Online education has completely transformed the academic landscape, ushering in a new era of learning. The number of accredited postsecondary institutions offering online programs that complement their traditional brick-and-mortar classes has continually increased during the past two decades. However, determining if online education is the right choice can be challenging, and understanding the role of accreditation when evaluating online colleges is crucial. This guide outlines the differences between online universities, the pros and cons of various online learning environments, and includes an easy-to-use tool that allows potential students to research and filter through hundreds of online colleges and universities nationwide.

Understanding Online Colleges: Finding Your Match

To be successful, prospective distance learning students need to match their lifestyle, learning style, academic aspirations, and ultimate career goals to their program of study and higher education institution. As with traditional, campus-based options, students should understand the different types of online programs available. These different options cater to a diverse range of students. The table below can help distance learners discover what type of learning environment may be right for them.

Benefits Drawbacks Best for…
Two-Year College

Lower tuition rates – average tuition for public community colleges was $3,347 in 2014-2015.

Flexible scheduling – community colleges typically design class schedules with working professionals and individuals with families in mind.

Academic variety – community colleges offer credit and non-credit programs in a wide range of disciplines.

Credit transfers – credits earned in an associate degree program can be used to transfer into a four-year bachelor’s degree program.

Lack of academic award choices – two-year colleges traditionally only offer diploma, certificate, and associate degree programs.

Fewer career options post graduation – students with associate degrees may be eligible for a narrow selection of careers. Some fields and/or career titles require a bachelor’s degree at minimum.

  • Non-traditional students, including adult learners returning to college.
  • Students pursuing vocational or professional development skills specific to an occupational field.
  • Students seeking additional training or certification.
  • Those seeking to save money on general education classes before transferring into a four-year college.
Four-Year Public University

Affordable tuition – the tuition for four-year public universities was $9,139 in 2014-2015.

Larger breadth of education – four-year public universities offer a wide selection of majors, minors, and academic specializations.

Multiple academic choices – students can select from bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree options.

Limited class availability – because of the size of public universities, some classes may have a limited number of offerings for each course and popular classes may reach capacity quickly.

Less individualized attention – due to large class sizes, it may be difficult for professors to give every student individualized attention and guidance.

  • Students who want a well-rounded education.
  • Students that want a wide selection of degree options in a variety of academic disciplines.
  • Individuals interested in pursuing more advanced degrees.
Private Not-For-Profit College

Smaller enrollment sizes – the average student population of private, non-profit institutions is 1,900.

Shorter completion time – on average, students graduate in four and a half years versus six years at public universities.

More financial aid opportunities – private, non-profit universities typically have competitive financial assistance packages, strong alumni donor support, and additional scholarship opportunities.

Higher tuition rates – the average tuition for a private four-year college was $31,231 in 2014-2015.

Stringent admissions requirements – private colleges are typically more competitive and selective when it comes to applications and admission.

Fewer online options – the most recent data from AASCU shows that public universities offer double the number of online programs than private nonprofit colleges.

  • Students who want an education at a specialized institution (e.g. religious-affiliation)
  • Students who wish to attend a more selective institution that may have greater prestige in the job market.
  • Students who are high academic achievers looking for a challenging program of study.
Self-Paced Real-Time
Timing Self-paced, or asynchronous learning, is a form of instruction where students study at their own time and pace. In this format, students and teachers may not interact in real-time and instruction is conducted through self-study elements such as pre-recorded lectures, individual assignments, and reading course materials. Real-time, or synchronous learning, is a form of instruction where the instructor and students are present at the same time. Instruction is facilitated in real-time by a teacher and includes traditionally classroom-based elements such as group discussions, team projects, and lectures.
Tools Used

Email to communicate to peers and instructors.

Streaming audio and video for instructional material delivery.

Discussion boards to facilitate class dialogue.

Web-based learning applications and course management systems/platforms for student instruction and assignment delivery.

Wikis for student collaboration and communication.

Web conferencing to share information and conduct presentations.

Instant messaging to participate in quick, real-time conversations.

Video conferencing to conduct in-person discussions and lectures.

Audio conferencing for student and instructor discussions and meetings.

Online whiteboard to share ideas and collaborate.

Best for…

Students with the following characteristics and learning style may benefit most from self-paced online programs:

  • Disciplined
  • Self-motivated
  • Goal-oriented
  • Wants a slower learning pace
  • Has strong time management skills
  • Doesn’t want or need personalized instruction
  • Requires flexible learning schedule

Students with the following characteristics and learning styles may find real-time instruction to be the best fit:

  • Collaborative learner
  • Good interpersonal communication skills
  • Self-directed
  • Organized
  • Motivated
  • Wants peer-to-peer and instructor interaction
  • Has strong time management skills
  • Prefers regimented learning pace

The Online College Database Search Tool

The search tool below has been designed to help below simplify the process of comparing online colleges and programs. Users can evaluate distance learning options based on important factors such as enrollment, tuition, and academic program availability. Armed with this information, students can make an informed decision about which online university fits their personal, educational, and professional needs.

2077 results
Search school name
Degree level
Student Population
School Type
School Tuition Acceptance Rate Student Population School Type see Programs

Liberty University

Lynchburg, Virginia Private
22% 77,338 Private

Miami Dade College

Miami, Florida Public
NR 66,298 Public

University of Central Florida

Orlando, Florida Public
49% 59,589 Public

Ohio State University-Main Campus

Columbus, Ohio Public
56% 57,466 Public

Texas A & M University-College Station

College Station, Texas Public
69% 55,697 Public

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Minneapolis, Minnesota Public
44% 51,526 Public

Tarrant County College District

Fort Worth, Texas Public
NR 50,771 Public

University of Florida

Gainesville, Florida Public
47% 49,878 Public

Michigan State University

East Lansing, Michigan Public
69% 49,317 Public
Previous 1 2 3 208

Accredited Online Colleges: Process and Importance

Accreditation is a voluntary process of review and regulation that ensures institutions of higher education offer programs that meet acceptable quality standards. Although the Department of Education oversees accreditation, it does not conduct accrediting reviews. Third-party agencies and organizations approved by the Department of Education manage the accreditation process.

Institutions pursuing accreditation undergo a rigorous review process, which includes the examination of elements such as curriculum planning, course offerings, faculty, admissions standards, graduation rates, facilities, and financial resources. Accredited institutions and programs must undergo regular evaluation to ensure compliance with the standards set forth by the accrediting bodies.

Accreditation is regional, national, and programmatic in nature, with 15 accrediting agencies currently recognized by the Department of Education to conduct regional and national accreditation. Specialized accrediting organizations handle subject- and program-based review in areas such as community and social services, healthcare, law, and counseling. Choosing an accredited program of study is important because students receive a level of assurance their institution provides an education that is of value. It also important because it ensures the following:

  • Program accountability
  • Program compliance
  • Credits are transferable to other institutions
  • Academic credential or degree is recognized by employers

The Rise of the Not-for-Profit

Online learning is transformative, not only reshaping how students learn, but how colleges and universities deliver instruction. Non-profit colleges and universities (both two- and four-year) have quickly adopted online education as a way to improve academic access and program diversity for students. Furthermore, the growing acceptance of online learning at non-profit colleges is important because—in most cases—non-profit colleges represent the best educational choice for adults who have jobs or family commitments that preclude traditional campus attendance.

According to research from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), more than 80 percent of public universities and at least half of private colleges offer online programs. A 2014 study from the Babson Institute estimated that 71 percent of all public-, degree-granting institutions provide distance learning opportunities to students.

Enrollment Trends

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that approximately 2.6 million college students enrolled in fully online degree programs, while more than 5.5 million students were taking at least one online class. In 2013, according to AASCU, 65 percent of online students attended a nonprofit college and of those students, 45 percent attended public colleges and 20 percent attended private nonprofit institutions.

Although enrollment in online degree programs has continued to tick upwards during the past decade, it has recently slowed in the past few years. However, both public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities continue to experience respectable increases. From 2012 - 2013, research from the Babson Institute shows that enrollment in online classes rose nearly 5 percent at public institutions and almost 13 percent for private nonprofits. Here’s a closer look at the growth numbers by volume for online learners by institution type in 2013.

Based on the numbers, it’s clear that nonprofit online colleges are doing something right, and in a big way. Students are turning to these educational options in droves, thanks to several key areas in which online colleges are out-pacing their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Fields of Study

Based on nonprofit universities that offer online programs, healthcare-related fields of study and business are the two most commonly offered academic programs at AASCU institutions. The table below outlines the common fields of study offered online by AASCU non-profit institutions.

Undergraduate % of Institutions Graduate % of Institutions
Healthcare-related professions 67% Education 72%
Business 56% Healthcare-related professions 56%
Liberal arts 41% Business 49%
Social sciences 33% Criminal justice/paralegal studies 25%

According to the most recent market research from Eduventures (2013), the bachelor’s degree remains the most popular online degree option. According to their study, 42 percent of students choose a bachelor’s degree, 29 percent are enrolled in online associate degree programs, and 24 percent are in master’s degree programs.


To a certain degree, online degrees have had a persistent stigma—a reputation that they are not on-par with those earned on-campus. However, the tide seems to be shifting because non-profit colleges (both private and public) have created online programs that rival those traditional degrees. In fact, a recent study shows that 76 percent of academic leaders agree that online degrees are equal to their on-campus counterparts.


A central reason for the increasing demand for online education is flexibility. Whether the student is seeking to go back to school, is a recent high school graduate that wants to attend a college in another state, or is a career advancer who wants to pursue a graduate degree, online college allows them to complete an education on their own terms. Online education helps students to craft a schedule that fits their lives, which is typically not possible in the traditional classroom. School can be woven into the student’s working and home lives instead of the other way around, making online classes the number one option for many in pursuit of a higher education.


Students, regardless of state of residence, will often enjoy in- state tuition costs when enrolling at an online college. Savings can also be found in the form of living expenses, like dorm and travel costs, as well as lowered costs for class and study materials, which can instead be obtained virtually.


Even though online students may never set foot on campus doesn’t mean they don’t have access to the same support and student resources. Regardless if the student is on-campus or online, nonprofit colleges traditionally offer an array of resources to their students, ranging from libraries to access to laboratories. Below is a list of commonly offered support services for online students at nonprofit colleges:

  • Online student orientation
  • Online learning management systems
  • Dedicated online education website and departments
  • E-libraries and digital textbooks
  • Online student advising
  • Counseling services
  • Academic tutoring and support programs

Resources for Online Learning

Online education’s legacy will be access—it has fundamentally altered how, when, and where students learn. Students can use the resources below to access free college courses from respected universities and private companies, get help with various academic subjects, and connect with other online students.