METHODOLOGYFor this analysis, we ranked 175 bachelor's degrees. To be included in the ranking, each major had to:
- Be part of PayScale's 2016-17 College Salary Report
- Be offered online at the bachelor's level at two or more institutions in the U.S.
- Early Career Median Pay (5 or fewer years of experience), PayScale, 2016
- Mid-Career Median Pay (10 or more years of experience), PayScale, 2016
- Percent of degree-holders who say their work makes the world better, PayScale, 2016
- No. of schools offering this degree online at the bachelor's level, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-2016
- Average in-state undergraduate tuition for all schools offering this degree at the bachelor's level, National Center for Education Statistics, 2015-2016
- No. of jobs matched to each major, with a bonus for the percentage of those jobs classified as Bright Outlook, National Center for Education Statistics and the Occupational Information Network, 2015-2016
- Average projected growth rate of all jobs matched to each major, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014-2024
- Total number of openings due to growth and replacement for all jobs matched to each major, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014-2024
- Employment Projections: Occupational Employment, Job Openings and Worker Characteristics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed January 13, 2016, https://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_data_occupational_data.htm
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2015-2016, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed January 13, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Bright Outlook Occupations, O*NET Resource Center, Accessed January 13, 2016, https://www.onetonline.org/find/bright?b=3
- 2016-2017 PayScale College Salary Report, PayScale.com, http://www.payscale.com/college-salary-report/majors-that-pay-you-back/bachelors
- Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, accessed February 7, 2017, page 17, http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/changingcourse.pdf
- Online Report Card - Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2015, Online Learning Consortium, accessed February 3, 2017, page 19, https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/read/online-report-card-tracking-online-education-united-states-2015/
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 26, 2017: Personal Financial Advisors, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/personal-financial-advisors.htm; Mathematicians, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Math/Mathematicians.htm; Economists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/economists.htm; Accountants and Auditors, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/business-and-financial/accountants-and-auditors.htm; Mechanical Engineers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/mechanical-engineers.htm;
- Mathematicians, Occupational Employment and Wages, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed January 26, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes152021.htm
- General and Operations Managers, Occupational Information Network, accessed January 26, 2017, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/11-1021.00
- School pages, accessed January 26, 2017: IT vs. Computer Science: Which Degree is Right for You?, Rasmussen College, http://www.rasmussen.edu/degrees/technology/blog/it-vs-computer-science-degree-infographic/
- Courses, Bachelor of Science in Finance, Penn State World Campus, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/finance-bachelors/courses
- Online Computer Science Bachelor's Degree, University of Maryland University College, http://www.umuc.edu/academic-programs/bachelors-degrees/computer-science-major.cfm
- Computer Information Security Degree, DeVry University, http://www.devry.edu/degree-programs/engineering-information-sciences/information-systems-security-degree-specialization.html
- Careers Available to Computer Information Systems Majors, Georgia State University, http://www2.cis.gsu.edu/cis/about/career.asp
- CIS Syllabus List, Georgia State University, http://www2.cis.gsu.edu/cis/program/syllabus/index.asp
- Dental Hygiene (B.S.), University of Bridgeport, http://www.bridgeport.edu/academics/undergraduate/dental-hygiene-bs/
- Bachelor of Science in Computer Programming, Grand Canyon University, https://www.gcu.edu/degree-programs/bachelor-science-computer-programming
- Bachelor of Science with a Major in Management Science, Southern Methodist University, http://www.smu.edu/Lyle/Departments/EMIS/DegreePrograms/BSMS
- Bachelor of Business Administration in Management Accounting, Amberton University, http://www.amberton.edu/programs-and-courses/bachelors-degree-programs/management-accounting/degree-plan-details.html
- Computer Networks and Systems, Ferris State University, http://ferris.edu/HTMLS/colleges/technolo/ceems/cns/homepage.htm
- Online Operations Management Bachelor's Degree, Oregon Tech, http://www.oit.edu/online/degrees/operations-management
- Operations Management Degree Online, Southern New Hampshire University, http://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/bachelors/bs-in-operations-management
- Penn State Online, Bachelor of Science in Economics, http://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/economics-bachelor-of-science/courses
- General Business, Kansas State University, http://global.k-state.edu/business/general-business/
- Accounting Degree, Gateway Technical College, https://www.gtc.edu/programs/accounting-programs
- Bachelor Degree in International Business, University of the Potomac, https://potomac.edu/bachelor-degree/international-business/#tab-id-3
- What Can I Do with My International Business Major?, Georgetown University, http://careercenter.georgetown.edu/career-exploration/exploring-your-options/what-can-i-do-with-my-major/international-business.html
- B.S. in Software Engineering, Loyola University Chicago, http://courses.cs.luc.edu/html/bsse.html
- Bachelor of Science in Software Engineering, Drexel University, https://www.cs.drexel.edu/~spiros/bsse/
- Computer Engineering Curriculum, University of Illinois, http://www.ece.illinois.edu/academics/ugrad/curriculum/ce-curriculum-07.asp
- Network Administration Degree, American Intercontinental University, http://www.aiuniv.edu/degrees/information-technology/bachelors-network-administration
- IT Management Bachelor's Degree Program, East Coast Polytechnic Institute, https://www.ecpi.edu/programs/it-management-bachelor-degree
- Online Mechanical Engineering Degree, University of North Dakota, http://und.edu/academics/extended-learning/online-distance/degrees/mechanical-engineering/
If you're looking to jump-start your career and considering an online degree as the way to do it, you're not alone. Over the past decade, aspiring professionals and career-changers have turned to the virtual classroom to boost their employment prospects and solidify their command of high-value skills in business, tech, health care and other fields. In fact, online enrollments went from 1.6 million in 2002 to 5.8 million in 2014 (the latest year that data is available) -- an increase of more than 260 percent.
To help prospective students choose the online degrees that can help benefit them most, we grabbed the latest employment, salary and education data from PayScale, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Occupational Information Network (O*NET). We analyzed 175 bachelor's degrees to find out which distance learning programs offer the best combination of an affordable and accessible education, strong job prospects and earning potential. (Click here to read more about our methodology.)
Here are the top 25 online bachelor's degrees for 2017, along with data on their job prospects, median salaries earned with less than five years' experience, and the number of schools offering each program online.
It's important to point out that not every degree program will be available fully online. Less common subjects might only be offered at a few schools, and some of the more hands-on programs may require clinical work or time in an on-campus lab. We've made a point to mention which degrees on the list might be subject to special conditions, but be sure to check the specific program requirements at the school you choose.
If you're a working registered nurse looking to take a step up the career ladder, you're in luck. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) online can help trained RNs get the four-year degree they need to move into nursing administration, advanced practice nursing and other aspects of the profession that require further formal education. Due to the hands-on nature of nursing work, non-RNs typically need to have earned their diploma, completed the required clinical experience and passed the national licensing exam before they qualify for an online BSN program.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $57,500
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 111,380
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 394
The variety of positions available in the tech sector has exploded in recent years, and an online bachelor's degree in information technology can help you take advantage of the growing demand for tech-savvy employees. Most IT professionals use existing technologies to help businesses and other organizations solve workflow problems and streamline business processes, in contrast with computer scientists, for example, who work to create new technologies. It's also one of the least expensive online degrees in our top 25, coming in at No. 5 for affordability with its $12,290 average annual tuition.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $53,000
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 69,530
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 109
The movement of cash and capital underscores the operations of all enterprises designed for profit, and trained finance professionals are a vital part of the system that helps keep such businesses afloat. Subjects of study in a typical finance program include financial modeling, financial statement analysis, economics, managerial accounting, investment and portfolio analysis, fundamentals of banking and international finance, among others. There are many potential employment opportunities, but one of the hottest jobs in the finance sector is personal financial advisor, which the BLS reports is expected to grow 30 percent between 2014 and 2024.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $53,300
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 131,850
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 90
Whereas IT degrees focus on the application of existing technologies to solve an organization's problems, computer science graduates learn the history and theories of computing. They also work to push the boundaries of technology and create brand-new solutions. That said, though, many entry-level jobs in enterprise IT may have flexible education requirements, making them available to graduates with degrees in either computer science or information technology. The typical curriculum for a CS degree contains substantial coursework in software engineering, object-oriented programming, computer algorithm design, data structures and advanced mathematics.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $65,300
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 69,790
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 25
Hacking and other cybercrime threats are no laughing matter to today's businesses, nonprofit organizations and even governments, particularly those that gather and store highly sensitive information. An information security degree can train you to help protect an organization's databases, networks and computer systems from attack and to put continuity measures in place so your company can stay running in the event of a breach. Information security degrees are sometimes offered as stand-alone programs, but they may also be classified as specializations within IT or computer science departments.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $57,700
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 30,730
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 75
Computer information systems (CIS) is one of the more business-focused technology majors available. Whereas computer science and information technology majors concentrate on the technology itself, students pursuing CIS degrees mix in concepts of business administration like project management, business process design and implementation, management of information services, IT quality assurance, and risk management as it relates to enterprise technology projects. Some schools may also offer CIS as a one- or two-semester graduate certificate program for students who have already earned a bachelor's.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $54,300
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 49,170
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 59
Entry-level positions for dental hygienists may be available with just an associate degree, but continuing on to complete a full bachelor's program can be a helpful bridge to senior hygienist positions that may require that candidates hold a four-year degree. What's more, online dental hygiene bachelor's programs came in at No. 2 among our top 25 for affordability in the 2015-2016 academic year, with a nationwide in-state tuition average of just $10,620 for a full year of coursework, and its early career median pay ranked No. 5 out of all 175 majors we ranked.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $65,400
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 14,750
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 24
Fully half of the careers that the Department of Education lists as related to computer programming are considered "bright outlook" occupations by O*NET -- a designation that points to them as jobs with projected growth that's faster than average or with an above-average number of job openings expected. Coursework for these degrees tends to take a tight focus on concepts specific to programming itself, including training in open-source computing and multiple levels of application programming, without some of the history and theory instruction that's common to computer science degrees.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $50,500
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 53,390
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 47
Physician assistant studies took two No. 1 spots in our analysis - one for its relatively high early career median salary and the other for its strong average job growth among associated careers. In addition, its average annual tuition placed it at No. 3 among the top 25 in the affordability category. As if that weren't enough, 86 percent of physician assistants reported that they feel their work makes the world a better place - a response that qualifies the profession as the third-most rewarding job in the country, according to PayScale. If this very hands-on degree were more widely available in the virtual classroom, it likely would have placed even higher on our list.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $85,200
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 12,720
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 2
Management scientists use mathematical models to help organizations make better decisions. Depending on the program, the curriculum may concentrate specifically on planning and operations models, or extend to include modeling for systems of goods production and service delivery. Statistical methods and mathematics are important components of a management science degree, along with economics and fundamentals of the social sciences. These programs haven't yet become widespread in online education, but they can be found if you look in the right places. Their combination of business and mathematics can make them a great fit for students interested in both subjects.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $57,200
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 81,940
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 9
Marketing skills can be used in for-profit as well as nonprofit organizations to increase awareness, connect deeper with your client base, and understand how the population at large is reacting to and interacting with your product. In the world of business careers, this set of abilities can be highly valuable. What's more, bachelor's degrees in marketing placed at No. 8 in the degree availability category, which suggests that students in just about every state can potentially find an online marketing degree administered by a nearby campus.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $45,300
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 36,330
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 134
These integrated degree programs give students a multifaceted approach to the range of skills necessary to work as both accountants and business managers. Early coursework tends to focus on the basics of concepts across the business spectrum, from finance and economics to business law and marketing, while the upper-division classes may drill down into specific issues within one of the disciplines, such as accounting practices for corporate mergers or governmental projects. This major scored exceptionally well for projected job openings, ranking 11th overall, and it also scored in the top 25 percent for affordability.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $46,950
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 75,670
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 74
Not only did mathematicians earn a mean annual wage of $112,560 in 2015, according to the BLS, but the aggregate 2014-2024 growth rate of 14.4 percent among jobs typically suited to math degree graduates was nearly twice as fast as the rate calculated for the job market as a whole over the same period. Jobs available for bachelor's degree graduates may not pay as much as the university research positions that tend to require more advanced education, but earning an online bachelor's degree in math can prepare you for a career in statistics, data analysis, marketing and more.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $54,000
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 33,610
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 16
Business administration courses were among the first widespread offerings in the world of distance learning, and their prominence in nontraditional education continues to this day. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that more than 500 schools around the country offer online bachelor's degree programs in business, more than any other subject by a long shot. Most offer a variety of optional specializations to students as well, allowing you to learn the ins and outs of accounting, marketing, IT, cybersecurity and international commerce, to name just a few.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $46,100
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 170,020
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 505
Well-articulated computer networks are one of the central pillars of the communications revolution that brought us smartphones, satellite navigation and the Internet, and a bachelor's degree in computer networking can give you the skills you need to build and maintain the networks that serve as the lifeblood of today's digital commerce and recreation. Subjects of study in these degree programs typically include routing and switching, Internet security, signal control protocols and network administration.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $46,900
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 28,550
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 51
Operations or general manager positions, particularly at large companies, can potentially be as lucrative as they are complex. Graduates of operations management degree programs learn how to handle the disparate challenges of managing an entire enterprise, from marketing and supply chains to finances and personnel. Programs typically consist of aspects of management science, business administration, logistics and project management, with some training in sustainable operations, cost control, business ethics and IT. Operations management scored well in many categories of our analysis, but the salary potential was its best asset, as it ranked in the top 15 percent for early career median pay and the top 20 percent for mid-career salaries.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $54, 800
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 26,290
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 46
In most cases, it may require a master's degree to officially call yourself an economist, but an online bachelor's degree in economics can open plenty of doors for you in the career world. Students in this program typically study microeconomics, macroeconomics, econometric analysis and other large concepts of the discipline in depth, with some coursework in the essentials of calculus, statistics, computer programming, banking and social science. In addition, early career salaries for economics graduates in the top 30 percent and mid-career salaries ranking No. 13 out of all 175 careers in our analysis.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $53,900
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 27,100
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 28
If you want a career in business but you aren't quite sure which direction you want to take in the discipline, completing a general business degree program can be a great way to get started. These programs provide students with an elemental understanding of the broad base of business fundamentals -- primarily accounting, finance, management and marketing -- and can help prepare you for a variety of entry-level business positions and give you the context you need to figure out which specific direction in the business world is right for you.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $45,000
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 170,020
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 113
Pure accounting degrees differ from the hybrid accounting and business management programs discussed earlier, primarily in that the required coursework for the major deviates very little from the specifics of the accounting profession itself. Many students in accounting programs have plans to become licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) after graduation, which typically requires a year or so of supervised professional experience, plus passing an exam. While having that license is not typically required to enter the job market, having one may give a significant boost to your employability and earning potential in the long run.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $48,300
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 61,820
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 191
Advancements in communications technology have expanded access to the challenges and opportunities of global commerce, and international business degrees are growing in value as a result. Depending on the institution, your online curriculum may include such courses as international trade, cross-cultural management, comparative economic systems, import/export marketing and international business law. Common positions for international business graduates include training and development manager, import/export coordinator and trade specialist.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $48,800
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 77,550
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 51
Many software engineering degree programs function as a type of applied computer science program, combining coursework in theory and the abstractions of the field with formal methods for designing, developing and producing software products. Depending on the school you choose, you may or may not be required to study of computer programming languages like Java and C++, although taking at least intro-level courses in the most popular programming frameworks can help round out your skill set and increase your understanding of software development as a whole.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $64,700
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 41,960
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 6
Computer engineers are somewhat similar to software engineers, in the sense that they build the digital systems that make computing possible. However, the degree programs often differ in that CE courses tend to place more emphasis on the math and hard science aspects of engineering work. Computer engineering degrees are relatively scarce among fully online study programs, due in part to the common necessity of on-campus laboratory sections, but hybrid or partly online delivery methods might be available locally.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $69,600
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 46,950
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 3
The importance of computer networks can't be overstated, and it takes trained computer and network administrators to keep them on pace with advancing technology and ensure that they're well maintained and in working order. Bachelor's degree programs in computer and network administration typically cover databases, network infrastructure, fundamental computer programming, data structures, IT security and human/computer interaction, and those skills can be enhanced with third-party certifications and other discipline-specific training after graduation.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $50,800
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 26,810
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 39
As the tech level of the average U.S. business increases in complexity and integration, the importance of effective information technology management is growing right along with it. Online degrees in IT management often combine IT-focused courses in business processes, e-commerce, cloud computing and information security with business concepts like accounting, financial management and strategic planning. What's more, once your bachelor's in IT management gets you started in the business tech field, you can consider pursuing professional development programs in business intelligence and technology optimization to potentially increase your employment value even further.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $53,700
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 41,340
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 4
Mechanical engineering can be something of a difficult degree program to find available online, but what online options there are can help prepare you for an exciting career that's constantly on the forefront of technology. Mechanical engineers work to design, develop, build and improve mechanical tools and machinery, using the deep knowledge of physics, materials and engineering principles that can be gained when pursuing these degrees. Cutting-edge mechanical engineering jobs can usually be found at companies such as Boeing, 3M, Whirlpool and numerous household-name companies, as well as government infrastructure organizations like the U.S. Department of Transportation.
- Early Career Median Salary, 2016: $63,500
- Average Annual Job Openings, 2014-2024: 27,640
- No. of Schools Offering This Degree Online, 2015-2016: 4