Meet the Expert
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Patrick Mullane Executive Director of Harvard HBX Read More

When looking for the best online colleges and universities, it can be all too easy to get lost in a sea of tuition costs, graduation rates and other cold, hard statistics. This page steers future students in a clear, actionable direction by breaking down school features in a comprehensive comparison tool and sharing critical factors to consider during the online college search. Explore our helpful resources and get informed and decisive about online college.

Search and Compare the Best Online Colleges and Universities

Students who want to tailor their search for the best online colleges even more can do so with our search tool. This tool allows aspiring students to sort through schools based on individual criteria such as tuition amount, degree type, online program offerings, and acceptance rate. Students can see the results side-by-side, allowing them to compare schools to find the one that is just right for their educational needs.

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Best Financial Aid Options for Online College Students

While online universities can help drive down the cost of tuition, commuting and living expenses compared to brick-and-mortar programs, the price of college can still be overwhelming for many people. Fortunately, online students are generally eligible for the same financial aid opportunities as their on-campus peers. Explore options and best practices for acquiring online college financial aid.

Online College Checklist

Considering personal educational goals and needs is an important part of selecting an online college. Prospective students should create a checklist based on criteria that matters most to them. While most criteria comes down to personal preference, there are three key criteria every online college or university should meet:

3 Must-Haves

Proper accreditation

For those who want an education that is recognized by other schools and employers, students should consider programs with proper accreditation. Accreditation means that a school or program has been evaluated by an independent accrediting body and found to meet the high standards of a quality education. Accreditation matters not only because of the prestige behind it, but also for financial aid purposes. In other words, a school must be accredited in order for the student to receive the federal financial aid they might be eligible for.

Right programs at the right times

Students should consider only those schools that have the programs or specializations they want or need in order to pursue their chosen career path upon graduation. Online learners in particular should explore the varying options for their desired program to be sure it is conducive to the type of learning they want to use. For instance, an online program that offers only synchronous classes might not work for someone who has rotating shifts at work and other obligations; those students may need asynchronous learning instead. Look closely at the programs, as well as the format, to determine whether the school should be on the “short list” of options.

Robust support services for online students

Online study shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be presented to the student in a way that makes them feel valued. Online students are just as important as those who attend a traditional school, and their education is often just as rigorous, meaning they deserve the same robust services that traditional students might receive. From placement services to full access of library materials to mentors and advisors, students should look for the services that are designed to help keep their educational path moving smoothly.

Personalize and Create Your Own Online College Checklist

Aside from these essential criteria, other factors that make a critical difference when choosing between online colleges and universities should be considered. In the following questionnaire, prospective students can rate the importance of various college criteria based on their individual needs and personal preferences. Afterwards, we’ll evaluate the answers and create a custom checklist that can be downloaded for future use during the online college search.

1 / 6 Question
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  • Tuition and Fees

    For many, cost is the deciding factor when picking between online schools. Beyond published tuition and fees, students should calculate the college’s average net price, which subtracts gift financial aid and tax benefits from the published sticker price to reach a more accurate measure of out-of-pocket expenses.

    Extremely Important
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  • Financial Aid Packages

    Some online colleges offer generous financial aid packages to their students, which can significantly reduce out-of-pocket education expenses.

    Extremely Important
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  • Location

    Though location might not seem to matter at first blush to an online student, it may make a big difference for two reasons: Students who live in the same state as an online school’s physical location may be able to take advantage of in-state tuition, and some programs may require hands-on work, weekend seminars or other campus visits even for online students.

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  • Transferable Credits

    Will credits earned during the online program transfer over to other schools, or does the college accept credits received from a previous program? Students should check with the admissions or transfer office to be sure whether the credits will transfer to and from certain schools.

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  • Student and Campus Culture

    Even online students can participate in campus culture. Often times, a campus’s culture can help to connect distance learners in common beliefs, interests and history. Schools with a religious affiliation, historically black colleges, private schools with small class sizes or large public schools are a few examples of atmospheres that might appeal to students.

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  • Rankings and Reputation

    A school’s reputation and ranking may be key factors in the decision-making process for those who are looking for prestige or those who desire a degree from a particular school that regularly denotes excellence.

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My Online College Checklist
SCHOOLS SHOULD MAKE MY SHORTLIST ONLY IF THEY …
Most Important
  • Are properly accredited.
  • Have programs that match my schedule and academic/career goals.
  • Offer robust online student support services.
  • Are affordably or competitively priced.
  • Have generous financial aid packages.
  • Are located in-state for tuition discounts or within a suitable travel distance for on-campus requirements.
  • Offer/accept transfer credits.
  • Have campus/student cultures aligned with my personality and beliefs.
  • Are ranked highly from several credible sources.
Least Important
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Picking the Best Online College:
Expert Advice from Harvard’s Patrick Mullane

Patrick Mullane leads HBX, Harvard Business School’s online learning initiative, as its executive director. In the interview below, he shares key insights into the online college selection process.

QFlexibility is a hallmark of online schools, but what other attributes should a student consider, especially those that aren’t readily evident? 

It’s important to understand the extent to which assessment will be used in the course. Are there quizzes? A final exam? Obviously, as a potential enrollee, these are good to know as they will help you to gauge the relative effort required in a given course. But, the rigor of a program can also be a signal to you about its efficacy and to employers who, when they see the course on your résumé, will know that you didn’t just sign up for a “cakewalk.”

If you are taking a course for college credit, it can also be important to understand the transferability of credits to another institution. Not all institutions will accept transfer credits, so if you have designs on using an online course to lighten your load when you enroll in another school’s program, be sure you know ahead of time what the rules around transfers are.

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QWhat are some big red flags to watch for when choosing an online school? 

Fortunately, online education has come a long way in the last five to 10 years, and big red flags are few and far between. Common sense is your best friend when it comes to making a smart choice. Prospective online students should do plenty of research before choosing a program. They can turn to reputable news sources and websites, which may have lists or references regarding online programs.

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QWhat’s your best piece of advice for students choosing between a few worthy online schools? 

Students should start with their end goal in mind. They should ask questions such as, “What am I trying to accomplish through an online course? Am I trying to learn a new hard skill for my current job, enhance my résumé for a new job, or make a career change?” These questions matter as they can help you sift through the options.

If you are trying to signal your commitment to mastering new skills in order to advance your career or make a career change, a rigorous program that awards a credential of some kind, like the HBX CORe program, would be a good choice. If you are simply trying to brush up on a skill that helps you in your current job, a free course that has no “paper” (certificate, credential or degree) at the end may be just fine.

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Further Resources for Choosing the Best Online College

Looking for even more information on how to choose the best online colleges and universities? This list of impartial and informative resources can help students make their final decision and explore other information as well, such as financial aid and scholarships.

College Affordability and Transparency Center

A service of the U.S. Department of Education, this extensive resource provides information on everything from tuition costs, net price, and vocational and trade schools.

College Navigator

Part of the National Center for Education Statistics, this in-depth search tool provides students the opportunity to search through a variety of schools, in addition to helping with career searches and financial aid.

The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs

Another service of the U.S. Department of Education, this important website can help prospective students answer the very important question of whether or not their potential schools are accredited.