How to Make Sense of Online College Rankings

Each year thousands of students, with the help of parents and guidance counselors, consider the complicated question of which colleges and universities are the best. Every year many of them turn to the U.S. News and World Report rankings as a tool to help make their decisions.

Even those students that don’t directly look at the U.S. News list are likely to be affected by it. The rankings have a general influence on how people view higher education options. As a result, the rankings play a role in which brochures they’re handed by a guidance counselor or which colleges they hear acquaintances praise as a “good school.”

The rankings hold a lot of power. Many colleges specifically take pains to gain higher rankings in the hopes of attracting better students. The rankings play a key role in how some colleges are run, how much they cost, and the perceived value of a degree from various institutions.

Not all schools are created equal, but neither are all students. Each student has distinct goals and strengths that factor into which school will be the best choice. Student should remember that the schools at the top of the U.S. News list don’t necessarily belong on the top of their list. This is especially true for students wishing to enroll in an online program.

When people talk about the U.S. News rankings, they’re usually talking about the main list of national universities. In fact, the publication offers a number of different lists focused on different types of schools and programs to make it easier for students to hone in on the information most useful to them.

A similar methodology is used for most of the lists. Each of the following is given a score based on data provided by the college and checked against outside sources, where possible. Some categories count more than others in the final rankings, as evidenced by the percentage listed next to the category.

  • Academic reputation – 22.5%: U.S. News surveys college deans, provosts, admission offices, and high school counselors to gain an idea of what others in higher education think of the school.
  • Retention – 22.5%: Schools provide data on how many students who start a degree program continue in it without transferring or dropping out, as well as how many reach graduation within six years.
  • Faculty – 20%: This one’s a little complicated. To try to gauge how good the faculty is and how involved with students they likely are, the rankings look at the faculty-to-student ration (both per class and at the institution in total), the average salary they receive, and the degree levels of the faculty members.
  • Student selectivity – 12.5%: U.S. News looks at the average SAT and ACT scores of students accepted to the college, as well as the comparison of how many students apply versus how many are accepted.
  • Financial Resources – 10%: This is how much money the college spends on each student.
  • Graduation rate – 7.5%: For this one, they start with a prediction of how many students are likely to graduate based on the data they have on incoming students, and then compare the number of actual graduates against it.
  • Alumni giving – 5%: The rankings consider how much money graduates of the university give back, on the assumption that their giving can be taken as a measure of their approval of the school.

What the Rankings Mean for Online Schools

Recognizing that most students interested in online programs are approaching the college search with a different set of priorities than many other students, U.S. News introduced a distinct methodology for ranking online programs a few years ago.

They offer lists for a number of specific degree programs, each with a slightly different methodology. Most are pretty similar to the rankings for online Bachelor degree programs, which look at each of the following:

  • Student Engagement – 40%: The factor that U.S. News weighs the most in an online program doesn’t even show up on the list for their main rankings. Student engagement is harder to pull off through a computer screen, which explains why it’s given so much importance here.

    When you analyze what they look at to determine student engagement, the category is actually broader than it sounds. It includes factors covered in the main rankings, like retention and graduation rates, as well as factors more specifically focused on student engagement, like whether collaborative coursework is a part of the program.
  • Faculty Credentials and Training – 20%: U.S. News looks for programs whose faculty have comparable degree levels as those hired at the top colleges. They also gauge whether faculty are given adequate training in specifically teaching distance learners
  • Peer Reputation – 20%: This is the one category that works pretty much the same for the online program rankings as it does for the main rankings.
  • Student Services and Technology – 20%: While technology plays a role in all of higher education, it still has a more crucial role to play in online learning. As such, the types of technologies being used in a distance learning program and the support structure in place are given weight in the rankings as well. This category also includes data on how the debt a student takes on for a program compares to that at other schools.

U.S. News makes a point of emphasizing that the rankings are specifically for the school’s online programs, not for the schools themselves. Their presence on this list is all about how well they serve online students specifically.

The Benefits of Considering U.S. News Rankings

College rankings can be a very convenient resource for students. They serve as an easy shorthand for which colleges are the ones most worth applying to. Because some educators and employers still have their doubts about online programs, the lists give students the information they need to determine if the program they’re considering is worthwhile.

If your online program is on the top of the list, it should earn you more respect in the eyes of potential employers. If it didn’t make the list at all (or worse, made it onto the list of worst schools referenced below), it might be one to steer clear of.

Additionally, the rankings can help students look beyond their own geographical bubble. Often the most obvious college to attend is the one nearby, but there may be a program that’s just what you’re looking in a different state. With the help of U.S. News’ various lists, you’ll have an easier time learning what opportunities are out there.

The methodology of the rankings sounds very scientific and data driven, and it is. But at many points in the process, humans are making decisions about which data to value and how much weight each criteria set receives. School rankings attempt to measure objective data out by using something subjective.

Some of the factors they give the most importance to are impossible to accurately quantify in data. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in a thorough New Yorker piece on the subject, the rankings often use measurable proxies that don’t do a good job of representing the features they’re meant to. For example, claiming that level of degree a professor is a clear indicator of how involved he or she will be with students is misleading – especially as research shows a higher degree level correlates more to the type of research the professors will do, rather than the commitment they have to instruction.

More importantly, the factors they value may not be the ones you value. One big criticism often lobbied at the U.S. News rankings is that they reward schools spending more money (and thus getting more expensive) and fail to reward schools that offer a better value. The rankings of online programs seek to address this criticism by looking at the level of debt students take on, but it’s still a factor given little weight overall.

If value and affordability are a high priority for you while looking for schools, your research shouldn’t be too focused on the U.S. News rankings. They can still be useful to you, as long as you do additional research before making any definite decisions.

A quick web search will bring you to a long list of rankings for online colleges. You’ll want to be careful trusting some of these. Make sure you can find some information on the methodology they use behind their rankings to see if the lists seem legit and match up with your values.

While none of the rankings below specifically focus on finding online programs, they can still offer value to potential online students in their research.


Within just a few years, LinkedIn has managed to position itself as one of the most important tools for every job seeker and hiring manager out there. As such, they’ve collected some pretty strong data on who’s getting what types of jobs.

Their rankings are all about the jobs. You can check the lists they’ve made for a number of career types, or you can go searching based on your own criteria to figure out which school will serve you best in your goals.

Washington Monthly

Washington Monthly offers a college guide that includes rankings that weigh a few different factors. Their Best Bang for Your Buck list tackles one of the criticisms levied at U.S. News by giving more weight to college costs.

It’s arguably their list of worst colleges that is the most valuable to students considering online programs. Since the overlap between costly for-profit colleges and online schools is still considerable, this list can help you steer clear of the programs that haven’t benefited former students.


Where LinkedIn looks at the jobs people get, Payscale looks at how much they make. Their ranking compares the costs of colleges against the amount their students make on average after graduation. As such, they offer a listing that emphasizes ROI.

While it’s not available yet, the Obama administration and the Department of Education have announced their intention to put together a college ratings list based on highlighting the schools that do the best job of improving students’ job prospects without leaving them saddled with excessive debt. Until that’s ready, they do have a site where you can find out your college’s scorecard based on their metrics.

While they have their critics (some of them quite prominent and vocal), the college rankings do serve a role. If people didn’t find value in them year after year, they wouldn’t continue to hold the level of influence and popularity that they do.

As a student seeking out the best online college for your purposes, a review of where your top choices fall on the list and the data behind their placement can be valuable in deciding their relative merit. The trick is not to let the list be the ultimate deciding factor.

Make an effort to understand the data behind the various rankings, and pick out the parts of it that matter the most to you. Your college choice should fit your particular needs and priorities, so use the rankings resources provided to make your own rankings to help you discover the right choice.