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 third year of conducting program-specific rankings rather than just one set of school rankings. We decided to go this route so that we could provide you with rankings that are more tailored towards your areas of study. 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 of the schools featured in our rankings are:
- Offering fully online or mostly online undergraduate programs in at least one of our chosen subjects
- Operating nationally, meaning that they accept out-of-state as well as in-state students
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 fully online or mostly online degree programs, and not those that only offered a few online college courses. To be included in a subject ranking, the school must offer a fully online (or mostly online, as noted), 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 four 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 6,451, 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 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 student's experience. We wished to only consider factors that could make attending a certain college more attractive.
The Metrics We Used
- Student-to-Faculty Ratio – Using the student-to-faculty ratio figures from the NCES database, we calculated how many students each school had per faculty member. Kiplinger recognized that a smaller student-to-faculty ratio is ideal, as that indicates each student is getting more personal 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 2013 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 winter 2013-14 entering undergraduate class.
- Enrollment Rate – Of those accepted into a college, colleges with a better history and reputation for offering strong programs will see a higher rate of enrollment. 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 winter 2013-14 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 2012 who enrolled again in fall 2013.
- 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 2007 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.)
- 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 Peterson's for the 2013 fiscal year.
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.
A Note About Our Metrics and Data Sources
We opted to use IPEDS and College Navigator as our primary data sources because both are reputable and run by the Department of Education. In addition, these sources cover the majority of schools operating in the U.S. today, ensuring that we do not miss any in our rankings consideration. For all other metrics that were not covered by IPEDS or College Navigator, we found the information directly from the school's website for maximum accuracy.
We also decided to not factor tuition into our rankings calculations. Though the cost of a program is undoubtedly important to prospective students, we did not think that punishing schools with higher tuition would be an accurate reflection of the best schools. For this reason, we decided instead to use institution financial aid rate as our cost metric — if a school extends financial aid to a majority of its students, whether its own tuition is high or low, it can be inferred that the school is committed to making attendance costs more affordable to its learners.
But we do recognize that cost is still important in researching your school options, so we opted to display the average tuition of each ranked program (as determined from information on each school's website) for your benefit.
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.