When we decided to rank the best colleges online, we strove to use a method and formula that would produce the most objective and fair results possible. All of our data is quantified and taken from authoritative and reliable sources, such as the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator tool, the U.S. Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, and the official websites of the schools included in these rankings.
Making the Cut
To determine what schools would be included in these rankings, we compiled a comprehensive list of the top online schools using data from the Distance Education and Training Council as well as Peterson’s Distance Learning Programs and Distance Education Opportunities tool. From there, we narrowed down the schools using these criteria:
- Accreditation. Only schools that are accredited by a Department of Education-recognized agency were included, as these schools have met a standard level of education and program quality. This ensures that all of the schools ranked offer students a valuable learning opportunity, and that degrees from these schools will be accepted by employers and other higher education institutions.
- Campus vs. Online Degree Offering. Numerous campus-based schools offer a few degree programs online. To ensure that we only rank the schools that give distance learners the same opportunities as campus-based learners, we only included schools offering at least half of all their undergraduate degree programs online.
- College Navigator. As the majority of our metrics use information from College Navigator, only the schools with information available on the site are included. In addition, all schools must have information on at least 4 out of the 6 stable metrics discussed below. This ensures that every school included has sufficient data available to maintain a fair ranking system.
Doing the Math
In order to rank each school, we relied on several metrics that could be used for comparison, much like a grading rubric. As we believe that all of these metrics are important and cannot claim that any one is more significant than another, we weighted them all equally in our calculations. For schools that did not have information available in any one metric, they were simply not ranked for that metric to maintain fairness.
We used adjusted rankings to accurately gauge how each school compared to one another for each metric. Adjusted rankings allowed us to ensure that for particular metric rankings, the top school is always ranked Number 1 and that the bottom school is always ranked Number 56 (the total number of schools), even if some schools were not included in that particular metric ranking. To calculate this, we used the following formula for all schools that were not ranked Number 1:
[(t – 1) / (d – 1)] + p
In this formula, t represents the total number of colleges (56), d represents the number of colleges for which data was available for that particular metric ranking, and p represents the previous adjusted ranking.
The metrics used to rank each school and program all relate to characteristics that we believe are indicative of the best online schools. These are:
- Acceptance Rate. The acceptance rate is the percentage of students admitted from the overall applicants. The lower that number, the better the score the school was given. This is because acceptance rate helps to determine the overall quality and competitiveness of a school, as more selective schools tend to admit only those they are confident will succeed and graduate.
- Financial Aid Rate. The financial aid rate is the percentage of students who received assistance in paying tuition through grants, loans, scholarships, and employment. Schools that give financial aid to a large percentage of their students are often more attractive options than those that don’t, as the majority of students will need financial assistance to help with the cost of education. Generous financial aid also helps make for a more diverse campus.
- Graduation Rate. The graduation rate is the percentage of students who received their diploma from the school each academic year. A high graduation rate demonstrates, in part, a school’s effectiveness in helping students succeed in obtaining a degree. A high rate offers the promise of similar success.
- Retention Rate. The retention rate is a measure of students that the school does not lose to factors such as transferring or dropping out. A high retention rates speaks to the quality of the school’s staff, courses, and overall perceived value because the school managed to keep its students satisfied enough to come back the next term.
- Years Accredited. How long a school has been acknowledged by an institutional accrediting agency is an important factor because the longer amount of time that a school has been accredited, the greater the chances that it is experienced in offering high-quality degree programs. In addition, schools that have been accredited longer have greater prestige and name recognition, as well as continued competence.
- Student-to-Faculty Ratio. The student-to-faculty ratio is the number of students per professor. The lower the ratio, the more desirable the school becomes, as it allows for more individual attention and thus engagement and accountability from the student, even in an online setting.
- *Number of X Degree Programs. This metric has an asterisk because it is the one metric that changes for every subject ranking, as opposed to the previous 6 static metrics. Using the official websites of each school, we tallied the number of subject-specific degree programs offered as of September 2018. This metric measures a school’s curriculum diversity, as a greater number of programs in each subject can allow for a more well-rounded education as well as greater degree choice. Offering several types of programs – and, consequently, specialty and advanced degrees – also raises a school’s prestige. Schools that did not offer any programs in a particular ranking were simply excluded from that subject’s ranking in order to preserve fairness.
Our data comes from IPEDS and College Navigator because both of these sources are reputable and run by the U.S. Department of Education. These sources also have information on the majority of schools operating in the U.S. today, helping us minimize our chances of excluding high-quality institutions.
For any metrics that were not available from these sources, we relied on the school’s website.