Examining Reactions to the Online Degree Rankings

Many online programs are glad to be ranked, but some reviewers are not pleased.

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The most comprehensive and detailed listings of online education degree programs and rankings went live on January 10 on usnews.com. All the ranked bachelor's and master's online degree programs on usnews.com are regionally accredited and disclosed a significant amount of information about their offerings.

Consequently, any online degree program with a presence on U.S. News's revamped online education site has instantly distinguished itself from programs that are not truly online or do not have the most rigorous accreditation. Not surprisingly, since the release of the rankings, a flurry of schools rushed to publicize them, and some even expressed their approval via E-mails.

[Learn more about the Top Online Programs rankings.]

But the reception has been less enthusiastic from some in the industry. For instance, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET)—an organization that works to advance and evaluate the most effective uses of technology in higher education—recently devoted a 1,500-word review of the rankings, emphasizing the perceived shortcomings in U.S. News's approach that shared similarities to arguments referenced in articles by Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Their arguments boil down to the following: the rankings received too little participation from schools to be useful; not enough emphasis was placed in the rankings on student level outcomes; and U.S. News did not properly engage online education experts in developing the questionnaires. These arguments were in most cases exaggerated or misinformed.

On school response rates, the Inside Higher Ed article says the rankings only include a "small pool of respondents," because while thousands of institutions were solicited, there were only small numbers of "usable" returned surveys. Not true. The reason there were only 717 programs ranked when 4,816 programs received surveys is because the vast majority of survey respondents said they did not offer online programs.

To juxtapose the number of ranked schools with the total number of schools receiving surveys is not the correct way to judge the degree of institutions' participation. U.S. News believes that a very large percentage of online programs participated, including programs affiliated with five of the seven for-profit institutions with highest 2009 enrollment, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.

Regarding the lack of student outcomes used to calculate the rankings, consider the following: Out of the 163 online master's in business degree programs ranked by U.S. News, only 41 of them in the "career outcomes" section of the survey said they even tracked their students after graduating. This unfortunately suggests that any near-term efforts to improve response rates on post-graduate outcomes will be hindered by most programs currently opting not to collect, or being too new to have collected, robust longitudinal program level data on their online students pre- and post-graduation.

[Find out more about the methodologies behind the online rankings.]

Would the rankings have benefited from more robust data on outcome measures? Absolutely, and U.S. News will continue working at gathering this information in the future.

Nonetheless, many programs did supply data on outputs asked in the surveys, such as indebtedness, graduation rates, and retention rates. WCET's suggestion that the data collection instruments were "almost completely focused on inputs" is inaccurate. While outputs were not used for rankings this year, asking schools to gather this information was not "a disrespectful use of staff time," as WCET argued. This information has been incorporated into each school's searchable profile pages in U.S. News's directory of online education degree programs, similar to other non-ranking data, such as concentration offerings and student body demographics.

Finally, WCET asserted that U.S. News did not consult with educators running online programs until well after the surveys were administered. However, U.S. News told WCET in a webinar in 2011 that such input, including pilot testing, was solicited before the questions were fully conceived or finalized.

For example, there would be no student engagement indicator rankings if interviewed educators had not repeatedly emphasized that engagement is a particularly vital metric of quality for online education programs, in addition to (or in lieu of) more traditional evaluative metrics.

U.S. News understands that this was a first effort and hopes that the online education data and rankings methodologies will become more sophisticated next year and beyond. Meanwhile, U.S. News is looking to work with schools that offer online education programs to improve its surveys and rankings.