Schools in the USA

Online College Rankings

In the US, a whole industry has arisen focused on the ranking of universities and colleges, with the majority of these rankings focused on bachelor's and master's degree programs at traditional, campus-based universities and colleges. This doesn't mean there is no information to consult for online colleges, though.

National and international organizations such as US News & World Report, The Princeton Review, The Washington Monthly, BusinessWeek and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) based in Shanghai, China, regularly publish general rankings designed to identify the "best" graduate and undergraduate institutions according to quality and value. The most commonly ranked programs are business and engineering. Some of these have rankings in additional publications, such as Forbes, Financial Times and Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Less "official" rankings can also be found in Rugg's Recommendations on the Colleges, Consumer's Digest, and in student-based resources like StudentsReview.

Some online divisions of major universities and colleges will therefore cite the ranking of their on-campus university or its programs as an indicator of the online division's quality. US News & World report does rank online graduate MBA programs and has a searchable e-learning section, but doesn't offer rankings of undergraduate online colleges or programs. Other potential sources of information are the professional associations for different disciplines or fields: these organizations sometimes publish reports of student surveys on various schools and programs, which provide still more school or program "rankings."

For specifically online-centered information, the United States Distance Learning Association (USDLA) presents awards for achievement in distance education, so looking to see who they have honored may help supplement your ranking. Less officially, certain websites--from those that are in the business of advertizing online schools to unbiased consumer watchdog and advocacy groups--specialize in distance education and offer their own rankings of online colleges and programs. Some also provide student reviews of online programs. Beware, though, that each of these may have its own agenda, and the legitimacy of these sites, like many on the Internet, is not immediately clear.

Remember also that online colleges can be university, community or career colleges. In fact, enrollment in public two-year colleges' distance education programs continues to grow at an annual rate of 17 percent, according to a recent survey by the Instructional Technology Council. Therefore, you may want to look at rankings of those institutions in The Washington Monthly or Community College Week magazine and then check which ones on the list offer online programs. You can also scan journals about community and career colleges--for instance CommunityCollegeTimes.com or Career College Central--to see what might be said about online schools and programs. As well you may want to scan more general journals about university and particularly online education in America (such as Education Week or eSchool News) to see which schools are mentioned and what is said about them. This kind of news may not be ranking per se, but the information is yours to use and interpret.

Each of these sources, however, uses its own particular set of criteria for evaluating schools and programs. In the case of the controversial Gourman Report (which looks at undergrad programs in all fields), the author specifically refuses to disclose his methodology. How then should all these rankings be interpreted?

First, most ranking reports come with data to support conclusions, and while data collection may be criticized, the creators of these reports usually make an effort to show that statistics are comparable. So the reports can be used by you to compare colleges on the basis of the data provided.

Second, the statistics that come from the rankings can also suggest topics that need to be studied in more detail. For instance, if a school has a high acceptance rate, high tuition fees but a low graduation rate, you may want to ask why.

All US college rankings have one other thing in common: they are a list of institutions and schools. Scanning the list might suggest a school that you had not considered or perhaps even heard of. Used this way, the rankings can help expand your list of online colleges that can then be researched in more detail.

However, you should never judge based on rankings alone. Rankings are important, but there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration. Schools that are less prominent may have a program that suits your needs better than any nationally ranked schools. Often times, smaller schools have the strongest relationships with industries and employers. Once you have accumulated this information, you can create your own online college and university ranking.

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