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Online Degree Program Rankings

The US News ranking of distance education programs is a good start toward giving consumers a guide with which to compare online degree programs. Many have stated that online education is a "game changer" and it "levels the playing field", allowing little known schools to compete with institutions with national name recognition ("brand"). Online education is proclaimed to be a "disruptive innovation" by the popular futurist Clayton Christensen, thus any traditional view of program reputation is bound to be open for debate. Still, the consumer wants a reference point and rankings are a time-tested way to compare items that may seem quite similar on the surface.

While rankings should never be the primary differentiator in a consumer's choice, they are a consideration. For students interested in studying on campus, rankings are overused and misunderstood, which does a disservice to many students by limiting their search to schools in a certain category or a specific tier in the rankings. In particular, foreign students seem to be hyper-focused on US News National Rankings, and schools within the Top 100. To date, such a ranking has not existed for online degrees, distance education or degrees with limited residency.

On January 10, 2012 US News released their first ranking of online degree programs, in which there were no compiled results and thus no overall winners and losers. As rankings results become high stakes marketing assets for schools, a number of schools held back on their reporting and participation in this round, but others will celebrate their ranking. As "Inside Higher Education" proclaimed "Let the chest-thumping and methodological takedowns begin!" The methodology used is always subject of criticism and US News has stated that summarizing the numbers would be premature. More on that from US News' director of data research, Bob Morse.

Even without their overall ranking, we've now got the first round of online degree ranking results. Schools will begin using results to claim their place in the quality spectrum, even though the rankings were partial. There are 6 segments of online degrees ranked: undergraduate programs (all), online graduate programs in business, online graduate programs in education engineering, online graduate programs in information technology, and online graduate programs in nursing. Undergraduate ranked three criteria, graduate four. That's 23 different ranking components and theoretically 23 different areas for schools to claim superiority.

In attempting to be as open as possible, US News published the scores along with the ranking positions for each criteria. They did not weight them toward a cumulative score, the ultimate consumer goal. To push this discussion further, we decided to take that final step and combine the scores to declare the ultimate winner. Critics of rankings cite that simple rank order hides the fact that a number of schools are performing at approximately the same level and that with frequent tie scores the actual magnitude of the scores are lost. To compensate for this, we decided to use Z-scores to combine the ranking results. Z-score is a statistical tool that identifies how far apart an individual score is from the pack. This helps identify how far better or far worse a program scored as opposed to saying they were first, twelfth or ninetieth. After getting a Z-score for each category, we simply added them, with equal weighting to produce a final result, by segment and overall.

Using this compilation technique, here are the results for Undergraduate Online Education Programs:

We are not suggesting that these are the Top 10 online undergraduate universities in America because the data is sparse and the scoring measures untested. Critics of the methodology and the process include:

WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) and a host of comments from the Chronicle's story on 'U.S. News' Sizes Up Online-Degree Programs, Without Specifying Which Is No. 1

What we are saying is that rankings are now out for online degrees, colleges and universities will begin using them in their marketing campaigns and prospective students (consumers) will start using them in comparing programs. Time will tell if failing to participate was a good strategy for the many schools that didn't cooperate.

Check back for a full statistical analysis of the US News ranking and for continued feedback on this subject. Feel free to contact us with your thoughts and we'll include them in future articles.

To view our full analysis visit:
Undergraduate Online Degree Ranking Report
Online Graduate Business Degree Ranking Report
Online Graduate Engineering Degree Ranking Report
Online Graduate Education Degree Ranking Report
Online Graduate IT Degree Ranking Report
Online Graduate Nursing Degree Ranking Report

View the latest campus-based degree rankings from QS, including:

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