5 Best Fully Online Colleges in 2018

Nov 28, 2017 | By Maggie Wirtanen
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Using the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, we generated a list of colleges and universities that met the following criteria:

  1. Level of institution is either “Four or more years” or “At least 2 but less than 4 years”
  2. At least 1% of students are taking at least some of the classes via distance education
  3. Data is reported for all 11 ranking variables listed in the Methodology section
  4. School replied “Yes” to the data point “All programs offered completely via distance education”

We ranked 14 colleges on 11 criteria, using 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the weights specified:

  1. Number of programs offered via distance education
  2. Percentage of students participating in distance education classes
  3. Average in-state tuition for undergraduate and graduate students
  4. Average out-of-state tuition for undergraduate and graduate students
  5. Total electronic library collections, including digital books, databases and media
  6. Availability of academic/ career counseling services
  7. Availability of job placement services for graduates
  8. Offers dual credit
  9. Offers credit for life experience
  10. Offers advanced placement (AP) credit
  11. Offers credit for military training

All schools were scored on a 10-point scale for each of the points listed above. Individual data point scores were then multiplied by their respective weights, and the scores were added together, for a maximum possible score of 10 points.

  1. National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Accessed November 2017, https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
  2. College Scorecard, Accessed November 2017, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/
  3. Interview with Dr. Linda L. Lillard, conducted by Kenya McCullum in February 2018
  4. Interview with Ann Marie Nembirkow, conducted by Kenya McCullum in February 2018
  5. Interview with Kelly Parks, conducted by Kenya McCullum in February 2018
  6. Interview with Julie Edholm, conducted by Kenya McCullum in February 2018
  7. About Grantham University, Grantham University, Accessed November 2017, https://www.grantham.edu/about-grantham/?tab-grantham-experience
  8. Explore Degrees and Programs at Western Governor's University, Accessed November 2017, https://www.wgu.edu/
  9. Learn from a Nationally Recognized Leader in Higher Education, American Public University System, Accessed November 2017, http://start.apu.apus.edu/online-degrees/overview
  10. Pursue a Degree Without Putting Your Life on Hold, Colorado Technical University-Online, Accessed November 2017, https://online.coloradotech.edu/ctu/colorado-tech/home-1a-tcpa-contactme-des2-exp2?code=6071&siteid=MSN+Brand_Core_-_HV_-_Exact+CTU_Online_-_Exact+ctu_online+Exact+device=c|488ac52e-2648-4f24-8453-0a756144acf0
  11. Why Trident? Trident University International, Accessed November 2017, https://www.trident.edu/why-trident/


If you are a working adult, military student, veteran or other individual in need of a fully online college, then take a look at our list of the five best fully online colleges below. A fully online college has multiple advantages for a student: you are guaranteed that all programs and courses are offered online, rather than needing to check each one individually; and you can be sure that their distance learning programs have had thought put into them, seeing as all of their academics fall into this category.


What common mistakes do online students make and how can they avoid them?

Some common mistakes online students make include:

  • Forgetting about the class and not setting aside time to be in the online classroom and to complete assignments. It is very easy to forget about an online class when a busy life takes over, so scheduling class and homework time is a must.
  • Suffering in silence. Online students should never suffer in silence and be afraid to ask questions -- ask your instructor and ask other students. It is easy to become confused and feel alone and frustrated. The instructor is there to help, so don't be afraid to ask. Also, when life problems intervene, online students tend to "drop out of sight" and get behind or even fail the class. Always let your instructor know what is going on with you right away if you have problems. It is easier to fix something up front than try to pick up the pieces after everything has fallen apart.
  • Not reading email. Email and class announcements are two of the most important ways instructors try to get timely information to you. I can't stress this enough: Read your email!

Dr. Linda L. Lillard is the Chair and Program Director of the Department of Information and Library Science at Clarion University, a fully online program. She's been teaching online for 23 years (before course management systems) and taught by listserv. She's taught on the ground and online for University of Central Missouri (where she pioneered online classes), University of Kentucky, Emporia State University, San Jose State University and, of course, Clarion University.

Using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we ranked 14 colleges offering all of their programs online. Our ranking was based on metrics such as total number of online programs, admissions and graduation rates, tuition costs and other factors. The methodology used for these rankings is available at the bottom of this web page.

1. American Public University System

CharlestonTuition costsAccreditation
West Virginia$6,880Higher Learning Commission

This university takes the #1 spot on our list of best distance education colleges for its broad range of online programs, including both degrees and certificates, and the opportunities students have to receive credit for life experience and military training. In fact, American Pubic University System offers by far the largest variety of programs of all the schools included on this list, with 140 online programs in all for students to choose from.

To help students interested in higher education get ahead, American Public University System accepts advanced placement credit as well as dual credit. Its virtual reference services can be used by students locate books and materials for their courses. Additionally, students who choose the university can access academic and career counseling.

2. Grantham University

LenexaTuition costsAccreditation
Kansas$6,500Distance Education Accrediting Commission

Taking the second spot on this list of best fully online schools is Grantham University, which offers a tuition payment plan, credit for military service and credit for life experience. All these resources are meant to help as many students as possible take advantage of Grantham's 40-plus online degree programs, in fields such as business, criminal justice, electronics engineering technology and more.

The university, started by a World War II veteran named Donald Grantham, has provided access to education for busy working adults since 1951, striving to help them educate themselves and create opportunities in their careers. Online academic and career counseling, placement services and virtual reference services are all reasons this school earns the No.2 ranking on our list.

3. Western Governors University

Salt Lake CityTuition costsAccreditation
Utah$6,070Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

Success for its student body has been part of Western Governors' focus since it was founded in 1995 by 19 U.S. governors. In pursuit of this goal, Western Governors University decided to create an innovative brand of education that harnessed technology and focused on competency-based learning. The school boasts over 50 degree programs, in disciplines such as nursing, education and many kinds of sciences, with options available at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

WGU has the highest 2016-17 student enrollment of all five colleges that made this list, and part of that may be due to its focus on affordability and financial aid. The university participates in many different federal and state grants and loans, and maintains a portfolio of scholarships that helps many students every year reduce the net price for their education.

4. Trident University International

CypressTuition costsAccreditation
California$9,000Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Senior College and University Commission

This military- and veteran-friendly university provides students with two dozen different online programs to choose from, ranging from health administration to educational leadership to computer science. Two dozen may not sound like a lot compared to other schools on this list, but most of these programs also feature multiple concentrations, ultimately giving students a surprisingly large variety of selections.

Established in 1998, the school benefits students with "active, case-based learning" and many resources, including tuition payment plans, academic and career counseling services and credit for life experience. The school's Student Success Advisors are available five days a week to help answer students' questions, and the Trident Military Assistance Center provides additional assistance and resources for student veterans and their families.

5. Colorado Technical University-Online

Colorado SpringsTuition costsAccreditation
Colorado$10,540Higher Learning Commission

More than 20,000 students are enrolled in the online programs at Colorado Technical University-Online, immersing themselves in disciplines as diverse as accounting, cyber security or health care management from the associate to the doctoral degree level. Colorado Tech is a bit unusual for our list, because it also offers several programs that are hybrids rather than purely online. However, it has no fully on-campus programs; every program has some kind of online component, providing the flexibility and accessibility this list is looking for.

The school's Fast Track examinations are designed to test a student's knowledge of their chosen field, helping students to earn credits for their knowledge and experience. These exams can potentially help experienced students to finish school up to 30 percent faster. CTU also provides students with helpful resources, such as placement services, virtual reference services and credit for military training.


How did earning a degree online help you reach your educational and career goals?

Completing a degree online gave me the flexibility to achieve my dream of finishing my education. It also helped me to feel much more confident as an employee. Before my resume didn't match my skills; I didn't have that one piece of the puzzle to put on there, which was having a bachelor's degree. It allowed me to realize that the sky is the limit, and that I now have the ability to expand my professional horizons however I may want.

What challenges did you face as an online student? What advice would you give to other online students to help them overcome these challenges?

The biggest challenge was overcoming the fear that I had been away from the world of education for so long. I would tell other online students -- you'd be amazed by how much life experience you still have to bring to the table. I would encourage them to do just one introductory class, and after you get through the one, you will sign yourself up for two.

At 46, Ann Marie Nembirkow took a nontraditional path and graduated from The American Women's College, an all-woman, all online program at Bay Path University in May of 2017. She finished her BA in Leadership and Organizational Skills 20 years after starting as an undergraduate, as getting her BA was put on hold when she got pregnant with her twins.


Despite being terrified at 37 after just having a child, being a single mother, and living in the middle of nowhere Montana, I decided to enroll in an online Master of Science degree in business and real estate at New England College in New Hampshire. It took two years to complete the degree program and I finished with honors. I was 39.

Immediately upon completion of my master's degree, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Northwestern University. After about a year of classes, I had to take a break. My young daughter was more important and I suffered from a bit of burnout. Now at 50, I have transferred my credits to Columbia Southern University and am completing my Ph.D. in business administration online. It's never too late to follow your educational dream.

Kelly Parks is a real estate broker and owner of Great Falls Realty in Great Falls, Montana.


How did earning a degree online help you reach your educational and career goals?

The Master's of Library Science program through Clarion gave me the information and tools I needed to add to my experience and knowledge I had gained through working at a public library. The last semester I was able to secure an internship at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West located in Cody, Wyoming in the McCracken Research Library. This internship led to a permanent job as I graduated and allows me to work from home with just an occasional trip to Cody.

What challenges did you face as an online student? What advice would you give to other online students to help them overcome these challenges?

The advice I would give to students considering an online option would be to ask questions. If I were to do it again, I would have picked up the phone and called during the professor's office hours, because at times trying to ask follow-up questions via email becomes tiring. All my professors posted the times they were available to talk on the phone and I even had one that would Skype with the students. I didn't take advantage of this as I should have.

Julie Edholm is the Metadata Cataloger at Buffalo Bill Center of the West. She has over 19 years of experience in libraries, from volunteer to employee to leader, including reference libraries housed in museums.

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