International Affairs, and Law. More are in the works. In 2013, The U.S. News & World Report ranked Pitt ninth in graduate online nursing education. This year, our MLIS program was ranked No. 8 by TheBestSchools.Org. In addition, Pitt Online programs have received the Blackboard Exemplary Course Award four times.
Q. What advice would you give to students interested in an online degree program?
There are many advantages to studying in an online degree program. Students often pursue this path for convenience and ease of scheduling, or to be able to take advantage of an outstanding institution that is not in proximity to their home. If I had to give advice to a student interested in an online program, I'd say that you will succeed if you are organized, disciplined and motivated. Comfort with technology is a must. And don't be afraid to reach out to your professors and fellow students and initiate conversations and contact. There will be many opportunities and mechanisms available to do so, but it is up to you. If you want the after-class contact that you might have on a campus, you have to initiate it. You won't bump into people in the halls. That being said, everyone is in the same situation, and the interaction is an important part of the learning experience, so people are usually willing and eager to engage online.
Q. How do you anticipate online learning might evolve in the coming years?
I think that we will continue to see the world of online learning evolve and more and more lifelong learners take advantage of the convenience afforded by online learning environments. The rapid rise of the MOOCs is evidence that there is interest in high-quality online education. Online degree programs, particularly at the master's level, will continue to grow as people balance work and family life while continuing their professional development and education.
I also think we will see more "blended" learning taking place -- combining the best practices of both the online and face-to-face environments. Colleges and universities are designing more and more courses that take advantage of sophisticated multimedia and learning technologies to supplement the time that the faculty and the learners spend together.
Q. Can you describe the types of online programs offered at LaSalle.
La Salle has increased its online presence from its initial offerings of Pre-Speech Language Pathology and Instructional Technology Management. We now have over a dozen high-quality online certificate and degree programs, such as Economic Crime Forensics, Human Capital Development and Nonprofit Leadership. Several new innovative graduate-level programs coming out next year will expand our online brand. We are very selective in launching new online programming to be certain it meets our mission of reaching under-served communities and is within our academic expertise. Most of our programs target working adults with demanding family and professional responsibilities. Our largest fully online program is the Nursing RN to BSN.
Q. What advice do you give students thinking about an online degree program?
Once you have decided what type of program best suits your interests, explore several different colleges offering the same program to find what works for you. Online offerings vary significantly among colleges. Is the program presented asynchronously any time or any place, or synchronously, with required virtual classroom attendance? Review a course syllabus to get a true understanding of the time commitment needed to successfully complete an online course. Do not expect the course to be less challenging than a traditional face-to-face course.
Q. What changes are we likely to see in online classes in coming years?
One of the biggest online issues for colleges is the State Authorization of Out-of-State Institutions. States may have the ability to regulate non-state institutions from offering courses in their state. This will likely result in many smaller and mid-sized colleges deciding not to offer online courses in certain states, making online programming regional instead of national. It is easy to anticipate that the average age of the online learner will increase. Online courses are especially well suited for working adults wishing to complete an undergraduate degree or earn a graduate degree on their own time. As technology continues to advance, course administration and learner participation also continue to improve, making enhanced online courses less costly to produce. Online participation will grow well beyond the current estimate of one in four college students having completed at least one online course.
Average Cost of a House
# of Employed People
Philadelphia was home to more than 1.5 million people in 2010
Avg Salary with a Bachelor's Degree
The Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington metropolitan region is the largest in the commonwealth, and according to the BLS, supported more than 1.8 million workers as of May 2013. Education and Health Services remains the state's largest industry, but the Trade, Transportation and Utilities; and the Professional and Business Services sectors are not far behind. The Philadelphia metro's median annual wage in 2013 was $51,780 -- well above the national average. The Cost of Living index is 118.8, with home prices averaging $399,600.
Philadelphia was home to more than 1.5 million people in 2010, but the total metropolitan region supports nearly half of the state's total workforce.
You need not be a history buff to know that Philadelphia played a significant role the nation's history -- both before and after its independence from England. Area and visiting students can tour a number of historical sites and cathedrals, including the famous Liberty Bell. It also offers a myriad of cultural highlights, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and a thriving zoo.
Average Cost of a House
# of Employed People
300,000 Pennsylvanians lived in the Pittsburgh proper in 2010
Avg Salary with a Bachelor's Degree
Though much less populous than Philadelphia, Pittsburgh is the second-largest metropolitan region in Pennsylvania; more than 1.1 million people worked here in May 2013. The region's largest industries, by employment: Education and Health Services; Trade, Transportation and Utilities; and Professional and Business Services. The median annual wage in the Pittsburgh metro was $44,950 in 2013 -- about on par with the national average. The Cost of Living index is 94.4, with average home prices at $225,839.
More than 300,000 Pennsylvanians lived in the Pittsburgh proper in 2010, but the entire Pittsburgh metro supported about one-fifth of the commonwealth's total civilian workforce that year.
Pittsburgh may be historically synonymous with steel, but actually holds a number of claims to fame. Known as the "City of Bridges," Pittsburgh is home to nearly 450 bridges -- more than the city of Venice. It is also home to a number of world-famous art venues, including the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Phipps Conservatory.
Average Cost of a House
# of Employed People
Allentown proper was home to more than 118 thousand people in 2010
Avg Salary with a Bachelor's Degree
The Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan region is the commonwealth's third largest metro, economically speaking, drawing 336,550 workers in 2013. The area's largest industries, by employment: Trade, Transportation and Utilities; Education and Health Services; and Professional and Business Services. The metro's 2013 median annual wage of $43,910 was about on par with the national average. The Cost of Living index is 105.1, and home prices average $319,097.
Allentown proper was home to more than 118 thousand people in 2010, making it the third most populous city in Pennsylvania. According to the BLS, the metro supported a bit less than 10 percent of the state's total working population -- far less than Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Allentown is green, but not with envy: The region maintains over 2,000 acres of parkland, which, according to the city's official web site, is well above the national average. It also features a bustling, renovated downtown complete with two symphony orchestras, an opera house, an art museum and two theater companies. Visitors should be sure to visit Hamilton Street in particular, which serves as a cultural and business center.
Other Pennsylvania Resources
Prospective students considering online colleges in Pennsylvania should consult a number of resources before choosing a program. The Pennsylvania Department of Education maintains an online database of distance education providers from across the state, and the National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator allows visitors to search for schools and degree programs of all times, online or otherwise. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), part of the U.S. Department of Education, can provide additional information about schools, including enrollment and demographic data. Perhaps the best source of information when evaluating online colleges in Pennsylvania, however, is the schools themselves. Students can contact college admissions offices to request more information or to clarify program details, accreditation status and more.
- "A Stronger Pennsylvania Through Higher Education," Lumina Foundation, 2014, http://strongernation.luminafoundation.org/report/downloads/pdfs/pennsylvania-brief-2014.pdf
- "Best Online Programs," U.S. News & World Report, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/education/online-education
- California University of Pennsylvania, http://www.calu.edu/academics/online-programs/
- Carnegie Mellon University, http://www.cmu.edu/academics/distance-learning.shtml
- Cynthia Golden, Director Center for Instructional Development & Distance Education, University of Pittsburgh, interview with the author March 2015.
- DeVry Online programs, http://www.devry.edu/online-education/online-education.html
- "Distance Education Providers," Pennsylvania Department of Education, http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/distance_education_providers/21555
- Drexel University, http://www.drexel.com/online-degrees/degrees.aspx
- Duquesne University, http://www.duq.edu/academics/online-campus/fully-online-programs
- Economic News Release, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/metro.t01.htm
- "Educational Attainment," 2012 American Community Survey, American Fact Finder, U.S. Census Bureau, 2012, http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_12_1YR_S1501&prodType=table
- "Help Wanted: Projections Of Jobs And Education Requirements Through 2018," Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, June 15, 2010, Anthony P. Carnevale, et. al., https://cew.georgetown.edu/jobs2018
- "High-Priority Occupations, Department of Labor & Industry," Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2014, https://cew.georgetown.edu/jobs2018
- Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, http://www2.kutztown.edu/online
- La Salle University, http://www.lasalle.edu/online-programs-courses/
- Lehigh University, http://distance.lehigh.edu/
- Lehigh University College of Education, http://coe.lehigh.edu/international
- Lock Haven University, http://www.ecampus.lhup.edu/news.html
- Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, http://www.mansfield.edu/what-can-i-study/#filter
- "May 2013 Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: Philadelphia, PA Metropolitan Division," Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_37964.htm
- "May 2013 Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: Pittsburgh, PA Metropolitan Division," Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_38300.htm
- "May 2013 Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, PA-NJ Metropolitan Division," Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_10900.htm
- "May 2013 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: Pennsylvania," Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_pa.htm#00-0000
- Millersville University, http://www.millersville.edu/distancelearning/
- "Pennsylvania metropolitan areas," Wikipedia.org, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennsylvania_metropolitan_areas
- Penn State World Campus, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/
- Penn State Online Degrees and Certificates, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificate
- Robert Morris University, http://www.rmu.edu/Online/AcademicPrograms
- Saint Joseph's University, http://online.sju.edu/
- Saint Joseph's University Programs, http://online.sju.edu/programs/programs.asp?cmgfrm=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2F
- "Search Educational Entities," Education Names and Addresses (EDNA), Pennsylvania Department of Education, http://www.edna.ed.state.pa.us/Screens/wfSearchEntity.aspx
- Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, http://www.sru.edu/academics/enrollment/graduate/Pages/GraduateOnline.aspx
- Stanley Braverman, Esq., MBA, Assistant Provost, La Salle University Online, interview with the author March 2015
- Temple University, http://www.temple.edu/oll/
- Temple University Programs, http://www.temple.edu/oll/onlinecourses.htm
- University of Pennsylvania, http://www.upenn.edu/programs/distance.php
- University of Pennsylvania Open Learning, http://openlearning.upenn.edu/
- University of Pittsburgh (Pitt Online), http://www.online.pitt.edu/
- University of Pittsburgh Programs, http://www.online.pitt.edu/programs/index.php
- University of Phoenix, http://www.phoenix.edu/campus-locations/pa.html
- University of Phoenix Online Programs, http://www.phoenix.edu/degrees.html
- Villanova University, http://www.villanovau.com/
- Villanova University Programs, http://www.villanovau.com/programs/