Online education becomes a more mainstream option at colleges and universities across the country each year. Yet, not all states offer an abundance of opportunities for distance education students, or solid career prospects for online graduates.
Many online students seem to find value in having physical access to college resources, even if a majority of the work is done from home. In a 2015 Learning House study, two-thirds of the undergraduate online students participating lived within 100 miles of their college.
There are many factors that could potentially affect the experience of an online student, from distance education availability to Internet quality. (Just ask any student whose Internet keeps timing out while they are trying to upload a midterm project, or download a multimedia presentation!)
And looking beyond the college years, some states are less equipped than others to provide robust job opportunities for bachelor's degree holders. Other states simply have a high cost of living, pricey tuition, or a low median salary. Put all those factors together, and you have our list of the 10 states that ranked the worst for online college students. Read more about our methodology here.
The 10 Worst States to Attend an Online College
Based on our ranking system, here are the ten worst states for online college students, starting with the lowest-ranked state.
With only eight schools offering online learning, Alaska ranks dead last in all of the states for distance education availability. It's also last in upload speed, a potential roadblock for online students who have to submit work this way. Add to that sluggish job growth projections, high unemployment rates and a high cost of living, and studying in Alaska might not be the wisest choice for aspiring online students. Alaska's one saving grace for students is that the average cost of undergraduate education at schools offering online programs is 24th, putting it pretty much in the middle nationally.
Although there are states that offer less distance education, what puts West Virginia second on this list is its dismal economic outlook. It suffers from the highest unemployment rate in the nation, comes in last for job growth, and next to last for long-term industry forecasts. Those factors most likely contribute to the fact that only two states are worse off when it comes to the number of student loan defaults. The bright side is that education in West Virginia is more affordable than in most states, and the cost of living is low. Students who do choose to study in West Virginia should choose a program that aligns one of the state's fast-growing jobs: software development, medical and health services management, or civil engineering.
As an expensive place to live without a strong economy to match, Maine has its challenges for young graduates. It's difficult for those wishing to study online, in particular, as there aren't many distance education options; only 21 schools in Maine offer distance learning. The Pine Tree State also ranks 44th for student debt; the average debt for the class of 2013 is $29,934.
The one thing that Mississippi has going for it is its undergraduate tuition affordability, ranking sixth nationally. Beyond that however, the state falls short across all of the major economic categories in our research. Bachelor's degree holders make median incomes of just $40,577 per year, yet the Class of 2013 walked away with an average debt of $27,571 per graduate. However, students interested in exploring careers in marketing and computer systems will find strong job potential, so online studies that align with those fields could help students rise above the challenges.
Vermont scores low when it comes to Internet access, with only 21 percent of the population having access to 25 Mbps download speed. Vermont is also 48th for adjusted income (which could be attributed to its high cost of living). On a positive note, grads who incur debt manage it well, as Vermont ranks fifth nationally for the lowest default rate, and it's one of only six states whose rate is less than 10 percent.
Rhode Island is the smallest state in the nation, with the second-highest average undergraduate tuition at schools offering online programs. That in combination with a limited set of educational opportunities puts the Ocean State sixth of the list of worst states for online students. It does offer good Internet access, meaning the infrastructure is there should more online options become available. It ranks in the top 10 for low default rankings, a sign that Rhode Island graduates do seem to manage their high student loan debt well.
South Carolina's scores tend to run middle-of-the-road for the most part, but the state ranks 46th in unemployment. Hopefully things may turn around, since the state is eighth in 12-month job growth, and its long-term industry forecasts are 16th. Jobs as interpreters and translators; information security analysts; or personal financial advisors are projected to be the fastest- growing jobs for bachelor's degree holders.
Although there are well-known traditional colleges and universities that call Connecticut home, the state ranks in the bottom half for distance education availability. It's too bad since Connecticut makes the honor roll when it comes to Internet upload (first) and download speed (second). Other deterrents for online graduates include the fact that it's an expensive place to live, but its job growth and wages are just average.
New Hampshire is in the bottom 10 for distance education availability, and graduates have the highest amount of student debt in the nation ($32,795 for the class of 2013). However, despite the high costs of living and expensive education (it ranks 43rd for tuition), unemployment is extremely low (the sixth lowest in the country). This could explain why graduates do so well at paying off their debt; the state ranks fourth for the lowest loan default rate.
Although it's 34th in distance education availability, New Mexico's colleges and universities are among the least expensive in the nation. In fact, the average undergraduate tuition was just $4,009 in 2013, earning it a first place rank for cost. That bright spot aside, wages aren't terrific and job growth is below average. Still, the affordability factor can't be overlooked, especially for those seeking a degree in a fast-growing field like market research.
To arrive at this list, we ranked all 50 states on these five categories:
- Internet Quality and Availability, using data from the National Broadband Map and the Federal Communications Commission, 2015
- 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
- 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
- Student Debt, using data from the U.S. Department of Education, 2014, and the Project on Student Debt, 2011 and 2013
- Educational Opportunity, using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2013-14
Check out our list of the best states for online college students, too.
- Analyze & Rank, National Broadband Map, Accessed July 22, 2015, http://www.broadbandmap.gov/rank
- Broadband Statistics Report: Number of Providers by Speed Tier, National Broadband Map, June 2014, http://www.broadbandmap.gov/download/Providers%20by%20Speed%20Tier.pdf
- Cost of Living Index: 2014 Annual Average Data, Council for Community and Economic Research, January 2015, https://www.coli.org/
- "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
- "FY 2011 3-Year Official Cohort Default Rates by State/Territory," U.S. Department of Education, July 26, 2014, http://www2.ed.gov/offices/OSFAP/defaultmanagement/staterates.pdf
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013-14, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed May 27, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Long Term Occupational Projections, Projections Central, Accessed July 22, 2015, http://projectionscentral.com/Projections/LongTerm
- "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jan. 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
- Occupational Projections (Long Term) 2012-22, Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, Accessed July 23, 2015, http://milmi.org/cgi/dataanalysis/
- "Online College Students: 2015", http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/OnlineCollegeStudents2015.pdf
- "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
- "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
- "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/
- 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
- West Virginia Occupational Projections, 2012-22, WorkForce West Virginia Labor Market Information, http://www.workforcewv.org/lmi/occproj/longterm/StateWide.htm