Online education is now a legitimate and popular alternative to traditional campus-based college programs, allowing students to pace their education even if they live busy lives. As the number of universities offering online programs continues to skyrocket, it will only become more difficult for students to decide which one is best for them. To respond to these challenges, we have crafted an authoritative ranking guide. We had one purpose in mind: to provide a single, data-based resource for prospective students that enables them to pick a program best-suited to their needs.
Our methodology consisted of four weighted sections:
1. Institutional Characteristics (17.5%)
- Quality of Accreditation (10%)
- Diversity of Online Programs (2.5%)
- Institutional Resources (5%)
2. Affordability and Student Debt (25%)
- Tuition and Debt (5%)
- Student Loan Default Rate (10%)
- College Financial Aid (5%)
- Percentage Change Across Three Years (5%)
3. Enrollment, Graduation, and Retention Rates (25%)
- Distance Education Enrollment Rates (5%)
- Graduation Rates (10%)
- Retention Rates (10%)
4. Student and Institutional Success (32.5%)
- Salaries of Graduates (15%)
- Student and Alumni Awards (2.5%)
- Other Institutional Rankings (5%)
- Strength of Faculty (10%)
For each section there are specific qualities that we graded by compiling and analyzing information from various public data sets and reports, referenced in each section’s explanation. We then weighted each college’s grades, and compared them for specific academic programs to create a final ranking. It is important to note that our rankings compile data for both online-only colleges as well as colleges offering online and traditional programs. In some cases, the ranking provided for an online program is influenced by institutional data, which includes both its online and on-campus components. We assume for these rankings that the quality of online education is comparable to that of its on-campus counterparts, where applicable.
To update our official rankings for 2014, we refreshed each data set and grade to reflect the most recent research available from the 2012-2013 school year.
Section One: Institutional Characteristics
Quality of Accreditation (10%): Both programs and schools had their level of accreditation reviewed. Whether the institution received a national and/or regional accreditation status, and from what granting body, contributed to this grade. We used the OPE Accreditation Database compiled by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Post-Secondary Education (OPE).
Diversity of Online Programs (2.5%): We factored in educational platforms offered to students, such as asynchronous, synchronous, or hybrid methods of teaching, as well as the availability of campus access. More options give students the widest choices of teaching styles and learning flexibility, resulting in a higher grade.
Institutional Resources (5%): The key resources we feel impact a student’s success are access to career and employment advisors, tutoring assistance, and library access. Traditional students benefit greatly from these resources, and no online student should be without access to them either. Schools providing students online access to these departments are graded higher.
Section Two: Affordability and Student Debt
Data for all four factors below was collected from The Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
Tuition and Debt (5%): We researched every school’s cost of tuition, average federal student loan debt total, and percentage of students graduating with federal loan debt. We then created a debt metric that analyzed a student’s vulnerability to debt, depending on the school, to assign grades. Lower debt loads were given higher grades. Also, because focusing on an absolute metric like total debt load or tuition can be misleading, we have balanced this factor with the student loan default rate, explained in the next step.
Student Loan Default Rate (10%): Each school’s student loan default rate is indicative of the strength of the institution. Specifically, top tier schools would have lower default rates because they are able to produce graduates who obtain opportunities with salaries large enough to pay back federal loans. Lower quality schools would have higher default rates, even those with lower absolute tuition and debt loads because their graduates have a smaller chance of obtaining strong enough careers to fully pay back their debt. Lower default rates were given the highest grades.
College Financial Aid (5%): Beyond federal student loans, students receive other forms of financial aid, such as scholarships, tuition reductions, fellowships, and waivers. Institutions with a larger percentage of their students receiving this type of aid were awarded top grades for this factor.
Percentage Change Across Three Years (5%): Each of the three affordability factors above were finally compared across three-year gaps. It is important to understand the trajectory of a school’s improvement or decline in regard to debt load and financial aid. Schools with promising rates of change, like a downward trend of student loan default rate or an upward trend of providing more financial aid to students, were given the highest grades.
Section Three: Enrollment, Graduation, and Retention Rates
Data was compiled from The Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) for the three factors below.
Distance Education Enrollment Rates (5%): We examined each college’s enrollment rates for their distance education programs, and then separated it into three sub-groups: Students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses, students enrolled in at least one but not all distance education courses, and students not enrolled in any distance education courses. The rates alone for enrollment are not significant indicators of a college’s performance, but calculating the rate of change across a three-year span help establish an institution’s improvement or decline with regard to the health of their online student body.
Graduation Rates (10%): A school’s graduation rate is a useful metric to gauge the effectiveness of its programs. Schools with larger percentages of students graduating within the standard four-year time frame show their programs prepare students more than others to complete all requirements on time, and therefore save tuition costs as well. This methodology used a four-year rate instead of a five or six-year rate because schools generally promote their programs as within four years to completion (or four years or more) and the U.S. Department of Education defines a normal time for completion of a bachelor’s degree as four years.
Retention Rates (10%): Freshman-to-sophomore retention rates are useful metrics to rank a student’s overall satisfaction with their college. Generally a high fall retention rate means a high degree of student satisfaction. Conversely, schools with low retention rates have less students re-enrolling for the next fall, meaning freshman were not satisfied or supported well enough to continue their program.
Section Four: Student and Institutional Success
Salaries of Graduates (15%): While not the perfect measurement of a college’s effectiveness, salary statistics are still important to prospective students. For many, a college’s ability to prepare them for a successful well-paying career influences their final decision. Our salary statistics were derived from PayScale.com’s database, which we feel is a legitimate source of real-world data, with surveys from both employees and employers on every type of common profession. We took PayScale’s data for graduates 1-4 years out, 5-9 years out, and 10-19 years out. Finally, PayScale’s rankings for best colleges by salaries was also included in our criteria.
Student and Alumni Awards (2.5%): There are many organizations awarding successful students and alumni, such as The Rhodes Scholarship and Forbes’ annual lists of business leaders. Colleges and specific programs with higher amounts of awarded students and graduates received higher grades. We used these notable awards for our rankings:
- The Rhodes Scholarship
- The Gates Cambridge Scholarship
- The MacArthur Fellows Program
- The Guggenheim Fellowship
- NCES data for Postsecondary Awards in STEM
- Forbes’ annual lists
Other Institutional Rankings (5%): We analyzed other publication’s rankings and guides for colleges to grade programs by their perceived prestige and effectiveness. Each publication has their own unique proprietary ranking data and methodology, and combining them with our own allows us to factor in other popular publication’s original research, grading criteria, and opinions. We used these notable college rankings:
- U.S. News & World Report Online College Rankings
- Princeton Review Top Colleges
- Forbes’ America’s Top Colleges
Strength of Faculty (10%): Understanding a student’s satisfaction with their professors is another useful metric to see how well a college is performing. A high degree of student satisfaction with their faculty indicates students feel properly supported by their professors and received at least an adequate form of instruction and guidance, all of which are factors that contribute to a student’s ability to succeed in their program. RateMyProfessors.com was used because of the data sets (1.5 million professors and over 13 million evaluations) and also due to the general acceptance of its legitimacy. Each college and program had its professors averaged and then converted into a grade.