It's hard to deny the economic benefits of a college education, particularly in a sluggish economy. Students with a bachelor's degree earn 84 percent more over their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma, and the unemployment rate for workers without a college education is more than double the rate for those with a four-year degree, according to reports by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
With the number of schools offering fully online degree programs nearly double what it was 10 years ago— 62.4 percent of colleges and universities offered fully online programs in 2012, compared with 34.5 percent in 2002, according to a January 2013 online education report by the Babson Survey Research Group—more students can unlock the benefits of higher education without quitting their jobs or uprooting their families.
[Learn how to decide if online ed is right for you.]
But similar to brick-and-mortar colleges, not all online degree programs are created equal. U.S. News aims to help students evaluate their options with the 2013 Best Online Education Programs rankings. U.S. News evaluated 237 online bachelor's degree programs, as well as online master's degree programs in business (213), education (208), nursing (101), engineering (70), and computer information technology, or CIT (30).
Only degree-granting programs offering courses that are 100 percent online were considered for the rankings. These programs were assigned an overall numerical rank based on the following factors: student engagement, faculty credentials and training, and students services and technology. Admissions selectivity also factored into the rankings for all online master's degree programs, and academic peer reputation was included in the calculations for engineering and business program rankings.
While the U.S. News rankings evaluate online programs, many of the top-performing schools have physical campuses—and proximity to campus is an important factor for students, according to a July 2012 report by Learning House. The online education company surveyed 1,500 students who had either enrolled or planned to enroll in a fully online degree program.
Roughly 80 percent of online students live within 100 miles of their school's campus or learning center, and the vast majority of those students live within 50 miles, according to the Learning House report. This proximity can help students overcome one of their main complaints of online programs: lack of face-to-face time with instructors.
Pace University, which has a physical campus in New York City, claimed the No. 1 spot for online bachelor's degree programs. Top-performing online master's degree programs include Washington State University (business), University of Southern California (engineering and CIT), St. John's University in New York (education), and Ferris State University in Michigan (nursing).
Bachelor's: Students pursuing a bachelor's degree online are largely motivated by careers—either advancing in their current field or changing careers altogether, the Learning House survey notes. In turn, the most popular majors for online students at the undergraduate level have distinct career tracks. Those majors include business administration and management, accounting, information technology, finance, and nursing.
While Pace earned the distinction of the best online bachelor's degree program, Daytona State College in Florida and St. John's University also performed well, coming in second and third, respectively. Westfield State University (No. 4) in Massachusetts and Graceland University (No. 5) in Iowa rounded out the top of the virtual undergraduate programs rankings.
Business (master's): In addition to Washington State, other top performing online graduate business/MBA programs include Arizona State University's Carey School of Business (No. 2), Indiana University—Bloomington's Kelley School of Business (No. 3), University of Florida's Hough Graduate School of Business (No. 4), and California State University—Fullerton's Mihaylo College of Business and Economics (No. 5).
Engineering (master's): The five best online graduate engineering programs are University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Purdue University—West Lafayette, and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.
Computer Information Technology (master's): The University of Southern California also claimed the top spot for its online CIT program, with Sam Houston State University in Texas coming in second. Virginia Tech earned the No. 3 spot, followed by the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and Pennsylvania State University—World Campus. The CIT category includes master's programs in computer science and computer engineering.
Education (master's): In addition to ranking among the top three in online bachelor's degree programs, St. John's University earned a No. 1 ranking for its online master's in education program. Auburn University in Alabama (No. 2), South Dakota State University (No. 3), Northern Illinois University (No. 4), and the University of South Carolina (No. 5) also achieved high marks for their online graduate education programs.
Nursing (master's): Ferris State University earned the distinction of the best online graduate nursing program for 2013, with Lamar University in Texas and the University of Michigan—Flint taking second and third place, respectively. Clarkson College in Nebraska and Graceland University in Missouri rounded out the top five online graduate nursing programs.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.