U.S. News Seeks to Fill 3 Gaps in Online Education Data

With a new ranking, U.S. News plans to offer more information about online programs.

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U.S.News & World Report will be collecting data for a revamped online education section of this website as early as mid-July. (My colleague Bob Morse recently posted the text of a letter from U.S. News Editor Brian Kelly to college presidents detailing our plans for online education rankings.) In doing so, it aspires to create a valuable resource for prospective online students by providing information that doesn't exist today. U.S. News will be addressing three major deficiencies in online education data:

1. Currently there is no way to assess the quality of online education offerings beyond considering the reputations of the institutions in which they are housed.

This presents a dilemma for many who demand the flexibility of online course delivery, but worry whether the programs in which they would be investing significant time and money will really have the academic quality of a "traditional" campus-based program, and if the programs will be treated as such in the professional world. U.S. News intends to help remedy this information gap. By analyzing data collected from its bachelor's level survey and five distinct master's level surveys in disciplines among the largest online education enrollment according to enrollment data compiled by Eduventures, U.S. News will create rankings or evaluative lists of online degree programs by level and discipline.

Each survey will be organized by seven subject-specific sections: background, admissions, tuition, course delivery, faculty, retention and graduation rates, and career outcomes. The questions used to determine the rankings will partially resemble, when appropriate, those asked in U.S. News's annual Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools surveys. Also included are some evaluative questions measuring online student engagement and determining the academic integrity of the online education process.

2. Currently there is not a universal standard of what an "online degree" constitutes, enabling any program with limited online offerings to say it provides online degrees.

The defining criteria for a program to be part of U.S. News's online program universe is that it be part of an institution that is regionally accredited (and in some fields, such as nursing, meet specific discipline accreditation standards), and that it offers at least 80 percent of program course content online, in keeping with The Sloan Consortium's industry standard definition of an online course. Programs that do not report meeting this standard at the start of their surveys will not be part of the rankings or the program directory.

A distinguishing element of the online education surveys is that they request data only from online students and online faculty within each program, defined as all individuals who enrolled in or taught in online programs during the 2010-2011 academic year. U.S. News adopted this rule so that admissions standards, faculty, and resources made available to online students will be evaluated fairly for cross-program comparisons in the rankings.

3. Currently there is no comprehensive listing of accredited online degree programs.

In conjunction with the rankings, U.S. News will be constructing searchable profiles of online education programs and their characteristics. These characteristics will be wide-ranging and specific, and examples include listing a program's in-person attendance requirements, and noting whether it offers its students an app for streaming classes on a smartphone. This kind of information will assist prospective students with finding the right types of online programs for their learning preferences and lifestyles.