Online College Report

State Ranking Methodology

Learn about our ranking process

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.

So we figured out a better way to rank these online programs

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.

Ranking Factors and Weights

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:

  1. Performance (20%)

    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.)

  2. Financial Aid (20%)

    Tuition cost tier within the state (5%) Payment plan availability and flexibility (5%) Financial counseling availability (5%) Unique scholarships & grant opportunities (5%)

  3. Career Services (20%)

    Staff availability (5%) Menu of services (5%) Alumni network (5%) Difference makers (5%)

  4. Transparency (20%, scores based on available information on the website)

    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%)

  5. Responsiveness (20%)

    Clarity and specificity of responses (20%)

Final Rankings

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.

What makes our rankings different?

Focused by State

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:

  • Divided all schools into state-specific lists
  • Filtered schools based on number of online Bachelor’s degrees offered (minimum 4)
  • Using this restricted data set, we took the average of regional indicators (graduation rate, retention rate, and tuition) and used it as a baseline for scoring.
  • We followed up with phone calls to fill in any missing data points.

As a result of this process, our 2015 rankings are the most comprehensive set of online programs available.

Focused on the Student

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.

Focused on the Context

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.

Financial Aid

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:

  • Do you have statistics of the average amount of institutional aid given to undergraduate students?
  • Do you have a dedicated financial aid counselors for students? How many?
  • Do you offer tuition payment plans?
  • What other assistance do you offer students to help pay for college here?

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:

  • Tuition. The buck in bang for your buck: tuition prices matter. We looked at tuition per credit hour and ranked schools accordingly. Please note that tuition scores are based on in-state tuition rates. If you are applying from out of state, please take that into consideration.
    Despite the wide gap between the least expensive school and the most expensive school, the true cost of attending college is a little more complicated. Some schools that scored poorly on overall tuition improved their financial aid ranking with the availability of financial aid and scholarships. We encourage you to weigh similar factors as you investigate the cost of college or graduate school.

Scoring method:
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)

  • Payment plans. When it comes to tuition, two extra months make a difference. These days, most schools allow some sort of tuition payment plan. This usually allows payment in three, four, or five installments throughout the semester. In order to avoid late payment fees, the account has to be at a zero balance by the end of the term. This is standard.Sometimes you need more time after the semester ends. We gave a special bonus to schools that were flexible with tuition payments, offering ten-month payment plans. In many cases, this type of plan gives a student two extra months to pay the balance, resulting in a longer payment period, more installments, and lower monthly payments.But be careful: not all ten month plans are created equal. Some of these plans accrue interest, or they have a lot of fees. We gave preference to schools that they carried no interest and have annual fees of less than $100. Ten-month payment plans are also available as part of the Sallie Mae Tuition Payment Plan.

Scoring method:
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

  • Dedicated counseling. Let’s face it: you aren’t going to school to learn how to navigate financial aid paperwork. Most schools provide some type of financial aid counselor, but the level of support varies.We gave a bonus to schools that had an entire department for financial aid help. In many cases, the larger universities have a financial aid support system that extends to the online students. But smaller schools are still able to provide good support.We penalized schools that had only one staff member, or divided the counseling focus with other responsibilities. Financial aid paperwork is extremely important. A good department will provide enough resources to help you with the process.

Scoring method:
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

  • Unique scholarships. Of course, the best kind of financial aid is a scholarship. We gave a bonus to schools who looked for ways to attract good students. We also provided a bonus to schools that advertised a work study program, which can act as a bridge between the workplace and the classroom for online students. However, we did not penalize schools that provided no scholarship information.When you’re making a choice between schools, we recommend taking a little extra time to investigate the scholarship options that exist for someone in your particular situation.

Scoring method:
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:

  • Graduation rate. These programs aren’t very helpful unless you come out on the other side with a core set of skills and a degree. We took the average graduation rate of all schools that met our online program qualifications, then assigned them a score based on the overall distribution:

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%

  • Retention rate. While retention rate is a complicated metric, we believe that it is one way of measuring the effectiveness of a four year program. We took the average retention rate of all schools that met our online program qualifications, then assigned them a score based on the overall distribution:

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%

  • Total program offerings. Our research indicates that schools with more online programs usually have a better infrastructure for online students. We totaled up the number of online Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D programs for each school that made the cut, calculated the average number of programs, and assigned each school a score based on the overall distribution:

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%

  • Raw bonus. If a school has been recognized on a major ranking of online schools (US News Top Online Bachelor’s, Money 2014 Best Colleges, or Washington Monthly), we gave them a 0.2 score bonus for each ranking. This adds a reputation bonus to the performance score that otherwise isn’t reflected in the core data.

Career Services

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:

  • How many full-time career counselors do you have on staff?
  • What services do you offer for students to find internships/jobs?
  • Do you have specific services for online students?
  • Do you have an alumni network students can use to find employment?
  • Does your department do anything unique compared to other schools in the state?

Our career services ranking has four components:

  • Staff availability. We assessed a penalty if there was no full-time career services counselor. But almost every school has at least one full time staff member. The real concern is whether there are enough counselors for the number of students at the school. We gave a bonus to schools that had more than one staff member per 1,000 students.

Scoring method:
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

  • Menu of services. The best departments offer a variety of job training and job getting services. We gave bonus points for online job boards and customized placement services. But the departments that topped our list went one step further and provided things like LinkedIn profile reviews, one-on-one interview preparation, and professional development workshops.

Scoring method:
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

  • Alumni network. While alumni relations isn’t a core component of career services, alumni are a big advantage to the job seeking process. The best career services departments had a close relationship with alumni relations. We gave a bonus to departments that had an active online presence or LinkedIn group.

Scoring method:
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

  • Difference makers. Getting a job is arguably the most important outcome of going to college. We wanted to give a bonus for creative solutions. So we looked for really unique services that can provide a significant advantage for the job seeker. These included commitments to one on one assistance, employer site visits, and independent resume review services from the business community.

Scoring method:
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:

  • Degrees: what programs to they offer?
  • Tuition: how much will the program cost?
  • Faculty: who are your teachers?
  • Curriculum: what will you be learning?
  • Contact: is there an online programs contact?

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:

General Survey:

    1. Do you offer degree programs that are 100% completely online, i.e. not a hybrid?
    2. Do you have your online degree programs listed on your website?
    3. Can you provide me the URL?
    4. What is the cost per credit for your online degree program for in-state students? Out of state students?
    5. How many weeks long are your online classes?
    6. Are courses asynchronous and there’s no set class times?
    7. Do I ever have to visit campus to finish a program here?
    8. Is there an online student/student rep who are enrolled that I can contact?

Financial Aid Survey:

    1. Do you have statistics of the average amount of institutional aid given to students?
    2. Do you have dedicated financial aid counselors for students? How many?
    3. Do you offer tuition payment plans?
    4. What other assistance do you offer students to help pay for college?

Career Services Survey:

    1. How many full-time staff members do you have?
    2. What services do you offer for students to find internships/jobs? Do you have specific services for online students?

Scoring method:

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