Earning an online degree has more clout today than ever before. Reputable and accredited schools have developed online programs that offer valid degrees in a wide variety of programs. Additionally, the ability to earn an online degree offers students the option of earning a degree from a school far from home. But, how do you know which online schools are the best? Rankings for online colleges are few and far between, but U.S. News and World Report began to collect data in 2011 to create sound rankings for bachelor’s degrees and various graduate degrees. While U.S. News doesn’t carry the only online college rankings, learn why they might prove the most trustworthy.

Online EducationRanking Online Bachelor’s Degrees

U.S. News & World Report brings currently brings the most noted college rankings to the Internet. Recently, they began to rank online bachelor’s and graduate programs with three separate numerical indicator rankings for those programs:

  1. A faculty credentials and training ranking: Students in online programs respond to knowledgeable instructors who are skilled at engaging students even from a distance. Strong faculty in an online accessible program will have traditional academic credentials as well as experience and training teaching online bachelor’s degree courses.
  2. A student engagement and assessment ranking: Quality bachelor’s degree programs promote student participation in classes, allowing them opportunities to readily interact with their instructors and fellow classmates.
  3. A student services and technology ranking: A program that incorporates diverse online learning technologies provides greater flexibility for students to take classes by the methods of their choosing at the times of their choosing. When used adeptly, technologies help replicate the audio and visual feeling of a traditional educational experience.

To even make U.S. News’ “honor roll” of top online bachelor’s degree programs, a school needs to place in the top third of ranked schools (rounded) in all three of the above modules.

U.S. News began to collect data on the ranked colleges just this past year, in June 2011. Drawing from its Best Colleges list of regionally accredited bachelor’s granting institutions, U.S. News & World Report emailed surveys to the 1,765 regionally accredited institutions it determined had offered bachelor’s degree programs in 2010. The first criteria asked if those institutions offered bachelor’s degree programs with course content at least 80 percent accessible to students online. If those programs responded positively, then they were asked to report in-depth statistical information used to computer rankings and build profile pages in the U.S. News & World Report’s searchable online directory.

By the survey closing date in October, 969 institutions (55 percent) responded to the survey. Among those responding institutions, 194 reported offering online bachelor’s degree programs. Ten of those institutions reported offering programs for the first time in the 2011-2012 school year. Those ten programs were not included in the rankings, because they did not supply a full academic year’s worth of data; however, they are included in the online directory.

Once the survey deadline passed, U.S. News analyzed the quantity and quality of data collected to determine which questions could be used for rankings. Some questions garnered response rates too low to be used. Other questions received data that appeared unreliable for various reasons. Therefore, rather than producing an overall ranking based on incomplete and sometimes inconsistently reported information, U.S. News decided this year to instead produce three distinct rankings comprised only from select questions that significant numbers of schools answered.

Internet InstructionOnline Graduate Degree Rankings

U.S. News & World Report now also ranks online graduate programs. in five fields:

  1. Online Graduate Business Programs
  2. Online Graduate Education Programs
  3. Online Graduate Engineering Programs
  4. Online Graduate Computer Information Technology Programs
  5. Online Master’s of Nursing/Doctorate of Nursing Practice Degrees

The methodology for these rankings varies from the rankings for online bachelor’s degrees, as they used four, rather than three, indicators:

  1. Admissions selectivity rankings: A student body with strong ambitions, accomplishments and aptitudes is well suited for succeeding at rigorous coursework and instilling an industrious learning environment. U.S. News computed this ranking based on individual student level admission data from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011, as well as the programs’ 2011-2012 standards for admissions applications.
  2. Faculty credentials and training rankings: To be assessed for the ranking, schools must have reported employing a head count of at least 10 total faculty members teaching online accessible courses during academic year 2010-2011.
  3. Student engagement and accreditation rankings: Quality online graduate programs promote student participation in classes, allowing them opportunities to readily interact with their instructors and fellow classmates similar to a traditional classroom setting. In turn, instructors not only are accessible and responsive, but they also are tasked with regularly assessing the quantity and quality of students’ submissions, and implementing policies that ensure their students are only getting credit for doing their own work.
  4. Student services and technology rankings: Service-based indicators include online access to academic advising, career placement assistance, and access to 24/7 tech support.

Learn More NowOther Resources

While other rankings exist for online colleges, be aware of how those sites use methodology to compile those rankings. Some sites don’t use a methodology. Other sites are outdated. You might not trust other sites because they advertise for the colleges that are ranked. In all cases, even with U.S. News & Report, back your research up with other information.

For instance, any online school that is accredited ranks higher automatically because of that accreditation. A school that has achieved accreditation offers superior services than those schools that aren’t accredited. Plus, accredited courses are transferable, and those credits can mean something one day when you decide to apply for a master’s or doctoral degree. You can learn about college accreditations through the U.S. Department of Education’s database.