Innovation is a funny thing; if an innovation really works, it becomes widespread, smoothed out, and conventional. A good innovation stops being an innovation once everyone adopts it. Online college degree programs were an innovation just two decades ago; today, experts can talk about “traditional online delivery” without a hint of irony, because online courses have become just another norm of higher education. In just the same way, the things that make the most innovative online colleges innovative today, if they’re truly useful, will one day be an accepted way of doing things.
That’s what makes a ranking like the College Consensus Top 25 Most Innovative Online Colleges a tricky proposition. The best accredited online colleges may not necessarily be the most innovative, if they play it safe and do an exceedingly excellent job providing a totally conventional online education. But innovation that doesn’t get results isn’t a real innovation. That’s why our focus is on the innovative online colleges that use their online programs to make a difference. That may mean establishing new online course design best practices; building a spectacular virtual support system for online students (some even offer online counseling services); or using the reach of distance education to serve underrepresented students, making diversity, social mobility, and community engagement central to education.
But for all of these innovative online colleges, the primary focus is on the student experience. Online delivery has become the great democratizer of American higher education, and nowhere is that more true than the College Consensus Most Innovative Online Colleges.
Ranking the Most Innovative Online Colleges
The College Consensus ranking of the Most Innovative Online College is admittedly subjective. To develop our list, the editors consulted sources such at U.S. News & World Report’s Most Innovative ranking, and searched for local and national news stories profiling colleges and universities for their signature programs. The Most Innovative Online Colleges run the gamut from major public research universities and small public colleges, to elite private institutions and cozy liberal arts colleges. What unites them all is a commitment to serving their students through the best online education they can provide.
Boston University’s innovative online learning programs are a model of how technology and teaching can work together – literally, in the case of Boston University. Rather than a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all learning management system (LMS), BU’s online courses are designed from scratch in collaboration between faculty and instructional designers (IDs). Instructional designers help professors realize their courses with interactive course content, original video, and more. By building custom-designed sites and online content for their unique online degrees, BU doesn’t just follow online course design best practices – its sets the standard.
One of the most prestigious private research universities in New England, Boston University has been a fixture in the nation’s higher education capital since 1839. The university has been at the forefront of innovation in education for generations, and that has continued into the 21st century, where BU has created a reputation for innovative online courses. One of the best online colleges in the world, Boston University is teaching the world how to do online learning right.
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
One of the best accredited online colleges, UMass Online – conglomerating the online programs of UMass Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell, and Medical School – brings the excellence of New England’s top public university to everyone. UMass Online makes more than 150 UMass degrees and certificates available in full online or blended format. The UMass University Without Walls (UWW) is another unique online degree program designed specifically for adults. UWW students can earn as much as 105 credits for prior courses and experience, allowing busy working adults to complete their bachelor’s degree in a very short period of time.
The University of Massachusetts is the highest-ranked, most celebrated public research university in New England, a region dominated by the Ivy League and elite liberal arts colleges. With its mission to spread learning, UMass has gone above and beyond to develop one of the best online colleges in the nation. UMass also offers Handshake, an online jobs and internship search platform, through their exceptional Career Services – just another feature that makes UMAss one of the most innovative online educators.
BUOnline, Brescia University’s top-ranked online program, has done more than just create online classes or degree programs. Building on Brescia’s generations of academic excellence, BUOnline is designed as a full, alternative learning environment for nontraditional students. With classes offered in accelerated 8-week terms, and professors highly trained in online course design best practices, Brescia has set itself up to be one of the top accredited online colleges. And with a tuition freeze in place until 2022, BUOnline is an affordable value as well.
Brescia University – ranked by College Consensus as one of the best Catholic colleges and one of the best women’s colleges in the US – has been around nearly a century, founded as a women’s junior college in 1925. With its emphasis on Service to Others, and a growing reputation as one of the most innovative online colleges, Brescia is all set to make its second century even better than its first.
University of Missouri-Columbia
The University of Missouri’s Mizzou Online fully shows the capacity of a major public research university to innovate in online learning. With one of the largest and most accomplished staffs possible – boasting more than 600 years worth of experience between them all – Mizzou Online makes it possible for the University of Missouri to offer more than 100 degree and certificate programs entirely online. That’s the second-highest number of online programs in the Association of American Universities, the nation’s most esteemed higher education organization. Mizzou also offers self-paced online degree programs through [email protected], designed for nontraditional students.
As the oldest public university west of the Mississippi (founded in 1839), the University of Missouri is one of the most prominent research institutions in the Midwest and literally set the standard for education for an entire region. Today, Mizzou fulfills its mission to educate the people of Missouri and beyond through fully online courses, self-paced online degree programs, and other sorts of online outreach. With online students in all 50 states and more than 20 countries, Mizzou Online is looking way beyond tradition to be one of the best accredited online colleges in the world.
University of Illinois at Springfield
The University of Illinois at Springfield’s online learning has emerged as one of the best accredited online colleges in the nation. UIS has taken far more care in developing the UIS Model of Online Education that the average university, particularly in its efforts to fully integrate online learning into its curriculum. With the same faculty teaching on-campus and online, in-depth faculty development to make ever-better online teachers, and online coordinators to advise students, UIS makes online education exceptional. More than 1600 online students – 33% of the student body – show why UIS is one of the top accredited online colleges.
The University of Illinois at Springfield was only founded in 1969 as Sangamon State University; as a senior college, offering only degree completion programs, UIS was designed for nontraditional students from its very beginning. Today, UIS has grown well beyond its origins into one of the most innovative online educators in the nation. A perfect example is the Sloan Semester – a unique disaster-preparedness plan designed to shift all courses online if a natural disaster makes campus inaccessible.
Breneau University’s online degree programs began in 1998, when few colleges took fully online education seriously, and that early adoption has helped make Breneau one of the most innovative accredited online colleges in the nation. One unique aspect of Brenau’s online program is the financial support they give online students. All of Breneu’s online students are registered as full-time, giving them eligibility for federal and state grants and other financial aid. Students also have a designated Financial Aid Counselor to help them pay for college.
Brenau University began in 1878 as a traditional women’s college in Gainesville, GA. Nearly a century into its history, in the late 1960s, Brenau began branching out with evening and weekend classes for working adults, men and women, setting the stage for its distance education programs at the turn of the century. With accelerated 7-week terms, and a low student:faculty ratio, Brenau combines the support of a small liberal arts college with the full potential of online education as one of the best online colleges.
University of Minnesota-Crookston
Make no mistake – the University of Minnesota Crookston’s innovative online courses and degree programs mark UMC as far more than the average regional public university. UMC was only founded in 1966, and only approved to offer 4-year degrees in 1993, but they certainly hit the ground running. UMC was the first “Laptop U,” beginning a much-imitated initiative in 1993 to provide laptops for all students and faculty members. They were further pioneers with the first agricultural business degree programs, which then became the first online agricultural management degree.
Today, UMC continues to build on its experience and reputation as an online leader. UMC Online offers more than 20 fully online degrees and certificate programs, and has been highly ranked for its online offerings. UMC charges no out-of-state tuition for online students, and a job placement rate of more than 93% in their field of study shows UMC to be a force in education. UMC’s commitment to rural America and the needs of working people works hand-in-hand with technology to create tomorrow’s Minnesota.
Eastern Illinois University
Eastern Illinois University’s online programs demonstrate the university’s commitment to the needs of Illinois’ working adults and nontraditional students. Between graduate degrees, certificates, and bachelor’s degree-completion programs, EIU reaches out to working professionals, young emerging professionals, and others. In addition, EIU is focused on value; online courses are priced at the cost of in-state tuition, no matter where students live, and undergraduate and graduate degree costs are nearly the same (grad students pay $3 more per credit).
Eastern Illinois University has its beginnings in 1895 as a normal school, training teachers for the Illinois school system, but today EIU stands as a comprehensive public university ranked as one of the top regional schools in the Midwest. EIU is also ranked one of College Consensus’ Most Affordable Universities, as reflected in its online tuition policies. Making affordability and value one of its priorities, Eastern Illinois certainly distinguishes itself as one of the best accredited online colleges.
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester Institute of Technology’s online degree programs are a model of online course design best practices. RIT Online is built on the same foundation of academic rigor, world-class teaching and research, and the most current STEM expertise, but where RIT really shines is with RIT Online Campus. A complete, app-based virtual campus, RIT Online Campus is more than just a portal to classes, like a conventional learning management system. Students get a personalized RSS feed, connection to their advisors, an online cafe to connect with other students, and all of the resources they need to succeed.
Of course Rochester Institute of Technology is upping the game as one of the most innovative online colleges – RIT was always revolutionary. Built out of the merger of a literary society and a mechanics institute in 1891, RIT started out interdisciplinary by design, combining science and technology with the humanities. Today, RIT continues that tradition, reach out to working adults with innovative online courses to set itself apart as one of the best accredited online colleges in the nation.
Champlain College Online’s motto is “Accomplish Anything,” and Champlain is doing everything it can to actually live up to that inspiration. Champlain began putting a priority on the needs of adult students in the 1990s, with its first online courses in 1993, and the seeds planted then are fully grown. Champlain Online offers more than 60 degrees and certificates, from associate’s to master’s, all fully online and designed around the needs of working adults. More importantly, Champlain has taken the radical step of cutting tuition in half for its undergraduate online programs, specifically to make completing a degree more affordable for working students.
Champlain College began in 1878 as a private business school in Burlington, VT, with the intention of preparing young men for modern business (what was modern in the day, at least). Business is still central to Champlain’s curriculum, but the college has grown much more diverse in student body and degree offerings. Today, Champlain is widely recognized as a top-ranked undergraduate educator, and adds to that distinction ranking as one of the most innovative online colleges in the US.
Arizona State University-Tempe
Arizona State University’s ASU Online has essentially reinvented online education, based around the same spirit that has won ASU U.S. News ranking as the most innovative university in the world for 4 years in a row. On sheer size, ASU is incomparable, with more than 175 online degrees and certificates, a comprehensive list from undergraduate to doctorate, and more than 30,000 online students. But ASU has more than volume going for it; their online programs are models of online course design best practices, with some of the most innovative online courses available from any university.
Arizona State University has been called the New American University, and earns that distinction many times over. ASU began as a normal school for the Arizona Territory in 1885, and it followed a conventional course of growth into a teacher’s college and state university right up until 2002. That’s the year ASU began its transformation – opening admissions, spreading out over multiple campuses, and embracing online education. One of the best accredited online colleges in the world, ASU is world-changing.
Oregon State University
The Oregon State University ECampus has emerged as one of the best accredited online colleges in the nation in recent years, with more than 1100 online courses and more than 50 fully online bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. OSU ECampus offers more than 100 subjects to study. Incredibly, out of more than 21,000 online students, 39% are distance-only – not traditional students taking online classes, but fully online students from all over the world. The ECampus ranks not only for innovative online courses, but for accessibility and commitment.
Oregon State has distance education deep in its bloodstream; founded in 1868, OSU began as a land-grant agriculture and mechanics school, and was offering correspondence courses to farmers throughout the Pacific Northwest as early as the late 1800s. And they were never averse to technology; in 1911, OSU sent trains carrying demonstration materials across Oregon, reaching farmers where they were. Today, the Internet is OSU’s train, and OSU ECampus is proud to be one of the top accredited online colleges in America.
Washington State University
Washington State University’s Global Campus has made its name as one of the best accredited online colleges in the nation on exceptional online teaching and learning. With leadership from the Academic Outreach and Innovation team’s Learning Innovations initiative, WSU Global Campus combines the highest quality of teaching and curriculum with the most current technology for the best of both. The AOI team works with professors to implement online course design best practices and create innovative online courses using every available technological tool.
Washington State University dates to 1890, when the Washington Territory was admitted to statehood and qualified for a land-grant agricultural school. Like other land-grant universities, WSU grew up with a dedication to practical education and outreach to the community, qualities that continue to drive WSU Global Campus. As one of the best online colleges in America, WSU Global Campus is fulfilling a promise nearly 130 years old.
Drexel University Online was an early adopter of online distance learning, and nearly 20 years later, it remains a leader, one of the most innovative online colleges. With more than 140 online certificates and degrees, Drexel is one of the biggest, but it’s Drexel’s spirit that makes it one of the best accredited online colleges. With its history of cooperative education, more than 500 companies partner with Drexels, providing as much as 40% tuition discounts for their employees. And Drexel’s experiments with virtual reality, gamification, and remote technology make it a pioneer in online course design best practices
Drexel University has been transforming higher education since it was first founded in 1891, providing higher education opportunity in practical, applied sciences and careers. Drexel helped set the standard for cooperative education, building a network of partners for students to alternate classroom learning and experiential, on-the-job training. Today, Drexel transfers all of that century-plus of innovation to Drexel Online, creating a standard for online learning. Students can even test drive a class for free!
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Daytona Beach
Embry-Riddle Worldwide, the online division of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, has spent the 21st century defining the most innovative online colleges. Embry-Riddle’s online programs are expertly designed for the convenience and flexibility of working adult learners, with 12 undergraduate and 10 graduate accelerated terms (9 week sessions) and multiple start times. Embry-Riddle’s EagleVision is a cutting-edge virtual classroom that improves synchronous learning in an interactive, collaborative format. Two virtual labs – Aerial Robotics and the Crash Lab – represent a peak for innovative online courses.
Embry-Riddle established the Worldwide Campus in 1970, well before classes could be taught on the Internet (since it didn’t exist yet); military personnel stationed all over the world were the audience, and classes were done through mail correspondence. ERAU remains one of the top universities for military students, and the Yellow Ribbon Scholarship for veterans and active duty servicemembers is just one of their perks. Embry-Riddle is also one of only a handful of accredited online colleges offering fully online associate’s degrees, another reason Embry-Riddle Worldwide is one of the best online colleges.
Campbellsville University’s online degree programs, CU Online, are some of the most extensive and highly-ranked of any Christian university. Rooted in a faith-based education, and designed for traditional-aged students and working adults like, CU Online offers 52 degree programs (six associate’s, eight bachelor’s, and 26 master’s) as well as 12 certificate programs in fully online format. As one of the best accredited online colleges, Campbellsville designs programs for convenience and flexibility, allowing students to transfer up to 72 credits toward their degree. Students can even take a demo course to see if Campbellsville’s innovative online courses are for them.
Founded in 1906, Campbellsville University has been providing Christian higher education opportunities for more than a century. Formerly Baptist, but no long officially affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention, Campbellsville has grown to more than 4000 students of all denominations. Campbellsville’s online programs have allowed the university to reach out to a new population of students in the 21st century, while its affordable tuition and military-friendly status have made CU attractive to a range of students, earning Campbellsville distinction among the best online colleges.
Florida Institute of Technology
Florida Institute of Technology’s Florida Tech Online continuing education programs brings FIT’s top-ranking commitment to STEM and professional education to working adults all over the world. FIT offers fully online programs in 12 different fields, including business, criminal justice, healthcare, and even aeronautics. Collaborative, interactive classes are taught by experienced faculty, and FIT is particularly known for its students support, with each online student connected with an enrollment services representative.
Florida Tech began in 1958, perfectly located to be part of the boom in Florida’s Space Coast through the 1960s. Because of the military presence, FIT has always been committed to nontraditional education, with more than a dozen remote sites at military bases all over the country. Florida Tech ranks as one of College Consensus’ Best Beach Colleges, but while online students may miss out on the surf, they get a real value from a top-ranked, accredited national research university that is also one of the best accredited online colleges.
The University of Texas at Arlington
The University of Texas at Arlington Online has become a leader in accelerated online education, offering more than two dozen fully online degree programs in five different disciplines. Students can complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing, public health, education, business, and public affairs. UTA Online is unique in assigning each online student with an experienced academic coach who assists the professor and offers feedback and advice. These coaches are master’s and doctorate-holders who are eminently qualified, making UTA’s innovative online courses even better.
The University of Texas at Arlington is one of the fastest-growing universities in the US – not surprising, since it is located in the center of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. From a small private college in 1895, to a Carnegie Classification R1 public research university, UT Arlington is quickly coming into its own, gaining status to rival UT’s flagship in Austin or Texas A&M. One of College Consensus’ top colleges for veterans, UTA is soon to be known as one of the best accredited online colleges in the nation.
Robert Morris University
Robert Morris University’s online degree programs have earned the university a reputation as one of the top accredited online colleges in the nation. With nearly 50 online degree and certificate programs ranging from business and computer science to education and nursing, RMU offers a comprehensive slate of online offerings. But where RMU really proves its value is in student support, with all students getting their own counselor and career advisor, wellness counselor and financial aid counselor, and 24-hour tech support.
Robert Morris University began in 1921 as a small business school; today, closing in on a century, RMU is a doctoral-level university, known for its exceptional professional programs in business, healthcare, and technology. From its beginning, RMU has supported working professionals, and RMU’s online programs are built around the same values: competency-based learning, credit for life and work experience, and convenient scheduling make RMU one of the best accredited online colleges for working adults.
University of North Dakota
The University of North Dakota’s online degree programs are the highest-ranked in the Dakotas, offering more than 80 degree and certificate programs that are available entirely online. More importantly, UND is ranked one of the most innovative universities in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. UND provides exceptional student support, with tutoring available all day, every day; ProctorU, allowing students to take proctored exams anywhere; and tech support 24/7.
The University of North Dakota is the state’s oldest university, founded in 1883 to provide higher education opportunity for the Dakota Territory. Like other institutions in the Midwest and West, where rural populations were spread out and difficult to access, UND began offering distance education correspondence courses in 1911. From that foundation, more than a century later, UND has made distance education a cornerstone of its curriculum, becoming one of the best online colleges in the nation.
Eastern Kentucky University
Eastern Kentucky University’s online programs, EKU Online, have brought the university national attention, including U.S. News & World Report ranking as one of the nation’s top online educators. EKU offers more than 40 undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs, as well as non-credit courses, in fully online format. With its mission dedicated to service, EKU has made its name on student support, including flat tuition rate and reduced tuition for active-duty military servicemembers. Online tutoring and dedicated academic advisors help students find their way in EKU’s innovative online courses.
Eastern Kentucky University dates back to 1874, but the institution that would become EKU was established in 1906 when the state took over the original college for a teacher’s training school. As a regional public university, EKU is dedicated to meeting the needs of Kentucky’s people; the university has been ranked one of the top regional universities in the South. EKU Online helps the university achieve its goal of reaching as many students as possible, making EKU one of the best accredited online colleges anywhere.
Old Dominion University
Old Dominion University’s ODU Online has made Old Dominion one of the first names in online education, and one of the most innovative online colleges in the nation. One of the earliest adopters of online education among public universities, Old Dominion has developed one of the most comprehensive online programs in the world. ODU Online provides both synchronous and asynchronous classes, with highly interactive and collaborative opportunities, while students are permitted to take practicum experiences and internships in their own areas.
Old Dominion University began in 1930 as an extension campus for the College of William and Mary, so education for nontraditional and adult students is written into the university’s DNA. ODU has specialized in distance education since 1994, when it began offering classes by satellite, but soon turned to online education. Innovative online courses have made Old Dominion one of the top accredited online colleges; ODU’s highly diverse online student body reports 97% satisfaction with their education.
Rowan University’s Global Learning & Partnerships division is one of the best accredited online programs in the US, with accelerated online courses and ample student support. But one of the most innovative programs at Rowan Global is not for working adults or traditional-aged college students, but for high schoolers. Rowan’s Dual Credit Initiative for High School Students gives high-achieving 11th and 12th graders the opportunity to take online courses for credit in both their high school, and at Rowan. It’s a helpful step forward from one of the most innovative online colleges in the America.
Rowan University had its start in 1923 as a public normal school in Glassboro, NJ, growing into a public research university by 1997. Ranked one of the best schools in the US for social mobility, Rowan is known for its diversity and commitment to opportunity. Rowan Global is a key part of that mission today, and has earned distinction and high rankings as one of the best accredited online colleges in the nation.
Central Michigan University
Central Michigan University’s CMU Online has earned its reputation as one of the top accredited online colleges, offering more than 30 fully online degrees and certificates at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. CMU’s online programs have earned U.S. News & World Report top ranking in several disciplines, and one of the main strengths of CMU Online is its top-notch student support. Students have access to an online writing center and math tutoring, exam proctoring at any location, and an Online Ally – an experienced person who can provide advice and guidance.
Central Michigan University is a top-tier Carnegie Classification public research university, having been founded in 1892 as a teacher’s college. While CMU is still primarily a regional institution, its reach has expanded tremendously with its fully online degree programs. In fact, while there are 18,000 students on CMU’s traditional campus, 9000 more are enrolled in online programs. Drawn by CMU’s innovative online courses, these thousands of students recognized CMU as one of the best accredited online colleges in the Midwest.
Northern Arizona University
Northern Arizona University’s accredited online degree programs have made it one of the top up-and-coming universities in the nation. NAU has made its name as exceptional online educator, and its key innovation is Personalized Learning. Online students at NAU have the option of choosing traditional online learning, with conventionally scheduled classes, or Personalized Learning, self-paced online degree programs based on a competency-based model. Students in the self-paced Personalized Learning pay a flat subscription rate rather than a per-credit tuition rate, and can earn credit for work and life experience.
Northern Arizona University began teacher’s training school in 1899, providing the Arizona Territory with much-needed, well-prepared teachers. NAU is deeply tied to the community of Flagstaff, and its highly diverse student body have made the university one of the best in the nation for social mobility. NAU also charges the lowest tuition rate in Arizona, making it is proven value for its combination of affordability and quality.