Key Stats About Ranked Online Education Degree Programs

Here are details on new student characteristics, behaviors, and financial outcomes.

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Last week's blog post emphasized the paucity of online master's in business degree programs that reported tracking their students after graduation (25 percent). Not mentioned was that all other online graduate disciplines surveyed had rates equal or even lower, except for nursing at 56 percent. But even respondents to the nursing survey provided limited specifics on post-graduate outcomes.

[Learn more about the Top Online Programs rankings.]

Further examining the responses from U.S. News's online education degree surveys provides these additional insights:

Sizable numbers of programs reported student indebtedness of their online degree graduates from academic year 2010-2011. For online master's degrees in education, the average indebtedness was $22,887, for business: $23,337; for nursing: $25,925.

As a cautionary note, these amounts only represent schools that elected to report it, so they are not necessarily representative of all ranked programs. But the similarity across disciplines is credible because programs in these disciplines also charged comparable 2012 part-time, out-of-state/private tuitions of $587 per credit for education and $664 per credit for both business and nursing.

[Get more information about paying for online education.]

There was also a very narrow range of average one-year retention rates (students first matriculating between July 2009 and June 2010, then re-enrolling between July 2010 and June 2011) among the five surveyed graduate disciplines, at least among the many schools reporting these data. Nursing had the lowest at 74 percent, while engineering had the highest at 78 percent. In comparison, online bachelor's degree programs averaged only a 66 percent retention rate, demonstrating these types of online degree students are less likely than their graduate-level counterparts to stay enrolled in their programs.

Another distinction between online students at the bachelor's and graduate levels is the employment status of applicants. Among all the grad level disciplines, limited to data electively reported by many schools, 86 percent to 93 percent of new entrants were employed at the time they first enrolled in the program. In bachelor's, this figure was 78 percent.

But bachelor's and grad discipline data were similar in some cases. For example, the average age of new entrants in master's in nursing programs was 40, but the average ages of new entrants in ranked programs in the other four grad disciplines as well as the bachelor's level ranged from 31 to 34.

Related to working adults, a key difference between the bachelor's degree rankings and the five master's degree rankings is that the former mostly service students long removed from high school who are seeking to complete degrees

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[Read about the methodologies behind the online rankings.]

One final interesting comparison among program types involves their delivery methods. When rankings director Bob Morse and I were interviewing online education professionals in early 2011, we quickly discovered that master's programs in engineering and computer information technology were especially likely to market themselves to students as offering the same experiences as their campus-based students.

One year later, the survey data support our anecdotal research. At the bachelor's level and at the master's levels in education, business, and nursing, programs almost universally used class participation as a grading factor—ranging from 96 percent of business programs to literally 100 percent of ranked nursing programs. In contrast, class participation was a grading factor in only 50 percent of master's in computer information technology programs and in just 59 percent of master's in engineering programs.

Further evidence is accessible from the searchable directory, and its search filter: 'Only show programs fully integrated with on-campus program.' These are programs reporting offering the same admissions standards, faculty, curricula, course access, and course credits between their online and campus-based students.

By this standard, more than half (53 percent) of ranked engineering programs were fully integrated, as were 43 percent of ranked computer information technology programs. The graduate-level discipline next most likely to meet this standard was business at 31 percent, and nursing was lowest at just 13 percent.