Graduation, Indebtedness Factored Most in Online Bachelor's Rankings

Robert J. Morse

The new 2013 Best Online Education Programs rankings were published on January 15. As noted in an earlier post, programs were given numeric ranks for the first time, resembling the long-standing U.S. News Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools rankings.

Which factors were weighted the heaviest in the new online bachelor's programs rankings?

More than one fourth of the ranking is attributed to just two factors: graduation rates (13.5 percent) and graduate indebtedness (12.5 percent). Here's how the 20 highest ranked online bachelor's degree programs fared on these measures relative to the others that were ranked:

Ranking indicator Average for top 20 online bachelor's programs Average for other ranked online bachelor's programs
Graduation rate (within 4 years) 69% 42%
Proportion of graduates in debt 53% 68%
Mean indebtedness $20,946 $21,962

As the table shows, the top 20 online bachelor's degree programs performed well on these outcomes measures. The vast majority of these top programs submitted both data points, demonstrating that they are willing and able to collect and disclose program-level outcomes of their distance learners--an indicator of quality itself. Schools providing these heavily weighted data tended to perform well in other aspects of the rankings, too, which is likely not a coincidence.

New entrants of these programs are typically in their late 20s or older, and often enroll with some credits already applied toward their degrees, earned through community college, coursework taken while in the military, or classes taken before dropping out of traditional four-year programs. This means the online programs are mainly for degree completion, so their abilities to produce successful outcomes are a particularly important factor for prospective students.

Consequently, there is particular emphasis in the Best Online Bachelor's Programs rankings on schools that support their students enough that they complete their degree requirements with a manageable short-term cost.

To help consumers find high-caliber programs, U.S. News assessed many other aspects of program quality, which comprised the remaining three fourths of the ranking factors. U.S. News also assessed only programs housed in regionally accredited institutions that are evaluated in the annual Best Colleges rankings--ensuring that all ranked schools had attained high standards and had passed independently verified thresholds of academic rigor and integrity.

Read the methodology for a full explanation of how the Best Online Bachelor's Programs rankings were computed.