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Most Useful Online Degrees (2020-2021)

It’s no secret that graduating college students entering high demand fields have an easier time landing sweet entry-level positions. Making decisions on what to study with the end goal of employment in mind is a good idea, albeit a little less romantic.

In today’s economic environment, the traditional dreamy narrative of earning a liberal arts degree while attending a storybook campus isn’t practical. While a strong foundation is always a good place to start, today’s employers expect and need specialized skills that many graduating college seniors simply don’t have. Starting the process early on with a roadmap can help students graduate with employable assets.

We looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections in job growth to come up with the top-ten most opportunity-laden fields. Piecing together opportunity areas with both the fastest-growing job outlook and the most jobs added between 2018 and 2028, we devised a list of careers with big potential and put together viable degree paths to get you there.

The Big Two: Healthcare and Tech

The biggest growth sectors in tomorrow’s economy fall under two umbrellas: healthcare and technology. The growth in these areas, fueled by changes in technology, science, patient care, and an aging population are undoubtedly driving the explosion in job growth.

As healthcare settings rely more and more on people working directly with patients, jobs like physical therapy assistants will continue to be in higher demand. Positions like nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and physical therapy assistants—all on our top-ten growth list—typically work under the supervision of a higher-level medical professional, depending on local practice authority rules. That said, they will be increasingly relied upon to spend more time with patients and carry out the bulk of patient care. Not surprisingly, all three of these job categories are anticipated to have huge growth over the next decade, with a combined addition of nearly 140,000 new positions.

Of particular note is the field of physician assistants (PAs), a big growth area that opens more doors for those who are passionate about patient care. Becoming a physician assistant requires a slightly non-traditional path as most postgraduate programs require that students have worked in the medical field in some capacity, in addition to completing their bachelor’s degrees. With the high price tag of medical school and the ability for medical offices to bill visits with PAs at the same rate as physicians, expect to see more and more physician assistants in the coming years.

With the growth of healthcare comes the need for postsecondary teachers in the respective subfields. In general, postsecondary tenure track positions have been on the decline. The reliance on part-time instructors highlights institutions’ preference for individuals currently working in their areas of expertise. For those wishing to pursue full-time faculty positions, doctoral degrees are expected, and usually required, depending on the field. Dual-careers in healthcare are common, whereby doctors and specialists combine teaching with current practice.

Budgeting for an Accredited Degree Program

As the cost of education seems to soar with no end in sight, readers will be happy to know that there are many budget-friendly education options for careers in expanding fields that are both financially and intrinsically rewarding.

Notably, Utah State University’s out-of-state online students pay only a per-credit tuition rate that is quite reasonable ($349 for undergraduates and $445 for graduates). Put in perspective, an entire undergraduate degree can be earned for under $42,000. Florida State University offers many affordable online degree options, also with a low price tag. Some schools offer a tuition freeze, while others cap the rate of increase for incoming students.

In many cases, distance learners will attend a few immersions on campus. Some programs require more on-campus immersions than others. For example, Emerson’s speech and language master’s program requires two on-campus visits in Boston. It’s a good idea to plan for the cost of travel and accommodations when making your education budget.

When choosing an online program geared for a specific career field, it is important to verify accreditation. Many fields have their own accrediting bodies, such as the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

When planning long-term futures in these career fields, consider whether or not you think you may want to pursue further education and licensures, such as a master’s or doctoral education. Many online bridge programs may be good options for students who wish to climb within the field.

Top Ten Growing Career Fields (2020)

When compiling our list, we based our decision on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH 2019). It reports projected job growth (2018-2028). We took into account factors such as salary, the actual number of jobs projected to be added in the coming years (not just the percentage growth rate), the potential for career advancement, and the economic environment that will affect growth in these categories.

Top-Growth Career Jobs Added & Growth Rate (2018 - 2028)Median Annual Salary (2019)UsefulnessGrowth Factors
Software Developers, Applications284,100 (21%)$105,590Software developers who can pivot quickly with the changing tech environment will be more sought after than ever before, so staying current and nimble will be key in the field, and many industries have needs for developers.In the age of automation, computer software development skills are in high demand.
Health Specialties Teachers, Postsecondary155,000 (11%)$79,540Most of the growth in this field will be for part-timers, which means more opportunities for people working in the field to teach part-time. A second-order effect of the demand in the healthcare industry is reflected in the projected job growth for the experts who teach the workforce.
Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse-Midwives62,000 (26%)$115,800High demand for healthcare from an aging population and an increased focus on prevention on patient care will fuel the growth of nurse practitioners. The demand for sub-specialties in areas like midwifery will help drive demand for nurse practitioners. DNPs will also see growing opportunities as the demand for qualified instructors grows.
Speech-Language Pathologists, Audiology Assistant, Speech-Language Pathology Assistant49,100 (27%)$79,120As advancements in medicine improve survival outcomes for premature infants, trauma victims, and even age-related illnesses, many patients will need speech and language therapy. The aging U.S. population precludes health conditions that may affect speech and communication, such as dementia and strokes.
Physical Therapy Assistants, Physical Therapists, Physical Therapy Aides38,000 (26%)$49,990The aging population coupled with an increase in chronic conditions like obesity and diabetes will mean more demand for PT assistants. Physical therapy assistants work with patients just as a physical therapist would after the initial plan of care is written.
Physician Assistants, Physicians37,000 (31%)$112,260With the increasing demand for healthcare, more and more medical offices are relying on physician assistants to treat patients just as a physician would. With more people insured and an increasing number of chronic conditions from a population that isn't always focused on prevention, physician assistants will be in high demand.
Information Security Analysts, Information System Security Officer or Manager; Cybersecurity Analysts35,500 (32%)$99,730Computer networks across many organizations need security analysts to protect their information from hackers and disruption.The evolution in how data is stored requires the industry to pivot quickly in how it secures that data. Cloud computing has created a new layer of IT vulnerability that needs to be protected as modern adversaries target businesses by interfering with their technology.
Occupational Therapy Assistants, Occupational Therapy Aides, Occupational Therapists16,000 (31%)$59,200OTAs offer recovery and treatment services for people of all ages with various ailments and illnesses, including developmental disabilities.Data suggests that occupational therapy helps decrease the number of patients readmitted to hospitals. Aging Baby Boomers are also increasing the demand for occupational therapy assistants.
Statisticians, Mathematicians14,400 (30%)$92,030As businesses collect more data, someone will need to make sense of it all and apply it to solve problems.There is demand in both the public and private sector for skilled data analysts that can apply solution-based mathematical rules of logic.
Solar Photovoltaic Installers, Solar Engineers6,100 (63%)$44,890The fast-paced adoption of solar energy technologies promises a solid future for solar technicians.Improvements in design and decreasing costs, mean more homeowners will opt to have systems installed.

How to Join a Top-Growth Career Field: Useful Online Degree Pathways

Think one of our top-ten career fields is for you?

The following list of degree programs includes suggested routes of study. We’ve calculated cost and time based on current published requirements, and have included current fees when possible. Tuitions are calculated using non-resident tuition rates as of July 2020.

Many accredited online programs in fields such as physical therapy and occupational therapy are actually hybrid programs with in-person labs and training required. Some, such as the physical therapy assistant program at Whatcom Community College, give hybrid students options to choose various campus locations around Washington State.

Others, such as the graduate-level speech and language pathology program at Emerson College require less frequent travel.

CareerPath #1Path #2Path #3Path #4
Software Developer, ApplicationsBachelor of Science in Computer Science, University of Florida (Four Years, $70,735)Bachelor of Science in Software Engineering, Penn State University World Campus (Four Years, $77,742)BS in Software Engineering, Arizona State University (Four Years, $74,832)Master of Computer Science, North Carolina State University (1.5 to Two Years, $50,733)
Health Specialties Teacher,
Regis College, Online MSN to DNP Nurse Education (Two Years, $31,000)Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Georgetown University (Three Years, $154,980)Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), Indiana Wesleyan University, Accreditation Pending (Three Years, $99,000)-
Nurse PractitionerRN to MSN, Nurse Practitioner (several specializations), Regis College (Two to Three Years, $41,160)Master of Science in Nursing, Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), Georgetown University (Two Years, $39,267)Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Bradley University (Four Years, $69,020)-
Language Pathologist
Bachelor of Arts in Communicative Sciences and Disorders, University of Montana (Four Years, $89,760)Bachelor of Arts or Science (BA or BS) in Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education, Utah State University (Four Years, $41,880)Master of Science in Communication Disorders, Emerson College (20 to 36 months, $68,459 to $91,607)Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology, New York University (Three Years, $90,495)
PT AssistantAssociate of Science in Physical Therapist Assistance, San Juan College (Two Years, $13,432)Associate of Science (AS) in Physical Therapist Assistance, Whatcom Community College (Two Years, Hybrid, $13,590)Bachelor of Science in PTA (Post-AS), Clarkson College (Two Years, $26,226)
Physician Assistant

*Need experience in the medical field before entering a master’s program
Master of Science In Physician Assistant Studies, Yale School of Medicine (28 Months, $108,612)-
Information Security AnalystBachelor of Science in Computer Science with Specialization in Cybersecurity, Colorado State University Global (Four Years, $47,250Bachelor of Science in Information Systems and Information Assurance, Liberty University (3.5 to Four Years, $46,800 to $54,600)MBA in Digital Innovation Information Systems, Pepperdine University (1.75 to Four Years, $94,380)Master of Professional Studies in Cybersecurity Analytics and Operations, Penn State University (Two Years, $30,492)
Occupational Therapy AssistantAssociate’s Degree in Occupational Therapy Assistance, Platt College (Three Years, $49,955)See also: the American Occupational Therapy Association List of Accredited Programs
StatisticianBachelor of Science in Data Analytics, Purdue University (Four Years, $66,780)Bachelor of Arts or Science (BA or BS) in Applied Mathematics,
Ball State University (Four Years, $63,352)
Master of Science in Applied Mathematics, Columbia University
(One to Two Years, $67,175)
Master of Science in Statistics, Cal State Fullerton
(Two Years, $26,315)
Solar Photovoltaic Installer and Related CareersConstruction Experience and/or On-the-Job TrainingBachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, Indiana State University (Four Years, $95,952)Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering, Colorado State University (Two Years, $29,790)-

The Future Looks Bright

It’s good news for ambitious students with a penchant for planning. A quality, skill-specific education can be earned through diligent online study, and in many cases, the cost is quite reasonable.

As more and more state schools continue to increase their online program offerings, we anticipate even more affordable options in the coming years. And to help take the sting out of the monetary investment, salaries in many high-demand fields are also quite promising as the economic demand for skilled professionals expands. So while strolling amongst ivy-lined walls may not be in every student’s future, the dream career is absolutely within reach.

Melissa Hatch

After earning her master’s in composition in Oklahoma City, Melissa moved to Honolulu, where she taught composition and advanced writing courses for Hawaii Pacific University and Honolulu Community College. Later focusing on online education, Melissa has taught online writing and research courses for community colleges as well as four-year universities. After a long stay in Hawaii, Melissa moved to Las Vegas and built a thriving real estate business, where she now resides with her family.