A Guide to

Not-for-Profit Online Universities

How Today’s Higher Education Leaders Are Increasing Academic Quality and Opportunity for Online Students

Enrollment in online degree programs has been on the uptick during the past decade, especially at nonprofit and private two- and four-year colleges. Online learning has become an unstoppable force at the postsecondary level, and a real alternative to on-campus programs that might not be affordable or convenient for a majority of prospective college students. The following page serves as a high-level overview of online universities and programs, covering the major advantages of online learning, how online programs work, as well as types of degrees available and financial aid options.

Students ready to jumpstart their school search can review 2016’s top online colleges to help locate degrees and programs that best fit their personal and educational needs.

Enrollment at Not-for-Profit Online Universities

Online learning is no longer a secret. The demand for online degree programs can be found in the latest enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics. According to the group’s estimates, approximately

2.6 million college students were enrolled in online degree programs in 2012, while 5.5 million were enrolled in at least one online course

Consider 2014 enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse: an estimated 3.2 million students were studying online, which accounts for 15 percent of all higher education enrollments. And, according to Babson’s 2014 survey of online education, 70.7 percent of all degree granting, public institutions offer some form of distance and online education. This data indicates online learning is going mainstream and online learning is no longer a fad, or something new – it has become just another part of the postsecondary educational landscape.

“Traditional institutions are gaining ground on the for-profits in online and distance education.” Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group

Though the 2014 Babson survey also reveals that online distance enrollment has slowed, it shows continued growth of not-for-profit institutions, even while numbers at for-profits decreased.

Distance Education Enrollments

The Online University Edge

When it comes to deciding between an online or an on-campus program, individual learning types, lifestyles and both long- and short-term goals of each prospective student must be taken into consideration. There are a few factors, however, in which online programs tend to outshine their on-campus counterparts.


The cost of obtaining a college degree in the United States has increased 12 fold during the past 30 years. In fact, based on data from the Project on Student Debt, the average student debt college students owed in 2013 was more than $28,000, and nearly 70 percent of graduating college students at public and private nonprofit universities had student loans. Attending an online university can help to mitigate costs, allowing students to save in areas like transportation, housing and textbooks or other materials. Students who attend a not-for-profit online university can also save on the costs of tuition, as online students are usually considered “in-state” and receive the lower per-credit rates.


Flexibility is a central component to consider. For working professionals or individuals with family, are they able to attend college full-time or do they need more flexibility based on their schedules? The major benefit of online education is flexibility – online learning can meld with a student’s schedule, allowing them to complete coursework when it is convenient for them.


Technology improvements and new online delivery systems have removed the barrier to distance learning, opening doors to a college education for students who cannot or do not want to attend a campus-based program. Students living in California can now attend programs at universities in New York. Students that do not live near a university that offers a program in their desired field of study can now use an online program to complete their degree.

Continuing education opportunities

Students enrolled in online distance education programs can complete prerequisites via a community college and transition into a four-year program of study. Additionally, a growing number of universities offer online degree completion programs, allowing students to finish their final two years of study via online classes.


One of the major benefits of attending a university is the sheer amount of resources available to students. Libraries, academic journals, labs, professors, databases and tools are not limited in use to those students attending classes on-campus. Many universities have these and more available in virtual formats, and an increasing number are also beginning to include free courses.

76% of academic leaders agree online degrees are equal to their on-campus counterparts
65% of graduate students report their financial investment in an online program was well worth it
31% of online undergraduate students live at least 100 or more miles from their college or university
70.8% of academic leaders report online learning is critical to their university’s long-term mission
77% of academic leaders rate online education learning outcomes as the same or superior to traditional face-to-face instruction

For-Profit vs Not-for-Profit: What’s the Difference?

Online learning was once the province of only for-profit institutions, but has been experiencing a dramatic transformation during the past decade as more and more public and private universities have adopted and embraced online education. Based on research from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the instructional model within the U.S. post-secondary system accepts online education as a truly alternative option to campus-based instruction. According to AASCU’s latest data, at least 60 percent of public universities that have enrollments of 25,000 or more students offer five or more fully-online degree programs. Public universities have been quick to launch online options and currently offer students double the number of fully-online programs than their private university counterparts.

Certainly, having multiple learning options – online, on-campus, or a hybrid of the two – benefits students at traditional two- and four-year universities. The growth rates in the public and private university sector has been astonishing, as the AASCU reports that more than 80 percent of public universities now offer one or more fully online degree programs, while half of private colleges offer at least one fully-online degree program. The benefits have been two-way, with universities reporting increases in on-campus capacity and the ability to offer additional on-campus programs, and greater levels of traditional students enrolling in online courses. As a result, only 35 percent of all students are studying at for-profit institutions, proving nonprofit universities have quickly become competitive in the online learning space.

more than 80 percent of public universities now offer one or more fully online degree programs, while half of private colleges offer at least one fully-online degree program

Online Resources Available

Although the on-campus and the online learner have two distinct learning experiences, the types of resources available to each are remarkably similar. With the rise of online learning, universities have started launching resources to support students who may never set foot on a college campus. For example, Minnesota State Colleges & Universities provides students with an extensive support platform of services, all available online, while Arizona State University offers students a selection of online support services. Real-world examples of resources available to students include the following:

Online tutoring

Through services such as SmartThinking, students can get online tutoring support for their classes in math, biology, physics, English and more.

Online career advising

Many online universities connect online students to advisors and career counselors through a career services office. These advisors can help students locate jobs and internships, as well as prepare for the transition to professional life.

Disability resources

Each university has an office of disability resources, dedicated to ensuring students with any form of disability – including those learning online – will get the support they need to complete their education.

Online libraries

Without access to a physical library, universities may offer online librarians and support for finding the reading materials required to support a student’s research and learning experience.

Common Learning Platforms and Tools

Most online courses are delivered through an online learning management system (LMS), which house course materials, facilitate student-instructor and peer-to-peer communication, grading and assessment, and course project management. Learning management systems facilitate anytime, anywhere learning and include programs such as WebCT, Blackboard, Angel, Sakai and Moodle. Colorado State University uses Canvas, an online learning environment that includes the following:


Recorded on-campus lecture sessions, instructor recordings and real-time sessions that foster interaction between students and instructors.


Podcast recordings of lectures and audio formats of online course materials.


Blog posts, course reading materials, online journal articles and research, and discussion forums.


Quizzes, tests, course projects and examinations.

Online degree programs are designed to match and complement their on-campus counterparts. Depending on the institution, students may take classes through the LMS in synchronous or asynchronous formats.


Also known as “real-time” learning, students participate in regularly scheduled, live online learning sessions with instructors and other students. Students may participate in live video sessions, online chat, or use message boards to communicate during these classes.


Also known as “self-paced” learning, students access their course materials on their own time, review recorded lectures and complete assignments at times convenient to them, and according to the course schedule.

Before making a decision, prospective students should make sure they understand the delivery format of the program and that it matches their learning style. Students should also check that they meet the course’s technical requirements to ensure they can access course materials and participate in class sessions. Tech requirements can vary not only from university to university, but from course to course. For example, some courses – such as business classes – may require students to have additional software to complete course requirements. It is important to note that in today’s increasingly mobile-focused society that not all universities allow students to complete coursework via mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones.

Basic hardware and software students may need to complete their online courses includes but is not limited to:

Required Hardware & Software

Window or Mac computer

Windows 7 or Mac OS X 10.6 or later

Microsoft Office 2010 (Windows) or

Microsoft Office 2011 (Mac)

Internet access

Email account

Supported internet browser

Internet Explorer 10 or

later (Windows)

Google Chrome 35 or

later (Windows)

Mozilla Firefox 31 or

later (Windows)

Apple Safari 6 or

later (Mac)

Updated plug-ins including Adobe Flash, Adobe Acrobat,

Apple QuickTime, Java, Citrix Online

How Do Online Classes Work?

As noted, online students should be prepared to dedicate a significant amount of time to their online classes, in some cases as many as five to seven times a week to stay up-to-date with class discussions, assignments and responses. Online classes vary widely in their approach to instruction, but they traditionally share certain characteristics. First, students use their computer to connect to the course site online through a learning management system or website. They can access and download their course materials according to the syllabus, such as online lectures, assignments and supplementary materials.

Angel LMS, Concordia University

Students typically communicate and interact with other students and their professors through email, online chat rooms, online forums, video sessions and even text messages. Completing course assignments, such as essays, on their own time, students may also be required to post responses to other students’ work in the LMS, and will access their instructor’s feedback and grades through the LMS or email. One of the most commonly used interactive device is a threaded discussion forum, where students can share information, communicate with one another, and discuss group projects. Depending on the university and program, students may be able to take their tests or examinations online. Some online institutions may require students to take examinations at an approved proctor location in their local area.

Scholarships and Aid

Whether attending on-campus or online universities, the financial aid process is essentially the same. It begins with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) to determine the student’s expected contribution amount (Expected Family Contribution). This is the basis for determining each student’s eligibility for federal financial aid. After completing the FAFSA®, the form is sent to the financial aid offices of the student’s list of colleges or universities on their application. In turn, the colleges coordinate with the student about their overall eligibility for financial aid, including college-, federal-, and state-based aid. This aid falls into four general categories: grants, loans, work-study and scholarships.


Grants are financial aid awards based on need that do not need to be repaid. Students attending accredited online universities are eligible for grant programs. The two federal grant programs include the Federal Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grant, both of which can be used to pay education-related costs such as tuition, fees and books.


Online students are also eligible to take out student loans through the Department of Education and private loan issuers. Federal loans fall into two categories, subsidized and unsubsidized. Students that quality for subsidized receive interest payment support from the Department of Education, while students with unsubsidized loans are required to pay the interest on their loans. Student loans can be used to pay for online programs at all types of postsecondary institutions, including community colleges, career colleges and four-year universities.


The U.S. Department of Education sponsors Federal Work Study at approximately 3,400 universities and colleges, a program that provides students an opportunity to earn income through part-time employment settings. Students in online programs are also eligible for this program. For example, Liberty University welcomes online student to apply for consideration to their work study program.


Beyond federal or state-based aid, most students turn to scholarships to help offset the cost of college. Outside scholarships are provided by non-government organizations, such as foundations and businesses. Additionally, some online universities, such as Western Governors University, offer scholarship opportunities to their students. For example, WGU offers general scholarships such as the following:

  • WGU Loves Nurses Scholarship: $2,000
  • WGU Continuing Graduates Scholarship: $2,000
  • WGU Excellence in Education Scholarship: $4,000

Incoming freshman, graduate students, returning students and current students may all apply for scholarship support. There are several sources online where students can locate those scholarship opportunities, including Scholarships.com, Finaid.org, Collegeboard.com and SallieMae.com.

Program Availability and Degree Levels

Prospective students may select from a range of online degree programs from both two- and four-year nonprofit and for-profit universities and colleges. These programs are offered at each degree level, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s and – in growing numbers – doctorate. Some community colleges and technical schools also offer career and technical education programs (e.g. medical assisting) via online and hybrid programs.

Online associate degree

A variety of postsecondary institutions, including technical colleges, community colleges and some four-year universities offer online associate degree programs. These programs traditionally require two years of full-time study and are vocational in nature, providing students the opportunity to develop career-specific skills or prepare to transition to a bachelor’s degree program.

Online bachelor’s degree

According to a 2014 study from Learning House, 33 percent of online students were enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs. These programs typically take four years of full-time study to graduate, depending on the specific subject area of study and university. The most popular subjects included health and medicine, business, computer science, and information technology.

Online master’s degree

Data from Learning House estimates that 27 percent of online students were pursuing a master’s degree. At the graduate level, the time required to complete a master’s degree depends on the program of study. For example, some online EMBA programs only require one year to finish, while a master’s in psychology could take two or more years. The online master’s provides working professionals or recent undergraduates a chance to develop enhanced set of career skills and advanced knowledge of their industry. Two of the most popular areas of study include education and business (MBA), according to Learning House.

Online doctoral degree

The doctorate is the most advanced degree available but, because of its highly specialized nature, doctorates have been slow to move into online formats. A research-based program, doctoral degrees are designed for two types of students: individuals interested in pursuing academic scholarship, and those seeking to transition into research and leadership positions within their professional industry. Only 3 to 4 percent of online students are enrolled in doctoral programs.

Program Spotlight: Online MBA Programs

The Master of Business in Administration is a popular graduate degree, and professional MBA programs are available in a range of delivery formats, including part-time, flexible, executive and online. According to 2013 research from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), professional MBA programs reported higher year-over-year application growth, with nearly half (43 percent) of surveyed online MBA programs reporting an increase in application volume in 2013.

Students come from all backgrounds, but GMAC identified three common types of students that enroll specifically in online MBA programs: working professionals, individuals in the military and women. For working professionals, the online MBA provides an opportunity to complete an advanced degree in a flexible, customizable format, and develop skills required in today’s competitive marketplace. Prospective students should be sure to review the online university’s accreditation and check to see if they are also accredited by MBA-focused bodies, such as the International Assembly for Collegiate Business Education, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs.

Depending on the university and program, students may focus their studies in several different concentrations, such as finance, organizational management, information systems, marketing, or international business. Below are four example real-world classes students may take in an online MBA program:

Quantitative Analysis

In this class, students develop statistical skills through the study of regression analysis, forecasting with neutral networks, probabilistic decision making, and risk analysis software.

Information Technology

Through this course, students study information systems and technology management, including an introduction to enterprise support systems, facilitating user support, and acquisition and implementation processes.

Economics for Managers

Students learn about the larger economic ecosystem, developing an understanding of economic decision making, economic analysis, public policy and consumer behavior.

The U.S. in a Global Economy

Students take a step back to examine the economy of the U.S. in a global context, gaining an understanding of the country’s relationship to international economies and global economic performance.

Succeeding at an Online University

Indeed, two major advantages of online learning programs are convenience and flexibility. However, simply because a program of study is convenient doesn’t mean it is easy. The primary responsibility for learning falls to the student, who must all at once be self-disciplined and motivated. The first step towards success in an online program is to set realistic expectations. Online courses require just as much time and effort as traditional campus-based classes. For the prospective student considering online courses, here are five tips for success.

Understand the technical requirements

Each online university has its own learning management systems and technical requirements for delivering its classes. Before enrolling, students should understand the technical requirements (e.g. students need a Windows-based computer), as well as learn how to navigate the learning management platform so they don’t waste time after the class begins.

Establish effective time-management habits

Online students must be able to manage their time effectively, especially when taking self-paced courses. The great benefit – flexibility – can quickly become the procrastinator’s worst enemy. As an online learner, developing and committing to effective time management habits takes practice. For example, students could review the syllabus and set up a plan for completing assignments or create a weekly to-do list to tackle coursework.

Create a good study environment

Since the home becomes the classroom, prospective students should create an environment that fosters academic success. They should look to find a quiet place where they can work comfortably, with good lighting and seating. This environment should be free of distractions (no television!) and the online learner should be aware of one of the greatest time drains-surfing the internet-is easy to fall prey to when studying in an online setting.

Develop a study routine and schedule

Students should understand establishing a framework of expectations is not the responsibility of the instructor, but the student themselves. That means students should be prepared to dedicate set time each week to log-in and complete their assignments. Their schedule – including family and work commitments – may need to change to revolve around being an online student.

Connect with instructors

Receiving a quality online instruction is best achieved through a partnership between the instructor and student. Prospective online students should reach out to their instructors before the course begins to review the syllabus and ask questions about expectations. Secondly, students should also remain in contact with their instructor throughout the class to coordinate times to ask questions and receive assistance or feedback.


Understanding Accreditation

Prospective students should review their potential university’s accreditation, a legitimate stamp of approval that proves the university meets recognized standards. Through the accreditation process, an outside, nongovernmental agency conducts a review of the university’s services, faculty, finances, facilities, curriculum and other factors to ensure it meets an acceptable level of quality. Although the U.S. Department of Education does not accredit post-secondary institutions or programs, it does recognize and approve national and regional accreditation agencies. In addition to the Department of Education, students can turn to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation – a private sector group – for a list of approved accrediting bodies. Students may also want to review the U.S. Department of Education’s list of approved accrediting bodies for distance and correspondence education, such as the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

In a recent poll, 79% of hiring managers said they had hired candidates who held a degree earned online.

In the end, prospective students may still have concerns over the quality of their online education and its usefulness in the workplace. These concerns should be minimal, as perceptions of online degrees continue to shift. According to a study from the Society for Human Resource Management, 79 percent reported they had hired candidates with an online degree, and in most cases it makes no difference whether the candidate earned a degree through an online program or traditional on-campus setting.