Online colleges have grown in popularity in recent years, as many adult students need to balance school with work and family obligations. Distance learning provides a convenient and cost-efficient alternative to commuting to a physical campus. Students can earn an associate's, bachelor's or master's degree while working part- or full-time and fulfilling other responsibilities. You may also be interested in a few of our major site features:

Five Best Online Colleges

While there are certainly no “official” rankings for online colleges, we have listed five of the most popular accredited online colleges according to our user data to help in your search. Click on the school links to request information from a particular college.

Kaplan University — Kaplan University offers online degree programs in the fields of Arts, Sciences, Business, Criminal Justice, Education, Health Sciences, Information Systems, Technology, Legal Studies, Nursing, and Law. Degree programs are designed with the working professional in mind, and afford you the flexibility to work while earning your degree. Learn more about Kaplan University here.

Ashford University — Ashford University offers degrees at the associates, bachelor's, and master's level. Like traditional universities, students at Ashford usually complete their bachelors in four years. Programs can be found in the College of Business and Professional Studies, College of Education, College of Health, Human Services, and Science, and the College of Liberal Arts. Ashford is accredited by WASC Senior College and University Commission, 985 Atlantic Avenue, Ste 100, Alameda, CA 94501, 5107489001, www.wascsenior.org.

Grand Canyon University — Grand Canyon University features numerous schools including the College of Education, Fine Arts and Production, Arts and Sciences, Nursing, and Business. Founded in 1949, the small liberal arts university is known for supporting its online programs with the integrity and prestige of its traditional campus-based college.

Northcentral University — Northcentral University offers degrees online in accounting, business administration, biology, criminal justice, computer information systems, environmental science, equine management, and finance. Post also provides students with interesting, dynamic courses in early childhood education, legal studies, management, human services, psychology, and sociology. NCU will provide you with the degree you need to advance your career.

Walden University — At Walden University, prospective students have more than 15 online bachelor degree programs and 55 different concentrations from which to choose. Advisors are ready to help you select the degree that will allow you to achieve your career and personal goals. Walden understands the rigors of working full time while earning a degree. Learn more about Walden University here.

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Are Online College Degrees Acceptable for Work?

Online degrees are quickly becoming acceptable in nearly every field. There are many fields that were not accepting of online degrees when they first appeared, but time and proper accreditation has made even the most discerning employers welcome them.

Online degrees are acceptable in many work places and some employers offer tuition reimbursement for employees who go back to school. The focus is a quality education from an accredited learning institution. To learn more about online degrees in various subjects, click on the links below:

How Are the Top Online Colleges Determined?

The top online colleges are usually determined through the same means as traditional schools, along with a few extra categories that pertain to the online learning medium. The first area of critique is years of accreditation, followed by how qualified the instructors are and what resources a school offers its students. Other factors include career placement and number of accredited programs offered. One major concern for ranking top online colleges is graduation rate. Students want to know how many students graduate from a program and are able to obtain better jobs because of their degrees. Student retention rate is an area that all schools, both traditional and online, are always looking to improve because it is a major draw for new students. High retention and graduation rates reflect a hands-on staff that understands how to help students succeed.

What is Methodology?

Methodology is the way various publications and organizations compare schools to one another in order to come up with a list of top colleges. Major publications such as U.S. News & World Report and Forbes often use similar methodology for creating a list of the top online degree programs and schools. These areas include instructor credentials, student services, student engagement, accreditation rankings (how long a school has been accredited) and how selective the admissions process is. Schools that make these lists of top online programs often rank high in the majority of these categories. For online programs, things like web design, user-friendly apps and student-professor communication are also taken into account.

Are All Online Schools Ranked?

Many of these publications and organizations require a program to have existed for at least a year. This gives them one full year of academic data to work with. Unaccredited schools are never included in these top rankings list due to their inability to provide students with valid diplomas. In the past, proper accreditation existed for only a handful of online degree programs. In the past few years, many schools have become accredited. Traditional schools are now operating online extensions of programs that are accredited by the same source as the conventional program. This illustrates a rise in online education and has led to improvements in how distance learning is conducted.

How are Online Colleges Different Than Traditional Schools?

Online colleges offer students flexibility. Before online colleges, students hoping to finish a degree while working had to create a schedule that coincided with both classes and work. This can be difficult for students who work full time or have family commitments. The online college experience is very different from that of a traditional school, but it allows students to carry on their activities and finish school at their own pace. Students can enroll in full time or part time programs. Many students can complete courses from home. Degrees like business and education are completed almost entirely online. Some programs require internships, or in the case of the medical field, clinicals. All of these are essential parts of training for the career you want to have upon graduating.

Online colleges are now offering a quality education that competes with traditional schools. A decade ago there were a select few accredited online programs. Now students have many to choose from, no matter what their chosen field.

How are Online Classes Conducted?

Online classes cover the same material as traditional classes. At the beginning of the course, students receive an orientation packet and syllabus explaining how the class works, due dates, how to contact the professor and how to participate in any online chats or message boards. Although students do not have to physically show up to class each day, many instructors require participation in online message boards. This counts as a participation grade and requires students to contribute a certain number of posts per week. These discussions revolve around the material covered each week, so students have to keep up with readings and studying.

Exams are usually available online for a window of one to three days, allowing students to take the test when it fits their schedule. Most online classes only have one or two exams per semester, with the rest of the course comprised of papers and class work. You are not attending classes, but the time commitment and dedication are the same as taking regular college courses.

Do I Have Resources as an Online College Student?

As online and traditional schools compete for students, the resources becoming available to students grow. Many online colleges now offer financial aid, grants and scholarships much like traditional schools. Traditional schools are offering online programs that come with the perks of being a traditional student at those schools, such as access to the gym, alumni organizations and career placement programs. These are important resources that prepare students for networking, interviews, and finding a new job.

What is Accreditation?

Accreditation as it pertains to colleges and universities is what gives the institution the proper credentials. Accreditation is done by several regional organizations for most schools. Specific programs within the medical community are also accredited by national organizations. Accreditation ensures the program is valid in the academic world and by employers. Schools without this accreditation typically do not have well-developed programs and are lacking in integral areas. Programs must meet certain requirements in order to be accredited. Finding an accredited program is the first thing you should look for when researching online schools.

There are many websites that promise a degree with little or no admissions process. For master’s and PhD degrees these are usually diploma mills and are not credible. There are many online colleges to choose from. Take your time researching programs to find the right fit for you.

What Do I Need to Enroll at an Online College?

For a bachelor’s degree, students need their high school transcript or GED. Some students will be required to take an entrance exam that gauges reading and math levels before beginning undergrad classes. Master’s programs typically require a bachelor’s degree (sometimes in a related field), as well as GMAT for business students and the GRE for all other students. Some online master’s programs only require a bachelor’s degree. For online PhD programs, a master’s degree is required, along with GMAT or GRE scores plus a letter of recommendation.

Be prepared to devote significant time and energy to online classes. You must be disciplined and find a routine that works for you. Routine is very important to the online college experience. In order for you to be successful, you must stay current with course work and studying. Online colleges that appear on rankings lists have high quality programs comparable to traditional programs. Though the format differs, students are required to devote as much time to classes in order to gain what they need from the degree program.

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