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The Impact of US News & World Report's Rankings Lists On Online College Students

Mar 19, 2013 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Recently, US News and World Report released a college rankings list—for online colleges. Why is this big news? College rankings—especially the US News rankings—have a huge impact on every college in the country. Colleges scramble to compete for the top slots in the rankings—and students and parents pay attention.

Ranking online colleges could lead to changes in the industry—changes that could be felt by all students. Here are just a few possibilities.

Online schools could gain more credibility

Going to a #1-rated school adds credibility and value to your degree. This is true of traditional degrees, and it’ll be no less true of accredited online schools. But more importantly, the rankings list will give employers a yardstick with which to judge the online degrees of applicants. With more tools to judge quality, it’s likely that employers will start looking more favorably on online degrees—particularly those from the top-rated schools. That could mean that your online degree from a top-ranked college could have more value in the marketplace.

Some online schools could get more expensive

Then again, with high rankings, the best-rated schools may feel justified in raising tuition. So students may be getting a more valuable degree, but they’ll be paying a higher price for it.

Academic quality could improve. In a rush to rank, online schools may invest more in their professors, programs, and instructional tools—meaning a better education for students. This may be particularly true of colleges that find themselves just outside of the top-ten lists, who may feel strong pressure to raise their rankings by one or more points—and for schools high up in rankings, who may feel pressure to defend their ranks against competition.

Students could have an easier time choosing schools

The college rankings system is meant to be a tool for students to judge and assess which schools work best for them. And it’s possible that, with the ranking system, it will become easier for students to choose which school to attend. This is particularly possible if more lists proliferate assessing schools for specific programs and qualities that may be applicable for specific student needs.

Online schools may become more competitive

One of the criteria used in many ranking systems to determine school quality is average SAT score of entering freshmen. Online schools—particularly for-profit schools—often have a very open enrollment policy, but if the rankings become a force in the online education industry, this may change. Colleges may have to be more selective in the students they admit in order to maintain their rankings.

Lower-ranked schools may become less expensive

It’s possible that some more expensive online schools—particularly for-profit accredited online colleges, which tend to be on the more pricey end—may start to reduce their tuition as a result of low ranks. Some studies have suggested that while a lower rank doesn’t necessarily affect the up-front price of a traditional college, there are other, “behind-the-scenes” discounts associated with a drop in rank.

So is it a good thing or a bad thing that online colleges are now included in US News & World Report’s rankings system? The answer is that results may be mixed. The rankings systems put powerful pressure on traditional schools, and while some outcomes may be judged as positive for students, others are more problematic. Whatever the outcomes may be on online students and their families, it’s likely they will be strong, complex and difficult to categorize.



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