Our main purpose in conducting this study was to provide a reliable and objective way for students to compare the top online colleges. Towards that end, we used only quantitative metrics with data from authoritative third parties, such as government and official school websites.
Online College Inclusion Criteria
This is OEDb’s second year of conducting program-specific rankings instead of one set of school rankings. We strive to provide students with a better source of comparison and guidance. We identified 12 popular areas of undergraduate study to rank: accounting, business administration, computer science, criminal justice, education, engineering, graphic design, IT, marketing, nursing, paralegal studies, and psychology. We also have two graduate-level rankings for MBA programs and Ph.D. programs.
All schools featured in our rankings are:
- Offering fully online undergraduate programs in at least one of our chosen subjects
- Operating nationally
We compiled our initial list of schools to consider using the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) College Navigator tool. This tool was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to help prospective students compare higher education opportunities. From there, we further narrowed down the list of colleges based on the following criteria:
- The college must be listed in College Navigator and/or IPEDS. We decided to exclude colleges not listed in College Navigator and/or IPEDS because it would be impossible to rank them accurately without the trusted third-party metrics that those tools provide. Other entities that rely on these figures include Congress, state education agencies, the Department of Commerce, and educational organizations, according to the NCES.
- The college must be accredited. A college must be accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized agency for its degrees to be respected by most employers and other legitimate higher learning institutions. Accrediting agencies rigorously review each school they accredit, making it more likely that the accredited institution will have a higher quality curriculum, faculty, and student services than unaccredited institutions.
- The college must offer at least one undergraduate degree-granting program online. We wanted to only include colleges that offer full degree programs online and not those that only offered online college courses or degree completion programs. To be included in a subject ranking, the school must offer a fully online, undergraduate program for that subject. The exceptions to this are our graduate-level rankings, which must offer graduate-level online programs and not necessarily undergraduate-level ones, as well as our nursing ranking, as a large majority of BSN online programs require prior education and work experience.
- The college must have at least half of its metrics available to rank. To ensure that a school with too-few metrics does not benefit in the rankings over those with more information available, which may skew the ranking results, we only rank schools that have at least half of its metrics data available. For example, schools must have at least five metrics available to rank.
For schools with multiple branches that offer identical online programs, we only used the data from the school’s online-specific entry in College Navigator. If this was not available, we used the data from the school’s main campus or headquarters. In the event that a school with multiple branches had no online-specific entry in College Navigator, main campus, or headquarters, we used the data from the branch with the largest student population because this is likely the branch with the most student resources available.
The Ranking Metrics
For each metric, we ranked the colleges from 1 to 1078, where 1 is the highest (or best) rank. This reflects the total number of schools we found offering online programs in the subject areas we selected to rank. To see the ranking for each individual metric, refer to the metrics links. In addition, our primary sources (College Navigator, IPEDS, and Peterson’s, noted below) only have information available for undergraduate programs. We use this data even in measuring the quality of schools for our graduate rankings as well, as graduate-specific information is not readily available, and we believe that a school’s undergraduate metrics are reflective of a school’s graduate performance.
To include a particular metric in our rankings, that metric needed to be:
- Quantitative. Using only quantitative metrics would reflect as objective a ranking as possible.
- Measured by a trusted third party and/or official school website. Third parties include College Navigator, IPEDS, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education.
- Correlated with benefits to attending a college. The metrics we used directly measure aspects of college that would impact a students’ experience. We wished to only consider factors that could make attending a certain college more attractive.
The Metrics We Used
- Full-time Faculty Members Per Part-time Faculty Member Ratio – Using the full-time and part-time faculty figures from the Peterson’s database, we calculated how many full-time faculty members each school had per part-time faculty member. Accrediting agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges Commission on Institutions of Higher Education (CIHE), acknowledge that a bigger number of full-time faculty members typically indicates a higher chance of high-quality instruction. In fact, the CIHE states that one of the factors it considers when evaluating a school is that the school “avoids undue dependence on part-time faculty, adjuncts, temporary appointments, and graduate assistants to conduct instruction.”
- Institution-Based Financial Aid – Financial aid is a top priority for most prospective college students. The higher the percentage of students who receive financial aid directly from the school, the more desirable the college should be to attend. This data refers to the percentage of undergraduate students receiving financial aid for the 2012 academic year directly from the institution they attend. The financial aid figures are provided by the IPEDS database from the U.S. Department of Education.
- Acceptance Rate – A college’s overall quality and prestige is in part determined by its selectivity (of which acceptance rate is an indicator). The acceptance rate figures are provided by the IPEDS database from the U.S. Department of Education. The most recently available data is for the fall 2012 entering undergraduate class.
- Retention Rate – A college’s retention rate reflects its ability to provide a satisfactory learning experience for its students. The retention rate figures are provided by the Peterson’s database, which defines retention rate as the percentage of first-time bachelor’s (or equivalent) degree-seeking undergraduates from fall 2011 who enrolled again in fall 2012.
- Graduation Rate – The graduation rate is an indicator of success because it measures how many of a college’s students actually attain their educational goals. The figures are provided by the College Navigator database from the U.S. Department of Education. College Navigator defines graduation rate as the percentage of full-time, first-time undergraduate students beginning a program in fall 2006 who graduated within 150% of the normal time to program completion. (For example, for a four-year program, the graduation rate includes students who graduate within six years of beginning the program.)
- Years Accredited – For our rankings, we only included online colleges that are accredited by an agency officially recognized by the Office of Postsecondary Education, an operating unit under the authority of the U.S. Department of Education. For each college, we looked at how long it has maintained its accreditation status, since a longer period of accreditation implies a history of competence within the college’s administration.
- Default Rate – Default rates measure the percentage of students who fail to repay their federal student loans. A lower default rate indicates that students are finding an adequate means of income after leaving the school because they can afford to pay back their student loans. In addition, lower default rates also indicate a lower amount of student debt. For each school, we looked at the most recent cohort default rates published by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2011 fiscal year.
- Job Placement Rate – Finding gainful employment upon completing a degree program can be difficult, which is why we consider each school’s job placement rate as a measure of its merits. Colleges with a higher job placement rate have more graduates finding jobs, which can indicate that the school has good connections with employers and recruiters, and/or offers other valuable career services like interview tutorials, resume building workshops, and career counselors. We gathered this information from Peterson’s database.
- Undergraduate Tuition – A lower tuition is preferable to higher tuition, as it will allow students to incur the least amount of debt for their undergraduate degrees. For every school, we used the cost for full-time, in-state students enrolled in a bachelor’s-level program for that subject. The tuition figures come from each school’s official website. For colleges that provided only a tuition-per-credit figure as well as a credit requirement for the degree program, we multiplied those numbers together to determine the school’s overall tuition for that degree. However, keep in mind that some schools calculate their tuition prices differently, as some include all additional fees (administrative fees, technology fees, etc.), while others only publish their base tuition prices without fees factored in. Whenever possible, we used the school’s data for its base tuition prices without fees. If this data was not available or specified on the school’s website, we used whatever tuition calculation the school did publish.
- Average SAT Scores (75th Percentile) – Schools with a student body that had a higher average SAT score tend to have a more dedicated student body in general. We gathered this data from the IPEDS database.
- Average ACT Scores (75th Percentile) – Just like with the SATs above, schools with a student body that had a higher average ACT score will likely have a more dedicated student body in general. We gathered this data from the IPEDS database.
How We Weighted the Metrics
It was not apparent to us that any single metric was more important than any other, and further, assigning a weight to every metric would have been arbitrary. Therefore, we weighted each of the metrics equally.
How We Ranked the Colleges
We first ranked every college for each metric. There were some metrics for which we could not find data on all of the colleges that we ranked. In these cases, we did not reward or punish the colleges for which data could not be found; instead, these particular colleges simply received no ranking for the particular metric. Then, to determine the final ranked list, we calculated the average of all of the metric rankings for which data was available for each college. Schools that had fewer than two-thirds of its metrics available at this point were excluded from the final rankings to prevent schools with too-few metrics available from benefiting over those with more metric data available.
While no single ranking methodology can be a perfect solution for every type of student, we believe that this quantitative and objective data provides a sound foundation for individuals to compare online schools using our metric data or the raw data.
We acknowledge that this certainly won’t be the final say in online college rankings, and welcome any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. For media inquiries, please contact Amy Tran at email@example.com.
Established in September 2006, OEDb: Open Education Database is an independent, for-profit organization located in Houston, Texas. We are dedicated to building a comprehensive database of the top accredited online colleges and the degree programs that they offer. We published our first online education rankings in 2007.