Updated 1/3/14: This post has been updated to reflect the new launch date of Wednesday, Jan. 8 for the 2014 U.S. News Best Online Programs rankings, due to extended internal review and testing.
Students seeking an online education program will, for the second year in a row, be able to use U.S. News numerical rankings on the overall quality of distance education programs to help make a decision.
Rankings of online bachelor's degrees and online master's degrees in engineering, business, education, nursing and computer information technology will be released exclusively on usnews.com on Jan. 8.
These are the only rankings that assess data on online programs themselves rather than the institutions housing the programs. These rankings do not measure the attributes of campus-based student and faculty cohorts that have no interaction with their schools' distance education offerings.
This year we had another significant increase in the number of online degree programs reporting data to U.S. News across all six surveyed fields. Nearly 1,000 distance education programs submitted a completed U.S. News questionnaire during the summer of 2013, a 16 percent increase from the 860 the previous year.
As a result of better and more robust data – including on program-level, outcome-based measures such as one-year retention rates, graduation rates and indebtedness of students at graduation – and having two years of results from peer review surveys in each of the areas ranked, we have made changes to this year's methodology.
This time all six rankings incorporate peer review data so that qualitative evaluations of program quality are factored. To make room, we decreased the weights of most other factors, particularly dropping the weight of admissions selectivity in the five master's disciplines.
Also for the first time in the Best Online Programs rankings, we are standardizing ranking indicators about their means, as we do in our Best Colleges and Best Graduate Schools rankings.
This is a standard statistical procedure used in analyzing different types of data to account for the degrees of variance in ranking indicators. It allows for more analytically sophisticated comparisons of performance and ensures that the percentage weights applied to each of the ranking factors accurately reflect their relative importance in the ranking model when the weighted standardized scores are summed up to the overall score.
All of the above methodology changes are the main factors behind why many schools will move up and down in the rankings.
The rankings' appearance will also change. For the first time, all programs will receive whole integer scores ranging from 0 to 100, scaled so that the top school or schools receives an overall score of 100. This transition allows for ties in the rankings. The modified format also means that schools cannot compare their 2013 scores with their 2014 scores.
A detailed description of the new methodology in each discipline will be included with release of the 2014 Best Online Programs rankings.