Can’t Take Classes On Campus? Here Are the Top Online Colleges

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench in everyone’s plans. College students have been particularly hard-hit as the virus has all but obliterated the traditional college experience and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.   College administrators, staff, and faculty are working hard to plan the fall semester. In the meantime, students are left waiting to find out if classrooms, residence halls, and campus common spaces will be open at all. In cases where schools are opening, learning is going to look and feel very different from previous semesters.  

What will college look like this fall?

Schools that are planning to open will be doing so under strict safety policies that will make your student experience different from anything you’ve seen before.   Some of these policies will include:
  • If you are in a classroom, you’ll likely be required to wear a mask at all times.
  • You’ll be in a larger space and seated at least six feet away from your classmates. Besides lecture halls, these spaces may include basketball courts or other large spaces that used to function as something else.
  • Some classes could be held outdoors.
  • Other classes will be hybrid: held with half your class in-person and the other half joining remotely.
  In some cases, taking classes in person might not be an option at your school, like all nine campuses of the University of California, which will offer mostly online classes this fall.    And, of course, depending on the number of COVID-19 cases, your in-person classes could move to online at any point in the term. So even if you start classes on campus, you may find yourself in front of your screen by October. Currently, nearly every college nationwide is planning to shift to remote learning after Thanksgiving.   If your school is opening up its residence halls and you are planning to live on-campus, you’ll return to find increased safety protocols in place.   What the protocol might look like:
  • You’ll probably have a single room.
  • Common spaces (like kitchens) may be closed. 
  • Dining halls may only provide grab-and-go options instead of buffet stations.
  • Your college may even have restrictions on visitors in your room.
  • Social gatherings of any kind may be forbidden.
  In other words, campus life may go on, but will be anything but normal.   Photo by Stanley Morales

Should I take a gap year?

You may decide that tuition is too high for online courses. After all, part of what you are paying for is access to the kinds of extracurricular and social programming that will be almost impossible to run during a pandemic. You might be thinking that now is a good time to take a gap year.   Think again.   Taking a semester or a year off might seem tempting, but the reality is that there will be very little for you to do if you aren’t in school. Travel is probably off the table now that the European Union has largely closed entrance to Americans. In fact, before making plans, the Department of State recommends that you check with U.S. embassies or consulates for the countries you wish to travel in.   If you were hoping to take a break from classes this semester in order to work, you may find that difficult as well. As the economy shifts and adjusts to coronavirus-related shut-downs and lay-offs, you may find it hard to find a job at all. Going to school may be your best financial option. At the very least, you’ll be making progress toward your future goals while we all wait for a vaccine.  

It isn’t all doom and gloom

Colleges and universities across the country are working hard to create and deliver the highest quality online and hybrid education experiences. The pandemic has – accidentally – provided the push needed for colleges to really explore ways that remote education can replicate the best aspects of in-person instruction while also providing new and exciting ways to learn.   Online education doesn’t have to be the second-best option. In many cases, you may find that remote instruction can be better than you thought possible. But that’s only true if you pick the right school.   Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Online and hybrid alternatives for Fall 2020

If you are looking for the best online experiences, here are some top online college and university options. These can ensure that you continue your education in spite of the pandemic. You’ll even be able to obtain excellent academic outcomes without breaking the bank.  

Community Colleges

Community colleges are often at the forefront of providing high-quality instruction to a wide variety of students. Their mission is to reach students at any level, which means that their curricula are designed with everyone in mind. Don’t assume that a community college class will be less challenging or effective than classes at a four-year institution.   In some cases, your local community college may have been offering high-quality online options for general education courses for years. They’ve already built quality remote options based on best-practices and pedagogical research, and faculty are prepared to help you jump into remote learning.   If community college is an option for you, a good starting point is to check with your four-year college or university to find out which general education courses from which institutions they’ll accept as transfer credits. Your college advisor may even have suggestions for the best courses and instructors at a local community college.   Whether you're already in college or you are just starting, you can take online general education courses at a reputable community college. The Guide to Online Schools ranks the following community colleges as the top options for online education, based on their graduation and retention rates and number of online associate degrees offered:
  1. Foothill College in Los Altos, California.
  2. Sussex County Community College in Newton, New Jersey.
  3. Bismarck State College in Bismarck, North Dakota.
  4. Georgia State University – Perimeter College in Decatur, Georgia.
  5. North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota.
  Again, be sure to confirm that your online credits will transfer to your four-year college. Your advisor can also tell you how to transfer credits when you are ready to move to a four-year college.  

Small private colleges

People often assume that small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) will be too expensive, especially because most of them are private. The truth is that SLACs are often quite affordable because they can provide more institutional aid than public colleges.   Even if the price tag on a private SLAC is higher than a public school, it might be worth applying. This is especially true now during the pandemic: The smaller classes and a smaller student body may actually be safer.   Rather than moving completely online, many SLACs are planning to offer hybrid classes with small-group classroom instruction. No college is going to be able to offer classes as usual, but SLACs are coming the closest to keeping a semblance of normalcy without risking health and safety.   Furthermore, faculty at SLACs are committed to teaching as their first priority (with research as a secondary goal). SLAC faculty are spending the summer researching best practices for teaching in hybrid and remote modalities to ensure that students get the same high-quality education as they did before the pandemic.    You may also be able to live in the residence at a small college since they have fewer students to accommodate and can put everyone in a single room. SLACs are still a great bet for students who want to leave home.   Here are five picks from U.S. News & World Report’s top affordable small liberal arts colleges with fewer than 4,000 students. Note that these five schools are planning to hold modified in-person classes for fall and are still accepting late applications:
  1. Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.
  2. Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah.
  3. Linfield University in McMinnville, Oregon.
  4. Whittier College in Whittier, California.
  5. College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
  Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

How to select an online school for your degree

You may decide that you would like to enroll in a college where you can do your entire degree online. While many online schools are excellent, not all of them are. Be careful when making your selection. Some online schools have extremely low retention and graduation rates and/or have limited or no accreditation. You may end up throwing your money away if you end up at a predatory online school.   When you are selecting an online degree program, make sure that the school has regional accreditation, which means that you’ll likely be able to transfer your credits if you choose to do that.   You should also ask what percentage of the courses are taught by adjuncts. Ideally, the majority of your courses should be taught by full-time faculty with PhDs in their field. If the school does not employ full-time tenure-track or ranked faculty, run the other way. It’s a sign that the school is probably not providing quality instruction.   Finally, be sure that the school you pick has at least a 60% graduation rate for the online degree you plan to do.   When looking at colleges with fewer than 3,000 students, low admissions criteria, and affordable tuition at Best College Reviews, we came up with five reputable schools from that will allow you to do your entire degree online:
  1. Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri.
  2. Florida International University in Miami, Florida.
  3. George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
  4. University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.
  5. Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
  While there’s no escaping the effects of the pandemic for the foreseeable future, you can continue to work toward your degree. Take time to select the online or hybrid program that works best for you.