Ask someone to describe a college student, and they are likely to mention young adults living on campus and away from home for the first time. Certainly, recent high school graduates make up the majority of college students, but they aren't the only ones pursuing a higher education.
Of the 19.9 million college and university students enrolled in 2018, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 7.6 million were age 25 or older. These older students go by many names: adult learners, nontraditional students and returning students are just a few.
Going back to school is a goal for many adults. In fact, 60 percent of 1,000 adults age 23 to 55 told Champlain College Online that they would feel more positive about themselves if they had a degree. Fortunately, nontraditional education programs are making it easy for busy adults to pursue this dream.
Reasons Adults Go to School Online
The traditional approach to college involves living on campus and studying full-time. It's a schedule that leaves little room for a job or other activities. That approach doesn't work well for most adults, who may have children, jobs or other obligations.
However, adult education programs are different. Once schools tried to work around these obligations by offering night and weekend classes, and many schools still offer these today. However, increasingly, colleges are making their education accessible to adult students by putting their degree programs online. For adults, online learning can come with many benefits:
- Opportunity to study when and where you want
- Accelerated and part-time learning options
- Elimination of transportation and day care costs
- Interactive learning environment in which age is not obvious
Distance learning is no longer on the fringe of higher education but is a mainstream option that OnlineColleges.com has found offered at more than 6,700 schools nationwide. What's more, approximately 6.7 million students take at least one distance education course each year.
Keep reading for answers to frequently asked questions about online college and a discussion of the best online colleges for adult students.
FAQs about Online Education
Despite the increasing popularity of online education, many people still have misconceptions about this type of learning. Here are four common questions people have about online colleges for nontraditional students.
1. Are online colleges accredited?
Online colleges earn accreditation in the same way as traditional schools. They may be accredited by regional accrediting boards or national accrediting bodies. What's more, individual degree programs may be accredited by industry organizations. All the best online colleges for returning students listed on this page -- and indeed, across this entire site -- meet accreditation standards.
2. Are online colleges easy?
It's a mistake to think online colleges are an easy way to earn a degree. Many institutions use the same curriculum for both their online and on-campus programs, and many institutions have the same faculty teaching their online and on-campus courses. In some ways, distance learning can be more difficult than traditional courses, since students must be self-disciplined in order to independently manage their study times.
3. Are online colleges cheaper?
Not necessarily. Some schools offers a reduced tuition rate to online students or eliminate fees for those who won't be using campus amenities. Others charge identical rates regardless of whether someone is learning online or in a classroom. Where many online students find cost savings is by taking accelerated programs, which allow them to complete their degree earlier than a traditional campus program.
If you need help paying for college, check out these eight high-paying scholarships for online college students or the rest of our How to Pay section.
4. How long do online programs take?
That depends entirely on you. Online degrees can be earned on a traditional schedule -- two years for an associate degree or four years for a bachelor's degree. Or you could study at an accelerated pace. Some of the best online colleges for adult students offer courses in 8-week sessions, which can shave up to a year off your degree time. Alternately, you can study part-time and earn a degree over a longer period but at a pace that might be more comfortable for you.
20 Best Online Colleges for Adults Going Back to School in 2019-20
If you're ready to go back to school, you want to find an institution that is equipped to meet the unique needs of adult learners. To find the best options in this field, we analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), weighing online factors such as number of online programs and percentage of students enrolled in distance education alongside nontraditional factors such as graduation rate of non-first-time students and percentage of non-first-time students receiving financial aid.
For more details on the factors we chose and why they matter, see our Methodology lightbox or the "What Makes a Good Online College?" section of our "About Us" page.
American Public University System - Charles Town, WV
The American Public University System was founded by a retired Marine Corps officer with the express purpose of offering distance education for military students. Comprised of the American Military University and the American Public University, APUS works to educate students who want to stay within the military, but also students who are looking to transition into post-military careers.
Courses at APUS start monthly and run for eight or 16 weeks, helping busy adults to fit them into a full schedule. As you might expect, reduced tuition rates and the possibility of fee waivers are available for military members.
What makes APUS good for adult students? Returning students don't have to worry about being the only adult in the online classroom at APUS. The average age of students is 33, and nearly 90 percent of those enrolled are working adults. What's more, students can be credited for previous college learning, military service or prior life experiences.
Union Institute & University - Cincinnati, OH
Since its founding in 1964, Union Institute & University has specialized in adult education programs. As technology has evolved, the school has incorporated online learning into its curriculum, recognizing the value such a format lends to adult learners. To meet the varied needs of its student body, Union embraces a blended model of teaching that includes both online and on-campus instruction.
Union offers both undergraduate and graduate degree programs online. Within its programs, it promotes values such as academic excellence, social justice and creative and critical thinking. While Union's main campus is in Cincinnati, Ohio, the university has three academic centers in Florida and California.
What makes Union good for adult students? This university offers support services designed to fit the needs of working adults. Its writing center offers assistance at no extra charge, and telephone appointments for writing or math tutoring can be made for day, evening and weekend times. Union also has a comprehensive career center that can assist graduates in transitioning to the workforce.
Capella University - Minneapolis, MN
Established in 1993, Capella University is working to reshape the path of higher education. The average age of those enrolled at Capella is 39, meaning older students don't have to worry about feeling out of place. It's no surprise that Capella is popular with returning and adult students, considering the university's competency-based learning model.
In this style of learning, students advance from one course to the next by demonstrating mastery over the relevant topics for each course. Competency-based learning is particularly beneficial to students who already have some career and life experience, as their learned skills can help them advance quickly through material they already understand.
What makes Capella good for adult students? Capella takes an innovative approach to education by offering two learning models. GuidePath programs run on a more traditional schedule, providing a more structured course curriculum that can help students stay on track. Meanwhile, FlexPath is self-paced, allowing students to move through the material as quickly or slowly as they can handle. FlexPath students may even be able to earn a bachelor's degree in as little as 12 months.
University of Utah - Salt Lake City, UT
The University of Utah has a long history, dating all the way back to 1850. While many may know the school for its start-up incubators, PAC-12 athletics or scenic Salt Lake City campus, the university is also a powerhouse when it comes to distance education. Through UOnline, students can choose from hundreds of online courses or enroll in one of the school's fully online degree programs, delivered via the Canvas learning system. Options include both graduate and undergraduate programs in fields such as business, nursing and gerontology.
What makes the U good for adult students? Nontraditional students can apply to the University of Utah on a rolling admissions basis. Students who are unsure about their suitability for online learning can even testdrive distance learning through an online sample course. UOnline also makes test proctoring easier through its virtual proctoring service, which allows students that meet certain basic requirements (i.e. owning a web camera) to have exams proctored from the comfort of their own home.
Fayetteville State University - Fayetteville, NC
As a historically black university, Fayetteville State University is an educational leader in more ways than one. Not only did the school initially form in 1867 to create educational opportunities to black children, but it has also grown into one of the best online colleges for returning students.
FSU's online undergraduate degree programs are all degree completion programs -- ideal for adults who have a few years of college under their belt but never completed their degree. Those considering returning to school for a graduate degree instead may be interested in FSU's M.S. in criminal justice or MBA programs instead.
What makes FSU good for adult students? Adult learners made up more than half the student body at Fayetteville State University in the fall of 2018. Among the academic support services available to these students is SmarThinking Online Tutoring, math and writing support through the FSU Learning Center and access to Handshake for career networking.
Liberty University - Lynchburg, VA
Liberty University is one of the biggest names in online education. While the school has a campus in Lynchburg, Virginia, its enrollment has swelled to more than 100,000 students as of 2019 thanks in large part to distance learners.
This evangelical Christian university offers more than 600 programs of study, including 400 that are available online. These include everything from short-term certificates to doctoral degrees. Many degree programs use an eight-week delivery format to expedite student learning.
What makes Liberty good for adult students? Liberty supports its online students with a bevy of academic support services that can be helpful for adults and other nontraditional students. Preparation courses, study aids, assessment tests, and abundant webinars and tutorials can help returning students get used to studying online, while the university career center helps pave the way for finding a career after graduating from Liberty.
University of Houston (Downtown) - Houston, TX
Featuring a diverse student body and a dynamic urban campus, the University of Houston-Downtown is one of four institutions within the University of Houston System. Nearly a third of the credit hours completed in 2018 were in online programs, and another 15 percent were for hybrid programs combining online and on-campus work.
Through UHD Online, students can pursue various undergraduate degree completion programs or a graduate degree program in a field such as nonprofit management, criminal justice or teaching. In addition to online learning, UHD offers video conferencing and face-to-face instruction at off-campus locations as other options for busy adults.
What makes UHD good for adult students? The University of Houston-Downtown strives to make it easy for returning students to transfer previous credits. The school even has an Accelerated Transfer Academy that assigns a success coach to eligible students in order to guide them through the transfer process.
Saint Leo University - Saint Leo, FL
Founded in 1889, Saint Leo University is the oldest Catholic institution of higher education in Florida. While a historic institution, it has also embraced modern technology over the years. Through the university's online portal, Saint Leo Worldwide, students can pursue dozens of online programs at different degree levels, from an AA in business administration to a Doctor of Education in school leadership. Various minors, specializations and program formats offer many options for customizing your online experience.
What makes Saint Leo good for adult students? Saint Leo University features rolling admissions and six start dates so students won't have to wait long to begin their studies. Returning students can receive transfer student tuition discounts, and adult students can apply for credit for their corporate, military and career experience. The school's career services team offers webinars, assessment tools and research assistance that can be helpful to both new and returning students.
University of West Florida - Pensacola, FL
This military-friendly school is based in Pensacola, Florida, but more than a quarter of its students were enrolled in online-only programs in the fall of 2018. The University of West Florida offers dozens of online degree program options at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, including highly ranked programs in special education and health sciences.
Through UWF Global Online, students have access to a dynamic learning experience that connects them with agencies and classmates across the country and even the world. Out-of-state online students can apply for a waiver that can reduce the non-resident portion of tuition by up to 90 percent.
What makes UWF good for adult students? Through a partnership with Complete Florida, nontraditional students have access to even more online programs than those that are offered in the UWF catalog. These feature multiple start dates and an accelerated format. Plus, participants are assigned a personal coach to help them along the way.
Regent University - Virginia Beach, VA
Regent University is a private Christian school based in Virginia Beach, Virginia that has a reputation for research quality and military friendliness. Students are taught by world-class instructors using an educational approach specifically designed to foster leadership abilities.
Regent takes particular pride in the quality of its law and MBA programs. Plus, the university has been named a National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
What makes Regent good for adult students? Online degree programs at Regent feature flexible courses that run for either eight or 15 weeks, allowing students to study at an accelerated pace if they want. Returning students can also transfer up to 90 credits thanks to the school's generous transfer policy.
Fayetteville Technical Community College - Fayetteville, NC
While most of the best online colleges for nontraditional students are four-year institutions, Fayetteville Technical Community College is a two-year school that offers a wide assortment of two-year associate degree, career diploma and certificate programs. Dozens of these programs can be completed fully online.
FTCC is an especially good choice for veterans and military members. They can receive credit for their service and may be eligible for military scholarships and waived fees. Fayetteville Tech offers online Flex Courses for servicemembers as well, giving them maximum flexibility for their study schedule.
Why is FTCC good for adult students? Returning students can use the school's online Career Coach to determine the right education and career path prior to enrollment. Upon graduation, adult learners can use the Career Development Center to transition to the workforce or transfer to one of FTCC's many partnering schools to complete their bachelor's degree.
Coastline Community College - Fountain Valley, CA
Coastline Community College is another two-year institution that caters to the needs of nontraditional students. For eight straight years, it has been named a Top 150 school by the nonprofit Aspen Institute College Experience program.
Online courses at Coastline may run for 8-week terms and be accessed from a desktop computer, tablet device or even a smartphone for ultimate flexibility. These courses tend to have a focus on telecourse and cable TV course videos; most of their broadcasts can be watched via Canvas, purchased through the Coastline bookstore, viewed through Spectrum or even watched at local viewing centers.
What makes Coastline good for adult students? Its robust online support services are one of the things setting Coastline apart from other colleges and universities. Distance learners have access to an online library, 24/7 online tutoring and e-counseling.
Bellevue University - Bellevue, NE
This private, nonprofit institution offers traditional and career-focused degree programs in a variety of formats. In addition to taking classes online, distance learners can enroll in an innovative accelerated cohort format. Accelerated cohort programs are available at both the graduate and undergraduate level.
Through the school's BRUIN portal, online students can access library resources, account details and transcripts. Courses are delivered through the Blackboard online classroom, and a combination of discussion forums, online collaboration and peer review helps keep students connected, regardless of where they are sitting as they attend class.
What makes Bellevue good for adult students? Adult learners at Bellevue can benefit from 24/7 technical support and online tutoring, the Freeman/Lozier library resources, and support from the Writing Center and library staff. What's more, they may be eligible to earn up to 12 credits for previous life or work experience.
Nova Southeastern University - Fort Lauderdale, FL
Nova Southeastern University was founded in Fort Lauderdale in 1946, and has been offering distance education since 1972. The university is known for its marine wildlife programs and learning institutes such as the National Coral Reef Institute, as well as a comprehensive online degree catalog. Online students may participate in real-time presentations with faculty and classmates, communicate through bulletin board systems and access an electronic library and similar resources.
Why is NSU good for adult students? The Degree Works online auditing system at Nova Southeastern University can help nontraditional students monitor their progress toward a degree. The school's Canvas system serves as a hub for course related materials, while personal career coaches can help students plan their next steps after graduation.
Grand Canyon University - Phoenix, AZ
Originally chartered as a traditional college in 1949, Grand Canyon University shifted its focus in the 2000s to meet the needs of working adults. Since then, this nonprofit Christian school has gone on to enroll more than 60,000 distance education students annually.
GCU offers individual online courses as well as fully online degree programs. Accelerated seven-week course formats are available for online students who are looking for ways to help shorten the time needed to earn a degree.
Why is GCU good for adult students? Returning students can transfer up to 90 credits toward a degree at GCU. What's more, there are no GRE or entrance exam requirements for graduate students. Cost-conscious adults may also appreciate that Grand Canyon University has frozen its tuition rates for 11 consecutive years.
Fort Hays State University - Hays, KS
Fort Hays State University has a history that dates back to 1902. Its Hays campus is home to an Honors College, the Kansas Academy of Math and Science, and the Robbins Banking Institute, as well as other education centers.
An institution dedicated to innovation, FHSU has developed a virtual college that supports dozens of degree programs and over a hundred specializations for those programs. Online students typically follow a standard 16-week semester schedule, although some courses are offered in an 8-week term.
Why is FHSU good for adult students? Fort Hays State has a 95 percent job placement rate, and its graduates have a 100 percent pass rate on certain licensure exams for nursing and education. Both resident and non-resident online students pay the same tuition rates for FHSU, and financial aid is available to help offset the cost.
University of Illinois - Springfield, IL
With online degree programs available in computer science, business administration and accounting, the University of Illinois at Springfield is another wise choice for returning students. There are dozens of online degree programs offered at the university, and an online program coordinator helps guide students through the admissions and enrollment process. Online students also pay e-tuition regardless of where they live, helping to make the university's adult education programs more affordable.
Why is UIS good for adult students? UIS maintains 2+2 and joint agreements with several other Illinois schools, making it easier for students to transfer to or from those schools in order to continue their education. In fact, UIS reports that over 90 percent of their online undergraduates transfer in from another institution. The university's degree audit system can help adult learners quickly see if and how their prior credits can transfer.
Texas A&M University - Texarkana, TX
The list of online degree programs offered at Texas A&M University-Texarkana may seem small at first glance. However, TAMUT students can access distance education courses from all participating Texas A&M institutions through the Texas A&M University System Course Exchange Program.
Online programs at TAMUT include an RN-to-BSN bridge program, a Master of Science in Accounting, an MBA program and more. Meanwhile, dozens of other courses can be available in a given semester from the Course Exchange Program. Check their website to get an idea of what kinds of courses might be available for you.
Why is TAMUT good for adult students? Nontraditional students who are worried about getting used to online learning can find plenty of assistance at TAMUT. Courses are delivered through the Blackboard learning management system, and several distance education trainings are hosted on the TAMUT website in order to help students understand how to get started with online learning. Returning students may also find it easy to transfer credits from a community college thanks to the 2+2 agreements in place between TAMUT and partnering institutions.
Georgia Piedmont Technical College - Clarkston, GA
Georgia Piedmont Technical College is one of Georgia's oldest and most respected technical schools. Through a partnership with Ed2Go, Georgia Piedmont Tech offers a number of college readiness and professional development classes online. While the school doesn't specifically offer fully online degree programs itself, it does offer other flexible learning options on its ten campuses, learning centers and career academies.
Why is Georgia Piedmont Tech good for adult students? This institution structures its courses in several different ways. Courses can be taken face to face, online, or in a hybrid format, and they can run for a standard 15 weeks, be condensed into an accelerated seven-week format or be taken in a "stacked" format. "Stacked classes" are a full load of classes that are registered all at once for a term and taken in order, with one serving as a prerequisite to the next. Each course may run for as many as 10 weeks or as few as two weeks, helping students to complete a full block of classes quickly and efficiently.
Amridge University - Montgomery, AL
Amridge University -- a nonprofit private university formed in 1967 -- was one of 15 schools selected by the U.S. Department of Education to pilot broad access to distance learning in the 1990s. Today, it offers its programs exclusively through online learning formats.
One of the few fully-online schools in the country, Amridge is also a military-friendly institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ. Military members, veterans and their spouses are eligible for special tuition pricing. Classes run for terms that may be 8, 10 or 14 weeks in length. Its online programs range from the associate to the doctoral level.
Why is Amridge good for adult students? Amridge has a long track record of providing flexible degree options for adult learners. The Amridge Laptop Program ensures all students have access to an affordable laptop and free Office 365 software. In addition, Amridge broadcasts Live Chapel services on Wednesday mornings, creating a way for online students to connect with their school and their peers regardless of distance.