The Best States for Online College Students 2015

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Over 7 million students took at least one online higher education course in 2013. Students have more access to online learning opportunities than ever before, and many people are taking their college-level studies completely online. For students who are considering going the virtual classroom route, choosing where to study is as intricate a process as it is for their classroom-based counterparts.

While the beauty of online education is that you don't necessarily have to live and work in the same state in which you attend school, location can still play a significant role to play in terms of educational and early career opportunities.

And it seems online students actually prefer a degree of proximity to their online college, either because they sense a stronger connection to their program, or like the option of going to the campus if needed. A 2015 study by Learning House revealed that two-thirds of the undergraduate online students polled attended online college within 100 miles of home.

We've decided to help online students with their research by crunching the numbers to determine which states are currently offering top-notch educational opportunities and post-degree job prospects. Some of the factors that went into this list include: distance education availability, Internet accessibility, economic factors like starting salary and student loan burden, as well as job outlooks and industry forecasts.

Read more about our methodology here. Note: "Industry growth" in the list below refers to job growth data.


Washington takes the lead in our list thanks to its strong marks in our Internet category, and the fact that it ranks second in the nation for showing the biggest 12-month job growth through June 2015. In such an environment, online students have access to distance learning opportunities, as well as robust career options upon degree completion, most notably in health care, which is predicted to have the best long-term industry growth. The fastest-growing jobs in Washington that require a bachelor's degree include: event planners, interpreters and translators, and cost estimators.

For those interested in pursuing an online education, the largest schools in the state offering online programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, include:

  • University of Washington
  • Washington State University
  • Western Washington University
  • Bellevue College
  • Eastern Washington University

Spotlight Q&A

Cheryl Oliver, Assistant Dean of Online and Graduate Programs, Washington State University Carson College of Business

Q. What are the top degree programs offered at the school?

The Washington State University Carson College of Business Online MBA and EMBA programs have consistently ranked in the top 25 in US News & World Report and our undergraduate business programs rank in the top 25 as well; and yet we work on continuously improving our student experience in ways not measured on the survey or by the rankings.

For a program to be "top," it must be current, relevant, and accessible. It must provide the student with tools, skills or abilities that better their life in a way that is consistent with their investment of time, money and commitment to learning the content without requiring that their investment involve everything from long commutes to administrative bureaucracy and the other encumbrances associated with traditional models. And, it must meet their overall objectives in regards to their desire to acquire the specified tools, skills and abilities.

Q. What advice would you give prospective online students?

Determine ahead of time what your objectives are both personally/professionally and academically? Do you want a promotion or new opportunity or to be better equipped to fulfill your day-to-day responsibilities? Once you have arrived at your conclusions, create a work plan to ensure you are managing your time well in order to meet those objectives.

Online learning is not "self-study" or "independent" by design in the case of accredited online programs. You will want to choose the people as well as the curriculum. Ask yourself "Who do you want to learn from both in terms of peer qualification and faculty qualification? What institution do you want to be associated with when you graduate?"

Communicate with your support network clearly and often. Do it in a positive way.

Q. What do you think is the future of online learning?

The human brain is a powerful supercomputer, collecting, sorting and storing information while forming its own intelligence. Online learning provides people with access to more information than has ever been available to humankind. The catchy part now is for people to be able to discern what is truly valuable and reliable information.

Institutions of higher education are continuously adapting how formal online learning looks and feels as well as how we measure its success and credential our students. At Washington State University, as a land grant institution, we hold close our obligation to complete meaningful research, generate credible knowledge and share it with our region, nation and the world so that people can improve their ways of being.


Coming in at a close second, California is No. 1 when it comes to distance education availability, making it relatively easy to find online colleges in California. What's more is that California students rank second for having the lowest average debt per graduate. While the state does have some improvements to make in terms of the high unemployment and a high cost of living, this is offset by a strong overall economic growth, and the excellent availability of educational opportunities. As for job prospects, the biggest growth in jobs requiring a bachelor's degree is for foresters, biomedical engineers, information security analysts, and market research analysts. Here are the biggest schools that offer online degree programs:

  • University of Southern California
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • California State University, Fullerton
  • California State University, Northridge
  • East Los Angeles College


You might not expect that Utah to be No. 1 in job growth in the nation, but that is in fact the case. That, along with a No. 3 ranking for the lowest unemployment, and the top spot for job growth, and there are some obvious economic upsides to settling down in Utah. On the student side, graduates come out of their programs with a lower average debt than most other states (it ranks sixth). Top job prospects for bachelor's holders include biomedical engineers, interpreters and translators, and credit counselors.

If you're thinking of pursuing an online degree in Utah, the largest institutions offering distance options include:

  • Western Governors University
  • University of Utah
  • Salt Lake Community College
  • Brigham Young University
  • Utah Valley University

Spotlight Q&A

Daren Upham, Vice President of Enrollment, Western Governor's University

Q. What are the top degree programs offered at the school?

WGU is a nonprofit online university that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in business, IT, teaching, and health professions, including nursing. All WGU degree programs are competency-based, measuring learning rather than time. Students advance when they successfully complete assessments that measure what they've learned. Faculty, all full-time, serve as mentors instead of lecturers, working with students one-on-one to keep them motivated and on track.

In terms of enrollment, WGU's College of Business is its largest, with more than 23,000 students in all 50 states. The next-largest program at WGU is the Teachers College, which licenses teachers in all 50 states and also includes graduate-degree programs and endorsements for already-licensed teachers. WGU is the top producer of STEM teaching graduates in the country, and the online university was recognized by the National Council of Teacher Quality as having the No. 1 secondary teacher-preparation program in the country in terms of quality.

Q. What advice would you give prospective online students?

Find out how you will learn. Most online universities have classes that are led by a professor or instructor with a fixed schedule and syllabus -- the only difference from a traditional brick-and-mortar school is that they are online. While the classes are usually scheduled to accommodate working adults, you'll still be expected to move through the course at a set pace. You may want to consider a competency-based approach to learning, which will allow you to move at your own pace and advance when you demonstrate your mastery of subject matter.

Also, understand all of the costs -- tuition, books, and fees -- before you make your decision. Understand how the university charges tuition. Some universities charge tuition per credit hour on a quarterly- or semester-basis, so make sure you do the math and understand what you are being charged for your courses.

Q. What do you think is the future of online learning?

In the future, we expect to see more growth in competency-based online programs in particular. Because a competency-based model provides interactive instruction that allows students to learn relevant knowledge and skills online, on their own schedules, and at their own pace, it is ideal for busy adult students, who come to college with different levels of knowledge and different learning styles. Competency-based education measures individual learning rather than time, which is why it is such a good option for so many students.


Georgia made No. 4 on our list. The Peach State had solid numbers in all of our categories, coming in fourth in adjusted income and in the top 10 for distance education availability. As this data shows, online colleges in Georgia abound. Although job forecasts are strong in general, bachelor's degree holders seeking work as agents/managers of artists, performers and athletes; interpreters and translators; and event planners have the strongest prospects. Here are five of the largest institutions offering online degrees in the state:

  • University of Georgia
  • Georgia State University
  • Kennesaw State University
  • Georgia Tech
  • Georgia Perimeter College

Spotlight Q&A

Elke M. Leeds, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Technology Enhanced Learning and Associate Professor of Information Systems, Kennesaw State University

Q. What are the top degree programs offered at the school?

Our 70+ fully online degree, certificate, and endorsement programs have been recognized overall by independent publications as top 25 online programs. More specifically, our Online Masters in Information Technology was recently recognized as one of the top five such programs in the nation, while our Online Bachelors in Business Administration Degree was chosen as one of the top 10. The common denominator in all of our online programs is that they are all designed and delivered by the same faculty that design and deliver our on-campus courses. KSU students have the option of completing a degree entirely online, or choosing a mix of technology enhanced courses to create a schedule of on-campus, hybrid and fully online courses.

Q. What advice would you give prospective online students?

First, make sure that the college/university and the degree program itself are accredited. Professional programs in particular (Education, Business, Nursing, etc.) should be accredited by their professional organizations. We also encourage students to look into the virtual services offered. At Kennesaw State, our virtual computing labs, library services, and technology support ensure that students are connected to the services and support necessary to be successful.

Q. What do you think is the future of online learning?

As more and more adults are planning to attend college, online learning will only expand. Adult learners need a flexible schedule to meet their needs, and online programs are able to offer them that flexibility without skimping on quality. Online learning is an especially good value for students who don't have easy access to a brick and mortar campus. It also provides an environment for learners who may require additional resources for review and promotes mastery learning.


There's no place like Kansas when it comes to Midwestern states with great Internet availability, thanks to its high rankings for upload speed and the number of providers. That, paired with above-average economic factors including being in the top 15 for adjusted income, low unemployment, and long-term industry forecasts, make Kansas a top pick for distance learners seeking to advance their careers.

Top jobs for bachelor's holders include interpreters and translators, information security analyst, and market research analysts. For those seeking online degree options, the largest schools offering distance learning in Kansas are:

  • University of Kansas
  • Kansas State University
  • Johnson County Community College
  • Wichita State University
  • Fort Hays State University

Spotlight Q&A

Mark Porcaro, Ph.D., Executive Director of Online Learning, Wichita State Online

Q. What are the top degree programs offered at the school?

At Wichita State University the RN to BSN program is our most successful degree so far, but Wichita State Online is growing quickly. We are launching 15 new degree options for Fall 2015. We are already seeing some great interest in our BS and MA degrees in Criminal Justice, and our degree completion programs in Dental Hygiene (BSDH) and our Bachelor of Business Administration in General Business.

Q. What advice would you give prospective online students?

When looking for an online program, look beyond just the courses you are able to take; look at what services the programs provide for you. Are they going to be able to give you the student services you need to complete your degree when and where you are available? Also look at what the total costs will be for you. When you graduate, are you going to be strapped with a debt you won't ever be able to repay? If you are ever considering changing schools, do their credits transfer, or will you have to start all over again if you need to make a change?

Q. What do you think is the future of online learning?

For many Americans, traditional school structures just aren't an option because of work, dependents, or where they live, but online programs can help many of them study when they are able and where they are. Although online learning is about 20 years old, it has really taken off because of the increasing ability for people to access broadband Internet in the last 10 years in the United States and abroad.

The most recent innovation in online learning is competency-based education (CBE). CBE allows students to demonstrate competencies directly instead of completing a series of courses toward a degree. This is helpful to those who have years of concrete experience in certain areas, but have no formal education. The CBE movement combines the decades-old prior learning assessment (PLA) learning structure with that of online medium and the new paradigms of on-demand and personalized learning.


They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes the availability of online colleges in Texas, for which the state ranks second, just behind California. The Lone Star State also takes the No. 2 slot for adjusted income, and No. 3 for long-term industry job forecasts. Add to that a low cost of living (Texas ranks 15th nationally for 2013), and you can see why Texans studying online may have a leg up. The biggest job growth for bachelor's holders is for interpreters and translators, petroleum engineers, and information security analysts. Texas schools offering distance programs include:

  • Lone Star College System
  • Houston Community College
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of Texas
  • Tarrant County College District

North Carolina

Although North Carolina doesn't rate among the best for income or unemployment, its long-term industry forecasts and 12-month job growth earned it a spot on this list. Plus, not only does the state rank seventh for distance education availability, it also cracks the top 10 for lowest tuition. After graduation, bachelor's degree holders can potentially find work in an array of fields, with prospects the highest for biomedical engineers, information security analysts, and personal financial advisors. Those seeking distance education in North Carolina can begin their search at one of these online degree providing institutions:

  • North Carolina State University
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • East Carolina University
  • University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Central Piedmont Community College


With a median adjusted income of $55,933 for bachelor's degree holders, Virginia is on top in the nation for earnings. Competitive wages and a low cost of living contributes to the state having the seventh lowest student loan default rate as well. With somewhat less financial pressures than most states, distance learners may fare well in Virginia, most notably if they target the state's high-prospect jobs of interpreters and translators, information security analysts, or atmospheric and space scientists. The largest colleges and universities with online offerings in Virginia are:

  • Liberty University
  • Northern Virginia Community College
  • George Mason University
  • Virginia Tech
  • Virginia Commonwealth University


If being in the Sunshine State wasn't appealing enough to prospective students, how about being in a state that is third in job growth and fourth in distance education availability? Florida also has excellent rankings for long-term industry forecasts (coming in seventh) and 12-month job growth (cracking the top three). Bachelor's holders who are seeking careers in biomedical engineering, as cost estimators, or as market research analysts will have the best job outlook. Many of Florida's largest colleges offer online degrees, among them:

  • Miami Dade College
  • University of Central Florida
  • University of Florida
  • Florida International University
  • Broward College


Rounding out the top 10 is Colorado, which is above average across the board, especially when it comes to economic growth. Students graduating with bachelor's degrees might want to consider the top-growing professions of interpreters and translators, petroleum engineers, and information security analysts. The largest schools offering distance education include:

  • University of Colorado
  • Colorado State University
  • Metropolitan State University of Denver
  • University of Colorado Denver
  • Colorado Technical University


To arrive at this list, we ranked all 50 states on these five categories:

  1. Internet Quality and Availability, using data from the National Broadband Map and the Federal Communications Commission, 2015
  2. Earning Potential, using data from the American Community Survey, 2013; the Council for Community and Economic Research, 2014; and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015
  3. Job Growth, using 2012-22 industry growth forecasts from Projections Central, Michigan Labor Market Information and WorkForce West Virginia, and state-level job growth data from the JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center at Arizona State University, 2014-15
  4. Student Debt, using data from the U.S. Department of Education, 2014, and the Project on Student Debt, 2011 and 2013
  5. Educational Opportunity, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2013-14

To get the final results, states were ranked on their overall average scores across all five categories. In the event of a tie, the state that was ranked higher in the Educational Opportunity Category won the tiebreaker.

Discover the other side of this data set; read our article: The Worst States for Online College Students.


  1. Analyze & Rank, National Broadband Map, Accessed July 22, 2015, http://www.broadbandmap.gov/rank
  2. Broadband Statistics Report: Number of Providers by Speed Tier, National Broadband Map, June 2014, http://www.broadbandmap.gov/download/Providers%20by%20Speed%20Tier.pdf
  3. Cheryl Oliver, interview with the author, August 2015
  4. Cost of Living Index: 2014 Annual Average Data, Council for Community and Economic Research, January 2015, https://www.coli.org/
  5. Daren Upham, interview with the author, August 2015
  6. Elke M. Leeds, interview with the author, August 2015
  7. "FCC Finds U.S. Broadband Deployment Not Keeping Pace," Federal Communications Commission, Jan. 29, 2015, https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-finds-us-broadband-deployment-not-keeping-pace
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  11. Mark Porcaro, interview with the author, August 2015
  12. "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
  13. Occupational Projections (Long Term) 2012-22, Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, Accessed July 23, 2015, http://milmi.org/cgi/dataanalysis/
  14. "Online College Students: 2015", http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/OnlineCollegeStudents2015.pdf
  15. "Student Debt and the Class of 2013," The Project on Student Debt, The Institute for College Access & Success, November 2014, http://ticas.org/sites/default/files/legacy/fckfiles/pub/classof2013.pdf
  16. "Student Debt and the Class of 2011," The Project on Student Debt, The Institute for College Access & Success, October 2012, http://ticas.org/sites/default/files/legacy/fckfiles/pub/classof2011.pdf
  17. "Table B20004: Median Earnings in the Past 12 Months (in 2013 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) by Sex by Education Attainment for the Population 25 Years and Over," 1-Year Estimates, American Community Survey, 2013, https://www.census.gov/acs/www/data/data-tables-and-tools/american-factfinder/
  18. Unemployment Rates for States: June 2015, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics, Accessed July 23, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm
  19. West Virginia Occupational Projections, 2012-22, WorkForce West Virginia Labor Market Information, http://www.workforcewv.org/lmi/occproj/longterm/StateWide.htm