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Top Majors For Students Taking Online Courses

Top Majors For Students Taking Online Courses

by Chris Davis, Ph.D.
July 20, 2020

The Babb Group sponsors a free Facebook group for people interested in online teaching. A frequent question comes from someone who wants to break into online teaching, and they want to know what they should study in grad school to be able to teach online. An even more question comes from the person who already has a graduate degree and wants to know about teaching opportunities in their area of study. Generally, I answer these questions based on my twenty-years of experience in online teaching. In this article, I am going to provide a more comprehensive and data-based answer to these questions, drawing from the IPEDS data from the Department of Education.

Scope of Distance Education in the United States

In 2018, 1,297,781 students completed a degree via distance education. That is a 30% increase from 2013. That represented about 26% of all degree completions. The current pandemic led to a sudden shift in classes move to a remote delivery in the spring of 2020, and what fall 2020 and beyond will look like look for higher education is very uncertain. In any case, these newly remote classes and programs are not distance programs in the way that we normally think of online programs. It is very likely that current events will drive an increasing number of students to enroll in programs that are designed and delivered 100% online versus face-to-face courses that have been forced to transition. What these trends mean for higher education in the future is very unclear at this point, and what that means for online teaching is even less clear. I will focus on what it looked like in 2018, the most recent year with available data, as I expect that the patterns in 2018 will continue even during a period of so much uncertainty.

Distance Education by Subject

The U.S. Department of Education maintains the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) as a framework for identifying the subject of higher education programs. Each institution often in collaboration with the state regulatory body determines what CIP code is assigned to a program. The CIP codes as a whole are reviewed every decade, and CIP is being updated for 2000 with new and revised codes. The CIP codes are organized around three levels. In CIP 2010, the highest level includes 47 categories. The next level divides these categories into 388 subcategories. The final level provides 1,883 categories for programs. At this final level, the programs can become very specific, and it is also more likely that similar programs at different institutions might have different CIP codes. There are not consistent rules for how colleges and universities title programs, group courses, or how they apply program CIP codes. Those of us who do research using CIP codes will often manually add multiple CIP codes to get a more complete picture on the competition for a specific program.

To make this analysis more manageable, I am going to focus on the highest level with some exploration of the second level to show more specific domains with high volumes of online students. My purpose is to identify areas with the greatest number online students which correlates to the greatest number of online teaching opportunities.

My previous articles on faculty qualifications and what colleges and universities are active in online learning will be helpful. The CIP code data does not differentiate between undergraduate and graduate programs, so this analysis will not be helpful on its own in determining whether a master’s degree is needed or a doctorate (or other terminal degree). Online undergraduate students outnumber graduate students 2-to-1, so in most cases there should be opportunity to teach with just a master’s degree except in fields that are primarily graduate only.

Another limitation of the data is that it is based on degree programs. All undergraduate students take general education courses that will not show up on this list. If you are interested in teaching math or composition, these and other general education topics will not show up on this list.

The following list provides the CIP category, the number of completers, the percentage of completers in the CIP that are distance, and the growth of completers from 2013 to 2018. The percentage of all completers shows to what degree distance education has penetrated this category. The growth rate shows how much enrollments have been growing for distance education in this category. Only 38 categories are listed as the others had no distance completers.

  1. BUSINESS, MANAGEMENT, MARKETING, AND RELATED SUPPORT SERVICES 316,395 completers (39% of all completers; 5-year growth of 16%)
  2. HEALTH PROFESSIONS AND RELATED PROGRAMS 244,165 completers (26% of all completers; 5-year growth of 51%)
  3. LIBERAL ARTS AND SCIENCES, GENERAL STUDIES AND HUMANITIES 243,062 completers (48% of all completers; 5-year growth of 27%)
  4. EDUCATION 115,320 completers (38% of all completers; 5-year growth of 26%)
  5. COMPUTER AND INFORMATION SCIENCES AND SUPPORT SERVICES 67,112 completers (34% of all completers; 5-year growth of 57%)
  6. HOMELAND SECURITY, LAW ENFORCEMENT, FIREFIGHTING AND RELATED PROTECTIVE SERVICES 54,146 completers (37% of all completers; 5-year growth of 5%)
  7. PSYCHOLOGY 39,013 completers (23% of all completers; 5-year growth of 54%)
  8. PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION AND SOCIAL SERVICE PROFESSIONS 31,093 completers (33% of all completers; 5-year growth of 54%)
  9. MULTI/INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES 26,895 completers (28% of all completers; 5-year growth of 4%)
  10. SOCIAL SCIENCES 21,363 completers (11% of all completers; 5-year growth of 23%)
  11. ENGINEERING 20,611 completers (11% of all completers; 5-year growth of 43%)
  12. COMMUNICATION, JOURNALISM, AND RELATED PROGRAMS 13,512 completers (11% of all completers; 5-year growth of 140%)
  13. ENGINEERING TECHNOLOGIES AND ENGINEERING-RELATED FIELDS 13,198 completers (15% of all completers; 5-year growth of 42%)
  14. FAMILY AND CONSUMER SCIENCES/HUMAN SCIENCES 12,906 completers (22% of all completers; 5-year growth of 43%)
  15. THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS VOCATIONS 12,148 completers (39% of all completers; 5-year growth of 50%)
  16. VISUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS 12,066 completers (8% of all completers; 5-year growth of 75%)
  17. PARKS, RECREATION, LEISURE, AND FITNESS STUDIES 7,248 completers (10% of all completers; 5-year growth of 56%)
  18. LEGAL PROFESSIONS AND STUDIES 6,503 completers (11% of all completers; 5-year growth of -11%)
  19. ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE/LETTERS 6,110 completers (10% of all completers; 5-year growth of 71%)
  20. BIOLOGICAL AND BIOMEDICAL SCIENCES 4,333 completers (3% of all completers; 5-year growth of 122%)
  21. LIBRARY SCIENCE 4,304 completers (76% of all completers; 5-year growth of -15%)
  22. HISTORY 3,141 completers (10% of all completers; 5-year growth of 46%)
  23. TRANSPORTATION AND MATERIALS MOVING 2,675 completers (9% of all completers; 5-year growth of -31%)
  24. MILITARY TECHNOLOGIES AND APPLIED SCIENCES 2,624 completers (99% of all completers; 5-year growth of 290%)
  25. NATURAL RESOURCES AND CONSERVATION 2,458 completers (9% of all completers; 5-year growth of 29%)
  26. AGRICULTURE, AGRICULTURE OPERATIONS, AND RELATED SCIENCES 2,317 completers (6% of all completers; 5-year growth of 62%)
  27. PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES 2,131 completers (13% of all completers; 5-year growth of 0%)
  28. MATHEMATICS AND STATISTICS 1,993 completers (5% of all completers; 5-year growth of 188%)
  29. MECHANIC AND REPAIR TECHNOLOGIES/TECHNICIANS 1,827 completers (2% of all completers; 5-year growth of 36%)
  30. COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGIES/TECHNICIANS AND SUPPORT SERVICES 1,651 completers (11% of all completers; 5-year growth of 54%)
  31. PERSONAL AND CULINARY SERVICES 1,201 completers (1% of all completers; 5-year growth of 6%)
  32. FOREIGN LANGUAGES, LITERATURES, AND LINGUISTICS 943 completers (3% of all completers; 5-year growth of 192%)
  33. SCIENCE TECHNOLOGIES/TECHNICIANS 922 completers (13% of all completers; 5-year growth of 70%)
  34. PHYSICAL SCIENCES 888 completers (2% of all completers; 5-year growth of 88%)
  35. AREA, ETHNIC, CULTURAL, GENDER, AND GROUP STUDIES 551 completers (4% of all completers; 5-year growth of 288%)
  36. ARCHITECTURE AND RELATED SERVICES 547 completers (3% of all completers; 5-year growth of 2%)
  37. CONSTRUCTION TRADES 284 completers (1% of all completers; 5-year growth of -6%)
  38. PRECISION PRODUCTION 125 completers (0% of all completers; 5-year growth of -52%)

In the next sections I will go into more depth about the major categories with the largest numbers of online students.


Business is the largest category by far with 24% of all distance students. In contrast, only 16% of all students are in business programs. In recent years there has been a trend for even traditional universities to discontinue on-campus MBA programs in favor of online programs. I believe that the dynamic here is that non-traditional students who are most likely to attend online colleges and universities are also more focused on career-related education than other student subpopulations.

A deeper dive into the business category is revealing. 63% of online students are in the subcategory of Business Administration, Management and Operations for a total of 199,561 completers in 2018. The next largest category is Accounting and Related Services with 27,599 completers. A much smaller percentage of accounting students pursue online programs, roughly a quarter of students versus half of all students in business administration. The next four subcategories in order of size are Business/Commerce (24,946 online completers), General, Human Resources Management and Services (15,667), Finance and Financial Management Services (8,747), and Marketing (8,529). Other than Human Resources, most of these programs are Like accounting and have fewer online students than traditional students.

Before rushing to enroll in an MBA program as a pathway to online teaching, keep in mind that most undergraduate and graduate business administration programs require students take courses from the various business specializations. Students in business administration will take as many or more courses in accounting, finance, and marketing as management. The business disciplines may prove to offer more opportunities to teach. Also, online teaching requires either a degree in the discipline or 18-graduate credits in the discipline. An MBA usually does not offer 18-credits in any one discipline unless it is a program with a specialization. Eighteen credits usually mean 6 out of 10 classes in the program. A specialized program, even those these have less student enrollment, will usually work out better for someone who wants to teach online.

One of the other considerations is work experience. Business and other professional programs often like teachers with professional experience in the field being taught. Business is so broad that many people with work experience can claim some relevant experience, but this can be a concern for someone looking to transition from education to business. It can also be a factor when specializing in a field like accounting or marketing without professional experience in that field.

Another consideration in business is that the program accreditors can require that teachers have a degree from a business program accredited by that accreditor. This is particularly true for the higher status business schools. While this will vary from school to school, it is something worth considering. If you have your goals set at teaching for a more prestigious school, where your degree came from will be a consideration.


Most students in healthcare programs are not online. The story in health is nursing programs which include 57% of all health-related online completers with 138,159 completers. The main program are RN-to-BSN programs. Students who have earned an RN degree from a community college or other two-year program use these programs to earn a bachelor’s degree. There are also a number of Master of Science in Nursing programs online. If you are already an RN, earning an MSN will provide online teaching opportunities.

The other two areas in the health category are Health and Medical Administrative Services with 46,632 online completers and Public Health with 10,613. These two programs include 23% of the online health program completers. No other healthcare program has a substantial presence online on which to warrant basing an online teaching career. Someone with a healthcare background including a clinical career might find some success with a graduate degree in healthcare administration or public health.

Liberal Arts and Sciences

Almost half of students in liberal arts and general studies programs are completing online degrees (243,062 in 2018), which is surprising and reflects the addition of online programs by many traditional universities around the country. The CIP codes do not have any additional detail for this category. It includes programs defined as liberal arts and general studies. Many undergraduate students take many of the courses as part of their general education requirements. Most online programs have a limited set of courses versus what is offered on campus. In my experience, math and composition faculty are the most in-demand. Many online degree programs are professionally oriented, so they focus on skills more obviously related to career skills including numerical reasoning and communication. A graduate degree in English is fine, but keep in mind that most courses will be teaching composition not literature.

A special note for secondary ed teachers. If you have a degree in curriculum and instruction or a related subject, you probably do not have the 18-credits you need in subject. You do not need a second master’s degree, but you will want to pick of those additional graduate credits if you want to teach your subject in higher education.


Just over a third of education degrees (115,320) are earned online. In my experience these are primarily graduate degrees for teachers. The data shows that 27,013 of these students were in Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Levels and Methods. The next largest subcategory was Educational Administration and Supervision with 24,154 students. The next four subcategories: Special Education and Teaching; Education, General; Curriculum and Instruction; and Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Subject Areas range from 11,000 to 130,000 students.

The challenge in the online education category is that most undergraduate education programs are still campus-based. Since these programs are preparing students to teach in physical schools, this makes sense. That reduces the opportunity for online teaching with just a master’s degree. Another challenge is that state requirements for teacher certification vary widely from state to state. As a result, online programs have a difficult time offering programs that will work across the country. This further limits the offering of online programs in teacher education versus more general graduate programs that are not tied to state-specific requirements.

Another subcategory is Educational/Instructional Media Design. With the growth of online learning, this is a job that has increased in demand. However, only 5,656 completed studies in 2018, almost all online. With such a low level of enrollment in these programs, this will be an area harder to break into than even other areas within education.

Computer and Information Sciences

You might think that online education would be common in area of computer and information sciences because of the technology connection. In fact, just over a third of completers (67,112) in these programs were online. While this was more than healthcare, it was lower even than education. The main subcategories of Computer and Information Sciences, General; Computer/Information Technology Administration and Management; Information Science/Studies; and Computer Science are overlapping programs. There is a continuum from the more theoretical teachings in computer science to more applied professional practices in programming, administration, and management. Only 15% of computer science completers are online, reflecting the tendency of online programs to have a more applied focus.

As with other professional programs, related work experience is often a requirement along with academic credentials to teach in this program.

Homeland Security and Law Enforcement

The fifth category of homeland security and law enforcement provides two interesting contrasts. Criminal justice and corrections have a large number of online students (46,018 completers in 2018), but this represents just over a third of all students in these programs. Homeland security has only 4,101 completers but over 80% are online. Homeland security was the hot program area after 9/11, but despite the buzz, it is only a small part of this category. Most students are in law enforcement and corrections programs.

As with other professional programs, work experience in these areas will be important in landing a teaching position. Since most professions only have a master’s degree, there are some opportunities in homeland security for individuals with a doctorate. However, given the small number of students in this subcategory, that might still be a challenge for getting hired.

Psychology and Social Work

Psychology’s primary subcategory is a popular major, and even though only 22% of psychology students are online, that still means 29,553 completers in 2018. Clinical, Counseling and Applied Psychology adds another 6,833 students. In addition to majors, psychology courses are often part of general education requirements, which provide another opportunity for online teaching.

Though it falls into a different CIP category, social work is the 14th largest subcategory and adds another 14,552 completers. A larger percentage of social work graduates earn their degree from online programs compared to psychology majors. If your background is in social work, focusing on that for online teaching might be a good choice. The challenge being how many degrees are undergraduate versus graduate, so you may need a doctorate.

Theology and Religious Vocations

While theology is a relatively small category, it does have 39% of degree conferrals online in 2018 (12,148 graduates). I think this reflects the number of individuals who receive a calling later in life and who pursue an online degree rather moving their families to the nearest college or university offering a degree. This also reflects a growing trend of faith-based institutions as a way to expand their reach beyond campus. Many of these degrees are graduate and so require a doctoral degree, but for those who have a calling to teach within their faith, this might be a perfect path to pursue.

Summary Advice

Based on my interactions with people looking to move to online teaching and a review of the data, I think there are two scenarios.

First, if you have professional experience in a specific field, adding a graduate (master’s degree) in this field might open-up opportunities to teach online, if this is one of the professions with online students. The data presented here will help with that. If your career is in a more niche area, you will need to do some additional research to size up what the opportunity might be. In some cases, a specialized field might have a shortage of qualified faculty. In other cases, a lack of online programs and courses could make teaching jobs rare.

If you want to teach in a new professional area, you should plan on getting a degree and some work experience before you have much success in landing online teaching positions. Your teaching will also be better having some real-world experience to share with your students.

Second, if you want to make a change from an existing career into online teaching but not in your area of work experience, your best opportunities will be in liberal arts subjects. These are less likely to require professional experience. The challenge can be that many of these fields are flooded with academically qualified faculty. These are passion subjects that people fall in love with as students and teaching is often the only way to focus on this subject. If you focus on the more applied aspects of these fields, you may find yourself standing out from the pack. There are many English grads, but much fewer with degrees or specializations in composition. The same is true in math where the need is for teachers who can communicate basic math and algebra to students who are often afraid of math.

How can the Babb Group help?

While the specialty of the Babb Group is in helping qualified online teachers find teaching opportunities, they can also provide coaching for individuals who are thinking about going to university to become academically qualified. A master’s or doctoral degree is expensive both financially and in terms of time investment. A little mentoring from the Babb Group to be sure this is the right path for you can save a great deal of money and time.

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About the Author

Chris DavisChris Davis, Ph.D.

Chris Davis, Ph.D. is an educator and  entrepreneur. He writes, teaches, and coaches on how to leverage technology to achieve personal and professional goals. He has served as a faculty member and administrator in higher education since 1996 at institutions including Baker College, National Louis University, University of Liverpool, Colorado Technical University, and Western International University. His Ph.D. in Urban, Technological, and Environmental Planning is from the University of Michigan. He also has a Master’s of Science in Education from Capella University, a Master’s of Science in Psychology from Walden University, and an MBA in Accounting and Information Technology from Western International University.