Respondents were instructed to provide information at the online master's degree program level rather than the entire school level; therefore, questions asking for descriptive statistics on students and faculty—such as enrollment or graduation rates—requested aggregations of data only across schools' online education programs. For profile data that should not be aggregated—such as tuition or application deadlines—schools were given separate instructions.
Data on doctorate of nursing practice degree programs or other graduate level programs were not used to compute the rankings.
Schools without rigid barriers between distance and non-distance education students and faculty were asked to make explainable estimates of their distance education populations and report on these cohorts consistently throughout the questionnaire.
How the rankings were calculated
To compute the Best Online Nursing Programs rankings, responses to the statistical questionnaire were linked to different possible achievable point values, which were then summed into overall scores for each eligible school. The highest overall score a school could possibly achieve if it performed strongest in every single ranking indicator was 100.
Numerical rankings were determined by sorting the programs' weighted overall scores in descending order, with the highest scoring school ranked No. 1. No two schools share a rank because although U.S. News rounds overall scores to one decimal place for display purposes on the website, the rankings themselves are based on longer unrounded scores that are all unique.
Schools performing in the bottom 25 percent of overall scores are categorized as Rank Not Published. This means that U.S. News calculated a numerical ranking and score for that school, but decided for editorial reasons not to publish it.
In contrast, five schools that either offered an online program for the first time in academic year 2012-2013 or reported fewer than 10 students enrolled were designated as Unranked. This means U.S. News did not calculate a numerical ranking for these schools. All Unranked and Rank Not Published programs, however, are still listed in U.S. News's searchable directory.
Ranking criteria and weights
Here is how different factors were weighted in the rankings.
• Student engagement (weighting: 35 percent): In a quality program, aspiring advanced practice nurses can readily collaborate with classmates in their classes and clinical settings. In turn, instructors not only are accessible and responsive, but they also are tasked with helping to create an experience rewarding enough for students to stay enrolled and complete their degrees in normal time.
• Faculty credentials and training (weighting: 25 percent): Strong online nursing programs employ instructors with academic credentials one would expect from a campus-based program, and have the resources to train these instructors on how to teach distance learners.
• Admissions selectivity (weighting: 20 percent): Student bodies entering with proven aptitudes, ambitions, and accomplishments can handle the demands of rigorous coursework. Furthermore, online degrees that schools award discriminatively will have greater legitimacy in the job market.
• Student services and technology (weighting: 20 percent): A program that incorporates diverse online learning technologies allows greater flexibility for students to complete coursework from a distance. Outside of classes, a strong support structure provides career guidance, academic assistance, and financial aid resources commensurate with quality campus-based programs.
Corrected 1/28/13: An earlier version of this article did not correctly define the scoring process for the “technologies accessible to students” ranking indicator.