U.S. News & World Report announced its 2020 Best Online Programs rankings today, the ninth edition of these rankings. This year more than 1,600 programs were ranked — up from 1,545 last year and 677 in the first edition in 2012.
The list includes Bachelor's programs at the institutional level and graduate programs in seven fields (including specialties within these fields) — nursing, computer information technology, criminal justice, education, business (non-MBA), MBA, and engineering.
U.S. News also ranks the Best Online Programs for Veterans, and the top three schools, in order, for 2020 were Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide, the University of Florida, and Oregon State University.
The highest-ranked online Bachelor’s program is The Ohio State University, replacing last year’s leader, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide, which slipped to second place. Ohio State had been ranked #1 in 2018. The University of Illinois-Chicago placed third, up from the fifth spot last year. The University of Florida and Oregon State University were fourth and fifth, respectively. A total of 353 colleges were ranked.
The methodology used by U.S. News to rank online undergraduate offerings is based on four factors, composed of multiple measures that are self-reported by institutions or gathered through a peer survey. Only degree-granting programs at regionally accredited institutions are included, and the rankings are restricted to programs where all required coursework can be completed via distance learning courses incorporating internet-based technology (The programs may also include in-person orientations, clinical requirements, and testing.).MORE FOR YOU
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Engagement (35%) This factor taps best practices in online education, including whether students have opportunities to interact with instructors and classmates and whether exams are authenticated. Other components include retention rate, graduation rate, average class size and the use of multiple assessments of student outcomes.
Services and Technologies (25%) This factor includes measures of student indebtedness (making up 50% of this overall factor), technological infrastructure (e.g., do students have remote access to chatrooms), and availability of support services such as 24/7 tech support, advising and course registration, libraries, career guidance, and financial aid resources.
Faculty Credentials and Training (20%) This factor is based on percentages of online faculty who have a terminal degree, who have undergone training to teach distance learners, who have a Master’s degree or higher, and who are tenured.
Expert Opinion (20%) A survey of academic officials tries to account for factors affecting program quality not conveyed by quantitative statistics. This is a subjective measure of reputation, which is often based on general impressions of institutions.
Although graduate programs are ranked using a similar methodology as for undergraduate programs, there are differences in the factors and their weightings between the various categories. For example, “student excellence” is a fifth category employed for ranking all graduate programs, with weightings that range from 10% (Nursing) to 15% (Business, non-MBA). As another example, the importance given to “faculty credentials and training” ranges from weightings of 15% (MBA, Business (non-MBA), and Education) to 25% (Engineering and Computer Information Technology). The rationale for these differences is less than obvious.
MBA (335 colleges)
1.Indiana University—Bloomington (Kelley) (tie)
1.University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) (tie)
3. Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)
Business, non-MBA (188 colleges)
1. University of Southern California (Marshall)
2. Indiana University—Bloomington (Kelley)
3. Villanova University
Computer Information Technology (62 colleges)
1. University of Southern California
2. Johns Hopkins University (Whiting)
3. University of Arizona
Criminal Justice (83 colleges)
1. University of California—Irvine
2. Sam Houston State University (TX)
3. Boston University (tie)
3. University of Massachusetts—Lowell (tie)
Education (309 colleges)
1. Clemson University (Moore)
2. University of Florida
3. University of Virginia (Curry)
Engineering (96 colleges)
1. Columbia University (Fu Foundation) (tie)
1. University of California—Los Angeles (Samueli) (tie)
3. Purdue University—West Lafayette
Nursing (183 colleges)
1. Rush University (Illinois)
2. University of South Carolina
3. Johns Hopkins University
Online programs continue to be a major source of higher education, particularly for adults returning to school. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2.2 million undergraduates enrolled exclusively in online programs in fall 2017; another 870,000 students were enrolled in online post-baccalaureate curricula.
The U.S. News rankings of online programs addresses this growing sector with an elaborate methodology, but it retains some components that remain problematic - relying on institutions’ self-report of much of the underlying data, placing too much emphasis on institutional inputs rather than student outcomes, and continuing to use peer ratings, which are even more suspect for this domain than for traditional on-campus programs.
That said, most of the factors are reasonable, face-valid indicators of how high-quality distance learning programs should operate at least in principle. And to its credit, U.S News adjusted the weightings this year so that acceptance rates and standardized tests are given less emphasis for rating graduate programs. While several factors still favor established institutions that can spend more money on their online programs, the ratings provide useful data for consumers, particularly nontraditional students who might otherwise have few sources of information about their college options.