A PhD or doctorate is the most advanced degree available, signifying mastery in a particular study area. Online doctoral degrees are available in several disciplines — from education and technology to healthcare and nursing — to help you contribute to research efforts, lead and teach others, and impact change.
We've identified the most affordable online doctoral degrees to help you minimize the burden of student debt. We've also indicated a school's Carnegie Classification identifying doctoral department research activity, if available. View our methodology for details about rankings or learn more about us. For more information, our list of the best online colleges for doctoral degrees ranks options based on graduate earnings potential to help you find your ideal degree.
All tuition numbers were manually collected and verified
Opportunities to conduct collaborative and innovative research can help prepare graduates in areas such as teacher education, program development, and evaluation. As part of Texas' eLearning & Academic Partnerships, Texas Tech University (TTU) serves approximately 7,000 graduate students. It offers ten fully online doctoral programs, primarily in education. Nine confer a PhD upon graduation, such as TTU's Doctor of Philosophy in Higher Education Administration, Special Education, and Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction. An online Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership helps prepare students to identify problems of practice, implement interventions, and lead instructional change.
TTU is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award associate, baccalaureate, master's and doctorate degrees, and certificates. The university's Carnegie Classification is rated very high.
The University of Alabama (UA) serves over 6,000 graduate students, with 42% attending online. Students can complete one of six fully online doctoral degrees in desirable fields, including communication and information sciences, mechanical engineering, education leadership, special education, and nursing practice (DNP). Upon graduation, PhDs are conferred in the communication, engineering, and leadership programs. Programs are designed to help students develop the knowledge and expertise necessary for advanced academic and professional opportunities in various public and private industry settings.
The university's Carnegie Classification is rated very high. UA is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award associate, baccalaureate, master's and doctorate degrees, and certificates.
Located in Phoenix, Arizona, Aspen University is a private, for-profit institution serving over 3,000 graduate students who all attend online. Many distance learners enroll in one of seven doctoral degree programs for in-demand fields, including education, nursing, and technology. They can earn online doctoral degrees, such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Leadership and Learning with a specialization in K-12 or Organizational Psychology, or a Doctor of Science in Computer Science (DSCS).
Aspen is an accredited member of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). The DEAC is listed by the U.S. Department of Education as a nationally recognized accrediting agency, and it's a recognized member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA is a nonprofit organization serving as a national advocate for self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation. All of Aspen's programs have been reviewed and approved by DEAC.
Through its Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL), the University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign serves over 20,000 graduate students, 47% of which attend online. Many complete one of the five online doctoral degree programs: (1) Diversity and Equity in Education, (2) Global Studies in Education, (3) Human Resource Development, (4) International Education Administration and Leadership, and (5) Learning Design and Leadership. All confer an EdD upon graduation. These online programs are designed primarily for teachers who desire to advance their credentials to make a greater impact on the lives of their students, while the EdD in Human Resources can help with career advancement in the business sector.
The university's Carnegie Classification is rated very high. Illinois Online is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Indiana's American College of Education (ACE) is entirely online. It is a small, private, for-profit institution offering seven EdD programs to distance learners in four disciplines: (1) education, (2) nursing, (3) healthcare, and (4) leadership. Students can choose from seven degrees within these disciplines, such as Curriculum and Instruction, Instructional Technology, Second Language Instruction, Nursing Education, and Public Health Education. Several of ACE's doctoral programs can be completed in three years or less, depending on a student's background and career path.
ACE is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, an institutional accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
Undergrad Online Enrollment:99
Graduate Online Enrollment:5,958
School Accreditation:Department of Education.
Overview: Online Doctoral Programs
Differences Between Ph.D.s and Professional Doctorates
In the U.S., the highest terminal degree a person can earn is a doctoral degree. Indicating an advanced level of expertise, doctoral degrees are generally divided into two categories: research doctorates, commonly known as Ph.D.s, and professional doctorates. Both of these can be earned online, and we outline the differences between each below.
Probably the most familiar research doctorate is a Doctor of Philosophy, better known as a Ph.D. The title is somewhat misleading because a student can earn a Ph.D. in a number of subjects in the sciences and the humanities. Students earning research doctorates conduct original research that serves as the foundation of a written dissertation or project, which must be defended and approved before the degree can be awarded. Doctoral students in this category sometimes earn a master's degree in their chosen field before continuing on for a doctorate, and they often need three or more years to complete all of the requirements. Once they've earned their research doctorates, students typically move into academia or research positions.
In contrast to a research doctorate, a professional doctorate focuses on acquiring the advanced knowledge and application-based skills needed to go into professional practice. Examples include a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) for physicians, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) for high-level nurses, and a Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D.) for lawyers. These are just a few of the many occupations that call for a professional doctorate, some of which also require licensure to go into practice. Students in this category may or may not need to earn a master's degree first, and it is not unusual for a student to take at least six years beyond the completion of a bachelor's degree to fulfill all of the requirements for earning a professional doctorate.
Can You Earn a Doctorate Degree Online?
Yes, there are many online doctoral programs to choose from, both for research doctorates and professional doctorates. Some of the more popular online options include the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), and the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.). Online doctorates are especially appealing for working professionals. Students can usually arrange their coursework around their work schedules and other personal commitments. Plus, online doctoral candidates can choose among a multitude of options at schools across the country and beyond, selecting the best online program to help them achieve their career goals without having to change jobs or move.
How Do Online Doctoral Programs Compare to In-Person Programs?
There are many similarities between online and in-person programs at the doctoral level. In terms of admission requirements, applicants must have earned at least a bachelor's degree with a high GPA, have competitive GRE or other entrance exam scores, and provide positive references and personal essays. For those doctoral degrees that are offered online, the curricula and other requirements are comparable, demanding similar investments of time and effort and involving the same process for developing and conducting primary research. (Note that many online doctoral programs require students to attend one or more on-campus meetings, conferences, practicums, or residencies, lasting anywhere from two days to two weeks.) Just like their on-campus counterparts, online doctoral candidates must learn to manage their time effectively, stay on top of assignments, and communicate regularly with advisors to ensure they're meeting expectations. As long as students have earned their degrees at credible, accredited schools, their online doctorates should garner the same level of respect as in-person terminal degrees.
Are Online Ph.D. Programs Legitimate?
Although there are some online Ph.D. programs that are not reputable, there are far more legitimate online doctoral programs offered by respected schools. The key to identifying the credible programs is accreditation. The best online Ph.D. programs and other doctorates are available at accredited colleges and universities that have been independently evaluated and proven to meet accepted standards of accountability. An online Ph.D. or doctorate from an accredited institution indicates that you have completed the same demanding coursework, passed the same examinations, and conducted the same level of research as others who've earned traditional degrees. Today's hiring managers are starting to understand the self-discipline and perseverance needed to complete a degree through online learning.
If you're considering going back to school for a doctorate and you're trying to decide which colleges or universities to apply to, one of the most important things to look for is accreditation. Accreditation means that the school's programs, faculty, and student services have been evaluated by an approved, independent agency and found to meet or exceed recognized standards of excellence in education. The best online schools have been approved by one of six authorized regional accrediting boards or by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. A doctoral degree from an accredited institution assures future employers that you have received a rigorous, high-quality education. Also, it may be a requirement for you to earn licensure to practice your chosen profession.
For a complete list of accrediting agencies and accredited colleges and universities, visit the U.S. Department of Education website or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) website. Most schools' websites also list their accreditation status, or you can contact the school directly for more information. OnlineU.org lists only accredited colleges and universities, and displays this information as shown below.
Prerequisites and Admissions for Online Doctoral Programs
The admission requirements for online doctoral programs vary by school, just as they do for traditional doctoral programs. Some programs are only open to students who have already earned a master's degree in the same or a related discipline, while others accept students who have earned a bachelor's degree or a master's degree in an unrelated field. In addition to a previous degree, most admissions boards are looking for candidates who have:
A GPA of 3.0 or higher
Strong letters of recommendation
Persuasive personal statements
Competitive GRE or other standardized exam scores
In some cases, applicants will need to have accumulated a substantial number of hours of field experience or years of related work experience as well.
Is It Possible to Get a Doctorate Without First Getting a Master's?
In the U.S., many schools allow students to skip getting a master's degree and go directly to earning a doctoral degree, which is a good option if you're certain you want to earn a doctorate. For example, if you know you want a career in academia, it may be possible for you to find a Ph.D. program in the subject that interests you that accepts students who've earned only bachelor's degrees. In many cases, you will complete the coursework for and be awarded a master's degree in the process of earning your doctorate.
Some advantages to earning a master's degree first is that you can explore your interests and become accustomed to the higher level of expectations in graduate work. Also, you can customize your education by studying at two different universities with two different sets of faculty. However, if you decide to go that route, make sure that your master's credits earned at the first institution will be accepted by the second. Some doctoral programs do not accept transfer credits from other schools.
Choosing a Program
The decision to pursue a doctorate will be guided primarily by your career goals. There are some occupations that simply demand this type of terminal degree. If you aspire to become a doctor, dentist, chiropractor, veterinarian, pharmacist, occupational therapist, or tenured college professor—to name some examples—you will need to earn a doctoral degree. However, there are many other occupations for which a doctorate is not a requirement but may enhance your chances of landing the highest-level jobs in your field. For instance, a speech language pathologist (SLP) can go into practice with a master's degree and expect to earn an average annual salary around $58,000, but an SLP with a doctorate can move into academic and research positions, earning an average annual salary of about $65,000. Other examples include executive-level management, education administration, mental health counseling, and health care administration.
In most cases, the occupation you choose will also dictate what type of doctorate you'll need to obtain. Within the medical field, for instance, there are many specialties that can only be practiced if you've earned one specific degree. These include doctorates for podiatry, optometry, audiology, and osteopathic medicine. Then again, there are a few occupations for which any one of several different doctoral degrees can be selected. For example, if you want to become a music director for any kind of religious institution, you could earn a Doctor of Pastoral Music, a Doctor of Church Music, or a Doctor of Worship Studies.
If you aspire to become a doctor, dentist, chiropractor, veterinarian, pharmacist, occupational therapist, or tenured college professor—to name some examples—you will need to earn a doctoral degree.
What Are Some Popular Doctoral Degrees to Earn Online?
Some of the most commonly offered online doctoral subjects include criminal justice, health care administration, psychology, engineering, counseling, information technology, business management, and organizational leadership.
Even more popular are the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degrees, two online doctoral programs that are available in many concentrations and specializations. This reflects the findings of the National Center for Education Statistics about all doctoral programs (both online and in-person), which show that the number of healthcare-related doctorates earned since 2001 has increased by 106% and the number of doctoral degrees earned through education programs since 2001 has increased by 103%. These degrees are often pursued by working professionals, who appreciate the convenience and flexibility of distance learning for developing high-level expertise and advanced skills.
Many in academia acknowledge that, in general, the U.S. currently has too many doctoral degree holders and too few jobs to go around. Experts predict that Ph.D.s and other research-oriented doctoral graduates may find it challenging to locate work once they've earned their degrees. However, the demand for professional doctorate holders in applied fields, especially in science and technology, is still strong, creating opportunities to land high-level jobs. Several positions requiring professional doctoral degrees appear on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2020 list of fastest-growing occupations. These in-demand professions include lawyers, postsecondary teachers in health specialties, and physical therapists.
Length of Online Doctoral Programs
The amount of time needed to complete any type of doctorate, whether it's an online program or an on-campus program, varies widely, averaging anywhere from three to eight years. Perhaps the primary reason for this range is that the number of online courses required to graduate also varies dramatically, from 36 to 120 credit hours. Some students who have already earned a related master's degree may be able to get credit for previous coursework, thus reducing the number of credits they need to graduate and the time required to complete the degree.
Another factor that can extend the length of an academic program is the dissertation or capstone project, which is typically the focus of the later stages of the degree program after much of the program-related coursework has been completed. Due to jobs, families, and other commitments, some students in research doctorate programs will be able to complete their work more quickly than others. Also, some doctoral candidates may have to revise their dissertations repeatedly before getting final approval.
Doctoral Degree Quick Facts
Average Credits: 36 - 120
Average Duration: 3 - 8 years
Cost of Online Doctoral Degrees
How Much Does It Cost to Get a Ph.D. Online?
According to 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the average total cost of all graduate degrees—both master's degrees and doctoral degrees—ranges from about $12,200 at public schools to $27,800 at private, non-profit universities. While these NCES numbers may be helpful as a starting point, they aren't specific to online students, and what an online student will pay is sometimes substantially different from what an on-campus student will pay. Of the schools we researched in order to rank the most affordable online doctorate degrees, the median annual tuition rate is $15,441 at public schools and $13,188 at private universities.
Of the schools we researched in order to rank the most affordable online doctorate degrees, the median annual tuition rate is $15,441 at public schools and $13,188 at private universities.
To get an accurate comparison of the online doctoral programs you're interested in, you can start by determining the per-credit tuition rates and multiplying that by the number of credit hours needed to complete the program. The cost per credit of doctoral programs on our site ranges from $290 to $1393. At Liberty University, ranked #2 on our list of most affordable schools, the per-credit fee for online doctoral programs is $300. A Doctor of Public Administration requires 48 credits and totals $14,400 in tuition fees, while a Ph.D. in History requires 72 credits and totals $18,000 in tuition fees. To find your total cost, you must then add in other fees shown on the schools' website and additional expenses, such as books, travel for residencies, and childcare.
However, most doctoral candidates do not pay the full price for their degrees. Many are offered fully funded programs or receive partial financial assistance towards their education.
Funding an Online Doctoral Program
There are many financial aid options for doctoral students, but the options differ for online students versus on-campus students. Many traditional Ph.D. candidates are eligible for fully funded programs that feature paid tuition and stipends, but most students who get this kind of support earn it by working on campus, teaching and conducting research within the school's facilities. In this regard, online doctoral students are more like on-campus students who are pursuing terminal degrees in the humanities and the social sciences. They rarely qualify for full funding either, simply because there are so few school-sponsored research projects for them to contribute to.
However, online doctorate students can reduce the cost of their advanced degrees by considering affordable online Ph.D. programs and by applying for other types of financial aid, especially those that do not have to be paid back, such as grants, scholarships, and fellowships. Tuition discounts due to military service or tuition reimbursement programs through employers are also preferred types of financial assistance.
If none of these options are available, or if they do not adequately cover all financial needs, doctoral students can apply for federally funded loans by filling out the FAFSA form or for private loans through banks and other financial institutions. The advantage of federal student loans is that they offer fixed interest rates (generally lower than private loan interest rates) and repayment plans tied to the graduate's income.
When applying for financial aid, prospective doctoral students may be asked to specify whether they're planning to study full time or part time. They may also need to state their intention to enroll in an online program, and disclose whether the school is regionally or nationally accredited. All of these factors may affect their eligibility for financial aid. Note that many schools have financial aid counselors on staff who can assist prospective students in developing a payment strategy.
Can I Get a Ph.D. for Free?
Although there are many affordable online Ph.D. programs available, it is not possible to earn an online doctorate for free in the U.S. Some universities offer fully funded doctoral programs, which generally feature tuition waivers, stipends, and other benefits, such as health insurance, to cover a student's costs. However, these are designed for on-campus students who are required to work at the schools, often teaching or conducting research in exchange for getting an education.
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