With the explosive growth in online programs in recent years, there are more choices than ever before. From business to web design, chances are there’s an online program that suits your interests. In fact, over 7.1 million students take at least one online course each year, with that number growing steadily each year.
At the same time, as online education becomes mainstream, it’s also shedding its sigma (74% of academic leaders say that it’s the same or better than face-to-face learning). We expect more programs to pop up with greater frequency, with greater sophistication, and with better support services for online students.
The National Bureau of Economic Research has plainly stated that you should not enroll in a for-profit, online degree program: you will be 22% less likely to get a callback for a job interview compared to a non-selective, public institution. That’s one of the reasons why our rankings only look at non-profit schools.
We want to help you avoid pitfalls like this. It’s not easy to understand how to choose the best program for you. There aren’t many best practices for evaluating an online program. Most of the existing rankings look at it through the traditional lens of a face-to-face program. This is problematic, because there are significant differences between online students and traditional students. Will you get the same level of attention from professors and administrators? Will you have an opportunity to collaborate with classmates? Will you have the same support system for your job and internship search?
You’d think that the schools themselves would answer these questions, but not every school has the mission of giving you a top notch education. If you can manage to wade through the glut of offers from for-profit diploma mills, the legitimate institutions often bury their online program information. From tuition rates to curriculum to career services, finding information about online-only programs can be a time consuming task.
So when you stumble across a program that seems to hit the mark, it’s tempting to overlook some of the critical aspects of online education. How quickly did they respond to your request? Are there services and scholarships available? What kind of online tools exist for connecting with other students?
Our rankings take these special considerations into account. We asked these questions and many more. After exhaustive research in all fifty states (plus DC), we’ve come to the conclusion that not all online programs are created equal. Your education is a serious investment, and you should receive the same quality of services as a traditional student.
We started this report by asking a simple question: what does a student want to see?
Say you were interested in an online business degree. If you Google “online business degree,” there are about 444 million results. At the top, dominating the ads and search rankings, are for-profit schools like University of Phoenix and DeVry University. If you dare to click through, their landing pages are more intent on harvesting your contact details than providing you with information about their programs. Clearly, this process is flawed.
When Google isn’t helpful, you might turn to a rankings system like The New York Times or Washington Monthly. But in every case, the online programs seem like an afterthought. We know that the process of finding an online university is very different than selecting a traditional program. So why would the evaluation framework remain the same?
There are a few key differences between their rankings and our rankings. A system like U.S. News relies heavily on “peer reputation” — 20% of their ranking goes towards what academics think of other academics. This is useful, but flawed. Many online programs are too new to have an established reputation among academics (who are not in the business of keeping up with new programs), but they may be very strong programs nonetheless. We provide bonuses for schools with good reputations, but we do not penalize those who have no reputation yet.
Even Money Magazine has gotten into the rankings game, with their debut list coming out this year. And while their methodology is comprehensive, we believe it downplays some of the most important aspects of an online degree. This could be the result of not having a ranking system for online-only schools. For example, career services makes up 3.3% of their score, and is only evaluated based on staffing per 1,000 students. In our rankings, it makes up 20% of the score and is evaluated based on staffing as well as their menu of services, ability to serve online students with unique programs, and closeness with alumni relations. We believe this paints a comprehensive picture of both the school’s career services department, as well as the services they offer online students specifically.
Simply put: online students are different. That’s why we developed a methodology, a survey, and program rankings specifically for online programs. We started by qualifying what schools market as “online education” by asking questions such as:
Do you offer degree programs that are 100% completely online?
Are courses asynchronous and there’s no set class times?
Do I ever have to visit campus to finish a program here?
Once we whittled down the list to true online programs, we looked a lot deeper. We broke our scores down into five functional areas:
Performance (is this a school that produces solid graduates?)
Response (did they answer our online-specific questions?)
Financial Aid (do they provide resources and support?)
Career Services (are they committed to an employed alumni base?)
Transparency (is critical information easy to find on their website?)
The result of this exhaustive research is a lot of information about legitimate online schools. But even though you’ll be attending school virtually, there is still some value to location. As online education continues to grow in popularity, many state schools are getting involved. So if you’re an in-state student, you may be eligible for tuition breaks. That creates a significant cost difference between two otherwise equal programs — one in state and one out of state.
We can’t ignore these differences. In order for us to conduct a proper evaluation, we had to break it down, state by state, and look at programs through that lens.
Then we ranked the online programs in each state and provided a writeup of the Top 5. After surveys, emails, follow up phone calls, and a few site visits, we’re confident that these aren’t rankings — they’re recommendations.
Not all programs are out to get you, but we ran across some predators. We structured our methodology to find the truly excellent schools that offer a top-notch online education for a reasonable price. At the same time, we were also able to tease out the schools that couldn’t meet the mark. We did this by asking several key questions:
Is the tuition clear and easy to understand?
Is the school “transparent” — do they list the curriculum requirements, faculty biographies, admissions requirements, and so forth?
Does the school have a reputation that is reinforced by other rankings?
How much detail could they provide in their survey responses?
Luckily, this information is baked into our methodology. So if a school fares poorly on transparency, it’s reflected in their overall score.
Many online programs resort to shady marketing and link-baiting in order to get your contact information. That’s not how you select a traditional school, so why should it be how you select an online program? As this field continues to mature, we hope to provide you with solid recommendations from a student’s perspective.
We ranked online universities in each state according to a set of criteria that we believe is most important to the student. Our goal? Provide the best program recommendations on the internet.
Looking at the landscape of online programs can be a little overwhelming. How do you know what the best program is for your particular needs, or what the most affordable program is based on your location? Some states offer tuition discounts to residents. Some schools offer incentives for locals. We took all of this information and more, broke it down into 50 state pages (plus DC!), and laid it out as clearly as possible. We hope this helps you tune out the unnecessary noise and focus on what matters most to you.
There’s a lot of ranking systems out there. A Google search for “online college rankings” yields 52 million results. After a few clicks, we kept seeing the same, for-profit schools over and over again.
Is this the world of online education? Or is it a series of sophisticated marketing tactics?
We knew that familiar universities – the kind with brick and mortar classrooms – offered online programs. But we wanted to know: are they better, worse, or about the same as the for-profit universities that dominate existing rankings? Do they offer the kind of resources that online students need? Do they provide a better education? Do they offer a better value? We knew that the answers to these questions would be helpful to new students.
We started by scouring for data high and low, organizing publicly available data like graduation and tuition rates, and augmenting it with our own surveys. In many cases, especially for the top ranked schools, we picked up the phone and asked our questions directly.
In the end, we produced state-specific recommendations for online schools. We were careful to make sure these schools were accredited, mostly not-for-profit, and offered 100% online programs – meaning you never have to step foot on campus to get your degree.
So how did we do it? We looked at five big areas: performance, financial aid, career services, responsiveness, and transparency. Read on for our methodology.
Our recommendations are broken down into a five categories, each with subcomponents. Each subcomponent was ranked on a scale of 1-5 and factored into the category score:
Graduation rate tier within the state (6.66%) Retention rate tier within the state (6.66%) Total number of programs offered tier (6.66%) Appearance on other national ranking systems (0.2 raw bonus / ea.)
Tuition cost tier within the state (5%) Payment plan availability and flexibility (5%) Financial counseling availability (5%) Unique scholarships & grant opportunities (5%)
Staff availability (5%) Menu of services (5%) Alumni network (5%) Difference makers (5%)
Clear information about programs offered (4%) Clear information about tuition (4%) List of faculty names and bios (4%) Clearly outlined curriculum (4%) Easy way to contact the online programs division (4%)
Clarity and specificity of responses (20%)
The final rankings were scored on a scale of 1-5 based on the category scores. Based on that score distribution within the state, we extrapolated that “raw ranking” to a scale of 1-100 by state.
Using the top performing school in the state as a baseline, we calculate a multiplier and plot the scores of all remaining schools in the state. For example, if the top performing school has a “raw ranking” score of 4.50, we would baseline this score to 100, then use a multiplier of 22.22 (100/4.50) on the other raw rankings. So if the second highest score in the state is 4.35, they would have a final ranking of 96.66. If the third highest score in the state is 4.24, they would have a final ranking of 94.21, and so on.
We assembled our list of schools by pulling an initial dataset from the NCES College Navigator. Then our in-house team hand-verified all schools with online programs, and we determined which ones are hybrids and which ones are 100% online. From there, we looked at all universities that offer at least four (4) Bachelor’s degrees online. But the cost of an education, and the effectiveness of that education, varies from state to state.
So we grouped the data by state, and we used state-specific baselines in our ranking methodology. To handle these regional indicators, we used the following process:
As a result of this process, our 2015 rankings are the most comprehensive set of online programs available.
Speaking of comprehensive, we hand-verified every school in our directory. We wanted to make sure they offer the right programs, and that our data is accurate. So we dug through their website, called their offices, and made sure that every program in the directory deserves to be there. We’re confident that this is the recipe for the most accurate and thorough listing of available online programs (as of October 2014). So if you want to venture beyond the top ten schools for each state, you’ll have an accurate starting point.
We set out to make our online rankings different than the other systems out there. And it’s no secret that many of those systems are simply advertisements for schools. But there are three current lists that provide very useful context. If a school appeared on one of these lists, they received a 0.2 scoring bonus in their performance score. This provided a “reputation check” for programs that are more established and have more resources to devote to online students.
U.S. News Top Online Bachelor’s Degrees. This national ranking of online programs is based, in part, on peer reputation. While this can unfairly support programs on the decline, it provides some context about the program’s general reputation. In other words, new, emerging programs are unlikely to score well in this ranking system. But colleges that do rank will have a reputation that precedes them.
Money 2014 Best Colleges. As the title indicates, these rankings are all about the money: is the education a good value? What are the job prospects and outcomes of the school? Colleges that rank on this list are likely to provide a good value, or extraordinary career support.
Washington Monthly 2014 College Guide. This ranking looks at the social impact of the school and assesses its “bang for the buck.” This doesn’t mean that these colleges are the cheapest, or even the most affordable based on scholarships and loans. It looks at colleges through the lens of the student and the lens of the taxpayer, breaking it down into service, research, and social mobility. A school that ranks on this list likely has a strong support system and a diverse student population.
Taken together, these three ranking systems draw a complete picture of the online college landscape. We believe they are important indicators when choosing a program, which is why they contribute a raw bonus to the performance score.
The cost of attending college is overwhelming. It can easily be one of the most significant investments of your life. But financial aid programs and packages are hard to decipher. We want to make it a little easier for you, so we looked at cost of attending school and the support structure to make it happen. In addition to looking at public sources of information, such as tuition rates, we sent a short questionnaire to schools across the state. We asked them:
Their responses were enlightening, and very diverse. Some schools offered no aid at all. They received the lowest ranking. Other schools offered a mix of aid packages and payment plans that improved their ranking. The best schools in this area offer all of these services along with dedicated financial aid counselors to help you navigate your options and fill out the paperwork.
The Financial Aid ranking has four components:
We looked at the range of tuition rates for all online universities with four or more Bachelor’s degrees.
1 = tuition scores in the bottom 20% (most expensive)
2 = tuition scores in the bottom 20-40% range
3 = tuition scores in the bottom 40-60% range
4 = tuition scores in the bottom 60-80% range
5 = tuition scores in the top 20% (least expensive)
1 = no payment plan, or the payment plan carries excessive interest
2 = pay by semester
3 = allows 2 to 4 payments per semester, with the balance due in full by the end of the semester
4 = payment plan has a monthly option with no interest
5 = payment plan has a 10 month, monthly payment option with no interest
1 = no dedicated staff for financial aid; no additional resources available
2 = some resources available, such as student workers or part-time responsibilities
3 = at least one full time staff member
4 = at least one full time staff member plus additional part time resources
5 = dedicated financial aid staff
1 = no scholarships or grants listed
2 = redirect to state aid or community grants
3 = partial tuition or community partnerships available
4 = at least one full-tuition scholarship available; multiple partial tuition scholarships also available
5 = multiple full-tuition scholarships available
There are lots of ways to slice and dice a school’s performance indicators. For this analysis, we looked at several key areas:
1 = graduation rate in the bottom 20%
2 = graduation rate in the bottom 20-40% range
3 = graduation rate in the bottom 40-60% range
4 = graduation rate in the bottom 60-80% range
5 = graduation rate in the top 20%
1 = retention rate in the bottom 20%
2 = retention rate in the bottom 20-40% range
3 = retention rate in the bottom 40-60% range
4 = retention rate in the bottom 60-80% range
5 = retention rate in the top 20%
1 = total number of programs in the bottom 20%
2 = total number of programs in the bottom 20-40% range
3 = total number of programs in the bottom 40-60% range
4 = total number of programs in the bottom 60-80% range
5 = total number of programs in the top 20%
Getting a degree isn’t the same as getting a job. Still, your school should be able to help. Most of the colleges we surveyed have a career services program, and online students can usually take advantage of the full portfolio of services. It is rare that they offer different services to online students, but it happens every once in a while. Be sure to confirm the menu of options available to you before deciding on a school
We really wanted to know what makes a good career services program, so we surveyed schools and asked them:
Our career services ranking has four components:
1 = no dedicated staff for career services; no additional resources available
2 = some resources available, such as student workers or part-time responsibilities
3 = at least one full time staff member
4 = at least one full time staff member plus additional part time resources
5 = dedicated career services staff
1 = basic services, such as job training sessions
2 = full menu of services, including job fairs
3 = job and internship placement services
4 = specialized job placement & online job board
5 = additional online services, such as Skype sessions
1 = no connection to alumni
2 = loose, case-by-case connection to alumni
3 = working relationship with alumni relations
4 = integrated, online tools, such as LinkedIn groups
5 = stakeholder in career services in charge of alumni relations
1 = no difference makers
3 = at least one unique program
5 = several unique, high impact programs
With new online programs appearing every year, we believe it’s important for every online school to embrace a full-disclosure approach on their websites. After all, you should know who you’re dealing with before you send them an email. That means it should be easy to understand:
Surprisingly, there are many programs that ask you to fill out a form before disclosing any of this information. So we looked at school websites to determine their level of transparency, and even sent them a follow up questionnaire. Then we gave them a score based on their website and subsequent response.
We love asking questions. That’s why we sent a brief survey to all of the schools, asking a handful of questions that an incoming student might ask. We then judged the responses based on turnaround time and quality of content. The best schools returned our email within 2 business days, and provided detailed answers to our questions.
During the course of your online education, it’s likely that you’ll interact with dozens of instructors, counselors, advisors, and assistants. Our responsiveness score is designed to give you an idea of how smooth and speedy those interactions will be in the future.
As an online student, there are few opportunities for live, real-time interactions. The school or program will set the tone for asynchronous interaction – how fast do they respond to email? Are they actually answering questions, or just pointing you to a website? Are you just another email, or do they see you as a student at the other end of the internet?
We reviewed the research. We know that, for faculty, online instruction can be “more time consuming, impersonal, and relationally unrewarding.” That makes the responsiveness score that much more important: in a world where you’re potentially reduced to a name and an email address, a personal touch goes a long way.
We sent three distinct surveys to each school, and our response score is a composite of all three:
Financial Aid Survey:
Career Services Survey:
1 = did not respond to multiple surveys
2 = responded to general survey with minimal information
3 = responded to general survey with useful information
4 = responded to general survey and at least one specific survey with useful information
5 = responded to all surveys with useful information