20 Best Online Colleges for Returning Students in 2018-19

Jul 25, 2018 | By Maggie Wirtanen
Article Sources


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:

  • Level of institution is either "Four or more years" or "At least 2 but less than 4 years"
  • At least 1% of students are taking at least some of the classes via distance education
  • Data is reported for all 14 ranking variables listed below

We ranked 2,455 colleges and universities in the United States on 11 criteria, using 2016-17 data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  1. Number of programs offered via distance education
  2. Ratio of students participating fully or partially in distance education to total enrollment
  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. Academic/ career counseling services
  7. Placement services for completers
  8. Dual credit offerings
  9. Credit for life experience offerings
  10. Advanced placement (AP) credit offerings
  11. 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. This accounted for half of our ranking. The other half came from enacting the same process on the following 3 data points:

  1. Percentage of full-time non-first-time undergraduate students retained in the 2016-17 school year
  2. Percentage of part-time non-first-time undergraduate students retained in the 2016-17 school year
  3. Award percentage of full-time non-first-time undergraduate students graduating in 2017
  4. Award percentage of part-time non-first-time undergraduate students graduating in 2017

The two resulting scores were then averaged together, for a maximum possible final score of 10 points.


  1. About ODU, Old Dominion University, Accessed July 2018, https://www.odu.edu/about
  2. About Saint Leo, Saint Leo University, Accessed July 2018, https://www.saintleo.edu/about
  3. About USFRI, University of South Florida, Accessed July 2018, http://www.usf.edu/research-innovation/about-usfri/index.aspx
  4. A Brief History, Ogeechee Technical College, Accessed July 2018, http://www.ogeecheetech.edu/about-otc/a-brief-history
  5. Academics, ODU Online, Accessed January 2018, https://online.odu.edu/academics
  6. Adult Education, Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Accessed January 2018, https://www.gptc.edu/content.cfm?TLSRedirect=1&PageCode=adult
  7. Advanced Standing Credit, University of South Florida, Accessed January 2018, http://www.usf.edu/admissions/international/why-usf/academics/advanced-standing.aspx
  8. Alternative Admission, University of Illinois at Springfield, Accessed January 2108, http://www.uis.edu/admissions/transfer/
  9. Available Degree Programs, Luther Rice University & Seminary, Accessed July 2018, https://www.lutherrice.edu/degree-programs/all-degree-programs.cms
  10. COS Sophomores, Second Year Students, University of Central Florida, Accessed January 2018, http://sciences.ucf.edu/cosas/current-students/forms/
  11. Courses Online or at 30+ Arizona Campuses, Northern Arizona University, Accessed July 2018, http://ec.nau.edu/
  12. Credit Transfer Options, Fox Valley Technical School, Accessed January 2018, https://www.fvtc.edu/programs/credit-transfer-options
  13. Earn to Learn, Northern Arizona University, Accessed July 2018, https://nau.edu/student-affairs/earn-to-learn/
  14. Exceltrack, Accelerated Degree Programs, Accessed July 2018, https://www.purdueglobal.edu/student-experience/personalized-learning/
  15. Exceptional Online Education from Luther Rice College & Seminary, Accessed January 2018, https://www.lutherrice.edu/global-online/online-education.cms
  16. Finish Your Degree By Taking Courses Anywhere, OC@KU, Accessed January 2018, https://opencollege.kaplan.edu/
  17. Foundation Scholarships, Ogeechee Technical College, Accessed January 2018, http://www.ogeecheetech.edu/financial-aid/scholarships
  18. Former/Returning Students, Sam Houston State University, Accessed January 2018, http://www.shsu.edu/admissions/transfer/former-students.html
  19. Frequently Asked Questions, Arkansas State University-Mountain View, Accessed January 2018, https://www.asumh.edu/future-students/faqs.html
  20. Frequently Asked Questions, Siena Heights University, Accessed January 2018, http://sienaheights.edu/Admissions/TransferStudents/TransferAdmissionsFAQ.aspx - PriorLearning
  21. George Mason Biography, Biography.com, Accessed July 2018, https://www.biography.com/people/george-mason-9401773
  22. Get to Know Us, University of Central Florida, Accessed July 2018, https://www.ucf.edu/about-ucf/
  23. Global Online, California University of Pennsylvania, Accessed January 2018, http://www.calu.edu/academics/online-programs/index.htm
  24. Ignite, The Campaign for UCF, University of Central Florida, Accessed July 2018, https://www.ucffoundation.org/
  25. Live It Up, Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Accessed July 2018, https://www.gptc.edu/current-students/campus-life/
  26. Mason OnLine, George Mason University, Accessed January 2018, https://masononline.gmu.edu/about/
  27. Mission and Core Values, Ferris State University, Accessed July 2018, https://ferris.edu/HTMLS/administration/president/mission.htm
  28. New Rule on Readmission Under Forgiveness, East Carolina University, Accessed January 2018, http://www.ecu.edu/cs-acad/registrar/Readmission-Under-Forgiveness.cfm
  29. ODU Online, Old Dominion University, Accessed July 2018, https://online.odu.edu/programs
  30. Online, University of Illinois at Springfield, University of Illinois at Springfield, Accessed July 2018, https://www.uis.edu/online/
  31. Online Training, Ogeechee Technical College, Accessed January 2018, http://aceware.ogeecheetech.edu/ShowSchedule.awp?&Mode=GROUP&Group=ONLINE&Title=Online+Training
  32. Prior Learning Assessment for Academic Credit, American Public University, Accessed January 2018, http://www.apu.apus.edu/academic/degrees-and-programs/pla.html
  33. Prior Learning Experience, California University of Pennsylvania, Accessed January 2018, http://www.calu.edu/current-students/academic-resources/office-of-student-success/prior-learning-assessment/index.htm
  34. Prior Learning Experience, Saint Leo University, Accessed January 2018, https://www.saintleo.edu/prior-learning-assessment
  35. Re-Entry Students, Saint Leo University, Accessed January 2018, https://www.saintleo.edu/re-entry-students-admissions
  36. Returning Women, Old Dominion University, Accessed January 2018, https://www.odu.edu/life/support/womenscenter/returning
  37. Scholarship Opportunities, University of Florida, Accessed January 2018, http://www.admissions.ufl.edu/blog/2017/12/04/scholarship-opportunities.html
  38. Students Affairs, Luther Rice College & Seminary, Accessed January 2018, https://www.lutherrice.edu/students/student-services.cms
  39. Student Success, Student Affairs, Northern Arizona University, Accessed January 2018, https://nau.edu/student-affairs/
  40. The Future is Big, University of Central Florida, Accessed July 2018, https://www.ucf.edu/#stats-section
  41. Transfer Credit Evaluation, University of South Florida, Accessed January 2018, http://www.usf.edu/undergrad/state-and-community-colleges/transfer-resources/transfer-credit-new.aspx
  42. Transfer Overview, University of Illinois at Springfield, Accessed January 2018, http://www.uis.edu/admissions/transfer/
  43. Transfer Student Success Center, Ferris University, Accessed January 2018, https://ferris.edu/HTMLS/colleges/university/transfer/transfersuccess/index.htm
  44. Virtual Services for Students, University of Florida, Accessed January 2018, https://www.crc.ufl.edu/students/virtual-services/
  45. What is Degree Works? East Carolina University, Accessed January 2018, http://www.ecu.edu/cs-acad/registrar/degreeworks.cfm


Are you thinking about going back to school, perhaps to finish a degree that you started previously or perhaps to earn a different degree for the purpose of changing careers? Believe it or not, many online colleges want to help you do that as well, and several have resources that can make the process easier, such as allowing you to transfer in previously-earned credits or maintaining special programs specifically for returning students.

Below is our list of the 20 best online colleges for returning students, ranked using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). (Details on our methodology are available at the bottom of this page.) These 20 institutions not only scored well on their rankings in our Top Colleges Tool, but they also have various qualities that have allowed them to retain large numbers of non-first-time students and help them along the road to graduation. If you're uncertain of where to go back to school, this ranking may be able to help you make a well-informed decision.

1. University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL

Become a "Knight" at the University of Central Florida and ride off into the future! Boasting National Merit scholars, a mission of philanthropy and 13 different campuses, this nonprofit university has a foundation built upon success. Returning students may be enticed by UCF's online bachelor's degree programs in criminal justice, history, nursing or sociology, or perhaps by an online certificate in fundraising, gender studies, police leadership or special education, to name just a few. After transferring in their previous credits, returning students may find themselves eligible for freshman or even sophomore status at UCF.

2. Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ

Whether you are near the beginning, middle or end of your education, you can find on-campus and online options available at Northern Arizona University. NAU's online degree programs are tailored toward convenience, in particular their competency-based, self-paced programs in computer information technology, liberal arts and small business administration. The school's College-Bound Outreach program gathers together many programs aimed at student success, including a scholarship savings program called Earn to Learn that promotes financial literacy and rewards saving money.

3. American Public University System, Charles Town, WV

While its focus is on educating veterans and military members, the American Public University System can be a strong choice for returning students from other walks of life as well. Asynchronous online degree programs are offered in a plethora of different fields, such as engineering, Homeland Security and nursing. Returning students also may consider the Prior Learning Assessment program, which awards college credits for life experience like business ownership, civic leadership, hobbies, volunteerism, military service or time spent in a career.

4. Kaplan University, Omaha Campus, NE

*NOTE: Kaplan University has merged with Purdue University Global since this list was made. Please contact Purdue Global University to learn whether the merged school can still fulfill your needs.

Online students who head back to school at Kaplan University should find plenty of support, in particular the "Kaplan Commitment," which allows new students to try out their classes for three weeks before paying any tuition. The university's online degree programs are available in a range of subjects, from business to cybersecurity, and students can even receive credit for life experience or prior work experience. Competency-based learning is available for several programs, using the school's ExcelTrack program, and the school's mentoring program can help students to work on their goals.

5. Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX

Students interested in finishing an online degree at the graduate or undergraduate level could find Sam Houston State University (SHSU) a solid choice. Transfer credits can offer a leg up to students who are seeking credit for prior coursework, and scholarship opportunities can help with tuition and fees. Online degree programs at the bachelor's and master's level make the learning choices at SHSU attractive, challenging and diverse.

6. Luther Rice University & Seminary, Lithonia, GA

If a Christian-based education is your calling, then consider Luther Rice University & Seminary, which offers online education in many different aspects of the faith, from apologetics to Christian studies, from ministry to divinity. The school's Student Affairs Departments maintains an array of student services such as academic advising, career services, disability help and technology support. Students concerned about physical and emotional distance from their school might be comforted by Luther Rice's chapel audio files, which may be able to offer spiritual support even from many miles away.

7. East Carolina University, Greenville, NC

Make a fresh start at East Carolina University, where returning students can seek forgiveness for any former "F" grades received. The school's "Readmission Under Forgiveness" policy is just one way that students headed back to school can catch a break as they work toward completion of a degree. The university's "Degree Works" program is another way to stay on track, helping students to determine how close they are graduation and the degree requirements still needed to get there.

8. University of Illinois at Springfield, Springfield, IL

"Leadership Lived" is the brand of the University of Illinois at Springfield, a four-year school that offers students many different ways to advance their education. This is helped along by the university's "degree audit system," which can help students plan out their degree path and keep tabs on their transfer credits. The university also hosts an "Alternative Admissions" program, which allows "mature" students who have a minimum of 12-15 years of work experience return to school at the junior level of a degree program.

9. Fox Valley Technical School, Appleton, WI

"Knowledge that works" is a theme at Fox Valley Technical School, which offers flexible programs in career-oriented fields, including aviation, construction and manufacturing. FVTC's focus on employment and jobs after education is commendable -- 95 percent of the school's 2017 alumni earned jobs within six months of graduation. This vocational school's degree programs might suit a student who is looking to go back to school and earn credit for his or her life and work experience.

10. Georgia Piedmont Technical College, Clarkston, GA

Adult education is a focus at Georgia Piedmont Technical College, as are career services, GED testing registration, workplace programs, English literacy programs and other helpful offerings. Georgia Piedmont Technical may be especially helpful to students who have not earned a high school diploma: through the Georgia Piedmont Advantage for Adult Education (GPA) dual enrollment program, adult students have the chance to complete their GED and a Technical Certificate of Credit at the same time.

11. Siena Heights University, Adrian, MI

A Roman Catholic university founded by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, Siena Heights University features a 12:1 student-faculty ratio and a handful of online degree programs and minors. Returning students may be particularly interested in the online adult degree completion programs, available in subjects such as accounting, marketing and nursing. If you want to go back to school but can't decide what to major in, Siena Heights' multidisciplinary studies degree completion program can be a perfect choice: it is even categorized with the interest of "Not Quite Sure Yet" on the school's website!

12. Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA

If you once attended Old Dominion University and feel embarrassed about the idea of returning, you shouldn't. ODU offers "reactivation," a streamlined enrollment process specifically aimed at students who enrolled at ODU and then voluntarily left in good academic standing. Female returning students aged 25 or older should certainly consider this, as being an ODU student also allows them to apply online to Delta Sigma Lambda -- a women-only, personal development organization at ODU that offers weekend support meetings and need-based scholarship opportunities.

13. University of South Florida-Main Campus, Tampa, FL

Skip orientation and head directly to advising if you are a former student returning to the nonprofit University of South Florida. USF can be a great choice for students who like science, as the university's research and innovation branch has been recognized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Additionally, students who have completed Advanced Placement coursework, credits at other public community colleges and universities in Florida, International Baccalaureate programs, or College Level Examination Programs may be able to transfer in credits.

14. Ferris State University, Big Rapids, MI

Create your future at Ferris State University by returning to school and receiving the help to advance your goals. The university's Transfer Student Success Center and Transfer Student Newsletter can help returning students learn about the resources available to them. Of particular note are the university's "reverse transfer agreements," which allow a student to earn an associate degree from an approved two-year college at the same time as they begin a bachelor's degree at Ferris State. A reverse transfer can help a returning student save both time and money.

15. University of Florida, Gainesville, FL

If you were once a "Gator" at the University of Florida, you can dive right back in where you left off through readmission, or make a Fresh Start to start more or less from scratch. Either approach can be quite worthwhile, as UF offers distance learning degree programs in disciplines as diverse as fire and emergency services, microbiology and cell science, and nursing. Online Gators can also take advantage of UF's multiple virtual services, including the "Career Help or Major Planning" program, also known as "CHOMP."

16. Ogeechee Technical College, Statesboro, GA

A technical education does not have to be in-the-box at Ogeechee Technical College, a school that helps students to complete online associate degree, certificate and diploma programs in fields such as criminal justice, radiologic technology and business technology. The college also offers certain continuing education courses online, which can be useful to professionals working in real estate, cosmetology, nursing and more. Numerous scholarships can sweeten the deal for Ogeechee students, including the Non-Traditional Scholarship (awarded to a student pursuing a field that is typically 25 percent or less his or her gender).

17. Arkansas State University, Mountain Home, AR

Climb the last summit to your education with the help of Arkansas State University, located in Mountain Home, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. The school offers online degree programs in disciplines such as criminology, digital innovation and educational leadership. ASU also participates in the Career Pathways initiative, offering career training and college courses at no additional cost to qualifying students, including students receiving Transitional Employment Assistance (TEA), TANF-eligible students and students who are caring for children.

18. Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, FL

The oldest Catholic institution of higher education in Florida is Saint Leo University, which was founded in 1889. Its online offerings include both undergraduate and graduate programs, and its Career Services team offers webinars, assessment tools and research assistance that can be helpful to both new and returning students. Additionally, a "re-entry specialist" can help students to determine their level of return standing. College credit could be granted for passing a College Level Examination Program (CLEP) test, or for prior work or life experience (or, as Saint Leo calls it, "experiential learning").

19. George Mason University, Fairfax, VA

You don't need to be versed in patriotic history to appreciate George Mason University, a school named after a delegate to the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention. Students making a second start here have several options to work toward success, including summer terms, career services, a math tutoring center and online courses. Just head to the university's PatriotWeb to access class registration, payments and more. Mason OnLine offers students another point of contact, particularly if they are studying abroad, in the military or via distance education.

20. California University of Pennsylvania, California, PA

Credit for prior learning is just one advantage for students who return to school at the California University of Pennsylvania. Returning students may also benefit from the university's Success Center, which offers guidance on academic questions, time management, test-taking and more. Degree completion programs and certificate programs available through Cal U's Global Online programs present returning students with further pathways for finishing their associate, bachelor's or even graduate-level degrees.


It can be a huge shift in a person's life to decide to go back to school, and it's not a decision that should be made lightly. If you're going to be returning to school, you deserve to find an accredited school that's going to be worth your time and effort. To help you narrow down your search, try out our College Comparison Tool, which allows you to choose multiple online colleges and compare data about them in side-by-side columns.

Article Sources