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Online College Rankings in 2014: The Results are In

Mar 6, 2014 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Education.org Columnist | 0 Comments

Interested in going to an accredited online college? You’re in luck. The US News and World Report has just released its rankings for the best online degree programs in 2014.

The college ranking business has a big impact on schools. But it’s problematic—there are a lot of ranking systems, and they all use different criteria to judge which schools are the “best.”

Overall, the five most trusted college ranking programs are run by BusinessWeek, US News & World Report, The Financial Times, Forbes, and The Economist. The downside of the US News and World Report’s system is that it puts a lot of weight on self-reported data—that’s data the schools supply themselves, not information collected by independent journalists. The schools have a major incentive to present themselves in the best possible light, and this information can be difficult to verify.

The rankings also put weight on a reputational survey distributed among academics, gauging the general industry impression of each school. This system basically asks academics to judge their competitors, and there are fairly clear conflicts of interest associated with that. In addition, many people asked to rank certain schools—such as guidance counselors, college provosts, and professors at other schools—aren’t necessarily in a position to know about each school’s teaching qualities and other intangibles, forcing them to rely on hearsay.

However, the US News and World Report is so far the most prominent ranking organization for online schools—while those interested in attending traditional colleges have numerous rankings to choose from, the audience for online colleges doesn’t have as much choice. While the rankings shouldn’t be the only criteria you use to choose a school, they may provide valuable information that could help you with your decision.

The US News and World Report has been ranking online schools for three years, and the rankings are not comprehensive. They cover Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in fields such as engineering, education, nursing, IT, and business, and only evaluate degree programs that are administered entirely online. The ranking system compares data relating directly to specific degree programs, not the schools themselves.

This year, the ranking system compares reputational surveys from others in the industry regarding each online program. They also evaluate the program’s retention rate over a period of a year; those with lower drop-out rates among first-year students rank higher. Overall graduation rates are given weight as well, and the ranking system also considers the time required to graduate.

Selectivity is weighted fairly heavily in many evaluations of traditional degree programs. However, with accredited online degree programs, it’s not a factor. That’s because most online degree programs—especially for undergraduates—are not selective. Many do not require applicants to send their transcripts from high school or even standardized test scores.

College ranking systems have a huge impact on the academic sector—and many colleges spend huge amounts of money and time trying to get to the top of those lists. However, in reality, only you can decide which college is right for you, and the best fit for you individually may not make the top ten list of any ranking system. While ranking systems may give you some valuable information, it’s best to take them with a grain of salt—and keep in mind that a large proportion of the data used to evaluate these colleges may have been self-reported.

In the end, it’s best to talk to people who’ve attended a school, employers who hire graduates from certain schools, and others familiar with the degree program and who have no vested interest in promoting it to determine which school is the right fit for you.

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