For the first time, U.S. News will publish numerical rankings on the overall quality of distance education programs.
This means that the second annual edition of Best Online Education Programs—set for release exclusively on usnews.com on January 15—will have a No. 1 bachelor's degree program, a No. 1 master's in engineering degree program, and likewise for master's degrees in business, education, nursing, and computer information technology.
In the inaugural 2012 rankings, there were no numerical rankings on overall program quality. Instead, bachelor's programs were ranked in three distinct categories and master's programs in four categories, and honor rolls were created to highlight top-performing schools. Numerical rankings were always U.S. News's goal because they are easier for users to understand when comparing programs.
Greatly improved data collection enabled the move to overall numerical rankings. For example, 860 distance education programs submitted a completed U.S. News questionnaire, a 20 percent increase from the 717 the previous year. There was growth in each of the six surveyed fields.
Most importantly, this year's questionnaires received more robust data on outcome-based measures, such as one-year retention rates, graduation rates, and indebtedness of students at graduation. U.S. News continually strives to include more outputs in our rankings; including these factors is a good start and allows us to distinguish qualifying distance education programs as "best" in the United States.
Although the results of the upcoming rankings will be different from the inaugural effort, the indicators used to compute overall rankings resemble those used in the first edition's honor rolls. For example, users will still be able to compare program quality in categories such as promotion of student engagement and levels of support offered.
A detailed description of the new methodology will be included with release of the 2013 Best Online Education Programs rankings. One important change is that a small percentage of schools ranked in 2012 were not evaluated for the upcoming edition because they did not meet the new federal standard of distance education programs (100 percent online course delivery) that U.S. News most recently used to form its universe of rankings-eligible programs.
Once again, there will also be searchable directory pages of each online degree program that submitted a survey—regardless of its ranking. Users can access these pages to research criteria such as location and areas of study offered, among other distinguishing characteristics.