Thanks to the advent of online education and the growing trend for increased distance learning options, the decision to earn a college degree online can be an easy one for many students. Online degrees offer both traditional and non-traditional students the opportunity to study from anywhere with an Internet connection and at any time convenient to their busy schedule. Online programs also usually feature lower tuition costs, more comfortable learning environments, greater class participation, and improved technical skills without having to commute to campus. As around 45% of college students in America are now taking at least one online course, it’s clear that technology is transforming higher education for the better.

However, choosing a college can be a difficult decision for prospective online students. Students now seeking an online degree are faced with an unmatched variety of online programs to choose from, including those offered at virtual online colleges and traditional brick-and-mortar universities. Many online degrees deliver a high-quality education, but you must be on the lookout for diploma mills that will exploit your desire for career advancement with worthless courses. At Best Colleges Online, it’s our mission to provide authoritative and objective analysis of top online degrees to aid in your search for the right fit.

When wading through different online degree choices, it’s essential that you make a solid investment by focusing on schools with proper regional accreditation. Accreditation is a process through which higher learning institutions are evaluated based on their educational practices. Attending an accredited online program is essential for you to have any hope of transferring credits, receiving federal financial aid, earning industry certification, and impressing future employers. Before making any decision, guarantee that the college is a credible source for education by checking the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) database.

Degree Levels

Virtually any degree that can be earned on a college campus can now be pursued online or in a hybrid format that blends on-campus coursework with online learning options. While it is obvious that earning a college degree will help expand career opportunities, it’s essential that you understand the different degree levels available to rest assured you’re not wasting your valuable time, effort, and money. Below are the four main academic levels for undergraduate and graduate students in online schools.

Associate’s Degrees:

Online associate’s degrees are two-year degree plans awarded predominantly by community colleges and technical or vocational schools. Associate’s degree students usually complete around 60 college credits of general education courses, core classes, and electives. Online programs at the associate’s level are offered in career-oriented areas, such as early childhood education, business, web design, criminal justice, dental hygiene, and medical assisting. Not only do associate’s degrees build essential practical abilities for entering the workforce, but they also can be a jump start to higher education for those seeking to transfer.

Bachelor’s Degrees:

Many public universities and private colleges now provide bachelor’s degree programs fully online as well to students who successfully complete around 120 credits. Online bachelor’s degrees typically take four years of study, but can take as little as three or as long as six. Bachelor’s programs are designed for entry into professional careers by showing that students have broad-based general education with a focus in a particular subject. Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degrees include coursework focused in the humanities and the arts, whereas Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degrees are geared towards scientific-based subjects like biology, math, and social science. Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degrees can also be available online for certain visual and performing arts majors.

Master’s Degrees:

At the graduate level, online master’s degrees are abundant for working professionals seeking to advance in their field, unlock leadership positions, change careers, or specialize in a certain area of practice. Most master’s degrees involve two years of study beyond the baccalaureate level with a culminating capstone or master’s thesis project. Master of Arts (M.A.) degrees are typically offered in the humanities, social sciences, and fine arts, such as history or education. On the flip side, Master of Science (M.S.) degrees are awarded to graduate students in more technical and scientific fields like nursing, psychology, and technology. Specialized Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Business Administration (MBA), and Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees are also popular online.

Doctoral Degrees:

Doctoral or professional degree programs are at the top of academia for advanced graduate students seeking to work in a highly specialized profession or teach at the university level. As a terminal degree, doctorates typically take at least three years beyond the master’s degree. Many doctoral students now complete their degree by taking upper-division online courses and completing their doctoral dissertation research independently from a distance with minimal residency requirements. Doctor of Education (Ed.D.), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.), and Doctor of Business Administration (D.B.A.) programs are most popular. Professional doctorates can also be awarded in particular professions, such as the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), Juris Doctor (J.D.), and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.).

The Importance of Rankings

Upon first glance, it may seem that college rankings only assign schools numbers based on their prestige in the academic world. But, these rankings are valuable keys for prospective college students to unlock a wealth of critical information about a university’s educational merit during the selection process. Nearly two-thirds of surveyed college students reported that university rankings are important in sorting out the major differences between programs. Rankings combine data on class sizes, student engagement, faculty credentials, graduation rates, financial debt, acceptance rates, and academic support into one resource for pointing students in the right direction for narrowing down their college choices.

Most students immediately log onto the Internet to search through the comprehensive rankings published through the U.S. News and World Report, which boasts nearly 1,800 American universities within its vast database. As the prominent source for finding college rankings, the U.S. News and World Report ranks national universities, liberal arts colleges, and regional colleges as well as individual degree programs based on major. Princeton Review is another prestigious resource that creates college rankings based on 62 different categories, including quality of life, social scene, financial aid, environmental sustainability, and aesthetic appeal.

Searching for an elite college with a shining reputation on an international level is also simple thanks to the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which is published at Shanghai Jiao Tong University to crown the best 500 universities on the planet each year. As a weekly magazine based in London, the Times Higher Education (THE) also stands as a reputable resource for prospective college students seeking to find details about the world’s top colleges. All of these schools will stand out for their exceptional teaching and research, but it’s important to note that online degree programs may be harder to find.

In addition to these highly popular ranking systems, we at Best Colleges Online endeavor to conduct up-to-date research for creating online degree rankings too. We believe it’s most important for students to discover affordable college options without compromising on quality, so we focus in on cheap accredited online colleges with solid academics. Depending on your pursued major, we’ll craft detailed lists ranking the best online degrees in your program of study across the United States that won’t break the bank. For instance, we’ve ranked the most affordable online accounting degrees, most affordable online psychology degrees, and much more.

Affording Your Degree

Though it’s our hope that you’ll find an online college degree you can afford within our pages, we understand that there may still be a need for additional sources of financial aid. After all, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that the average undergraduate degree costs $14,300 at a public university and $37,800 at a private school each year! Once you add in the price of textbooks, academic fees, and any other supplies, it’s no surprise that many college students end up financially overwhelmed. Luckily, the following are some financial aid sources that you can utilize to reduce the financial burden of earning your online degree.

Institutional Financial Aid

Many online colleges offer their own need-based grants to incoming students demonstrating a significant need for assistance in covering tuition. You’ll likely need to have U.S. citizenship, have a valid social security number, be enrolled at least half-time, and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to show your financial need. If you’ve excelled in your academic studies, you may also qualify for a merit-based scholarship or grant directly from your chosen online college. The amount of institutional financial aid available a college will vary greatly based on their selectivity, endowment size, and student population.

Federal Student Loans

Your financial aid package may also need to include some federal student loans that borrow money from the government to make tuition more manageable. Perkins loans, direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, and parent PLUS loans are the most common forms offered. Unlike other financial aid options, student loans need to be repaid starting six months after your graduation date. Since student loans accumulate interest each month, it’s critical that you borrow wisely to avoid being saddled with upwards of $30,000 in debt. Loans are helpful for students who could otherwise not afford college, but remember to only take out as much as you need and to establish a solid repayment plan so that you don’t default.

Scholarships and Grants

For free money that won’t need to be repaid, it’s essential that you apply for as many scholarships and grants as possible. Ranging in value from $100 to full tuition, scholarships aren’t reserved for only high-achieving students with 4.0 GPAs. Scholarship programs can be found for virtually any college student based on their major, career interests, community service involvement, professional leadership experience, ethnicity, culture, hobbies, financial need, and more. Great college scholarships are offered through national organizations, state agencies, community foundations, clubs, and universities. Check with your college’s financial aid office for a comprehensive list of scholarship and grant opportunities available to you.

Other Funding Options

In some cases, you may need to come up with even more creative ways to fund your education by thinking outside of the box. For students who’ve served in the military, inquire about any veteran assistance grants or discounts to lower tuition expenses. If you live close to your university, you may want to consider applying for work study programs that cut tuition costs in exchange for on-campus work. It’s never too late to start a student-run business, take online writing jobs, or fulfill tutoring positions for extra cash too. With these financial aid tips, you’ll find the money to complete a quality online degree and make your career soar!