Methodology: Best Online Graduate Education Programs Rankings

Learn how U.S. News computed its online master’s in education degree rankings.

By and + More

For the 2014 edition of the Best Online Graduate Education Programs rankings, U.S. News incorporated program ratings by peer institutions. The student engagement factor also received a larger weight because of improved data collection on its key statistical indicators. To make room for these changes, we decreased the weights assigned to both admissions selectivity and student services and technology.

Here is how each is currently weighted in the rankings.

Student engagement (weighting: 35 percent – previously 30 percent): Much like in a classroom setting, quality online graduate education programs grant aspiring teachers and educational administrators opportunities to readily interact with their instructors and fellow classmates. In turn, instructors are not only accessible and responsive, but they are also tasked with helping to create an experience rewarding enough that students stay enrolled and complete their degrees in a reasonable amount of time.

• Student services and technology (weighting: 20 percent): A program that incorporates diverse online learning technologies allows greater flexibility for students to take classes from a distance. Outside of classes, a strong support structure provides learning assistance, career guidance and financial aid resources commensurate with quality campus-based programs.

Faculty credentials and training (weighting: 15 percent – previously 20 percent): Strong online 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: 15 percent – previously 30 percent): Student bodies entering with proven aptitudes, ambitions and accomplishments can handle the demands of rigorous course work. Furthermore, online degrees that schools award discriminatively will have greater legitimacy in the job market.

Peer reputation (weighting: 15 percent – not used in previous rankings): Industry opinion accounts for intangible factors on program quality not captured by statistics. Also, degrees with strong perceptions of quality among academics may be held in higher regard among employers.

How the Rankings Were Calculated

The process for computing overall scores has undergone a significant change for the 2014 rankings. Each ranking indicator is now standardized about its mean to account for statistical variance.

U.S. News multiplied these standardized values by weights it selected, and then summed these values to compute total scores and the five separate category scores.

Finally, each of these scores has been rescaled for display purposes so that the top-scoring school receives a score of 100 and the bottom-scoring school receives a score of zero. All scores are also now rounded to whole integer values.

Numerical rankings are assigned to programs in descending order of their overall scores, with the highest-scoring program ranked No. 1. Schools with tied scores are tied in the rankings. This is a change from 2013 in which there were no ties because rankings were assigned to unrounded scores.

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 rank and score for that school but decided for editorial reasons not to publish it.

In contrast, 12 schools that either offered an online program for the first time in academic year 2013-2014 or reported fewer than 10 students enrolled were designated as unranked. This means U.S. News did not calculate numerical ranks for these schools. All unranked and Rank Not Published programs, however, are still listed in the searchable directory.

Data Collection

Creating the 2014 Best Online Graduate Education Programs rankings required two steps. Step one was compiling a list of education schools offering master's degree programs online. Step two was collecting data from these schools.

To complete step one, U.S. News & World Report sent statistical questionnaires to regionally accredited public, private and for-profit institutions that granted a master's degree in education. Respondents were asked to identify whether in academic year 2013-2014 they would be offering a master's in education degree program through Internet-based distance education courses.

U.S. News defines a distance education program as follows (along the same lines as the U.S. Department of Education's definition):

A program for which all the required coursework for program completion is able to be completed via distance education courses that incorporate Internet-based learning technologies. Distance education courses are courses that deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor synchronously or asynchronously. Note: Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing or academic support services do not exclude a program from being classified as an online master's in education degree program."

Between the start of data collection in July 2013 and the September 2013 closing date, 238 (22 percent) said they would be offering online master's degree education programs in accordance with the definition, while the rest either said they would not or chose not to respond.

To complete step two, U.S. News collected additional statistical information from the same questionnaire on the 238 schools with online programs, and this information was scored as outlined in the table below. (Note: All student and faculty statistical data are of July 1, 2012 - June 30, 2013 cohorts, while the remaining data are of policies, services and technologies in place at the time of the questionnaire completion in summer 2013.)

Student engagement (35% of ranking)
Ranking indicator Category weight (percent) Scoring process
Best practices 40 An index in which half the weight is based on the program having accreditation from the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education or the Teacher Education Accreditation Council; the other half is based on 10 equal factors: Americans with Disabilities Act policy, anti-plagiarism policy, certified instructional designers, collaborative course work, course evaluation required, course evaluation response rate, formal copyright policy, instructor office hours, students sign ethics statement, school tracks students after graduation.
Graduation rate 30 The percentage of students who graduate within a time determined by the program’s length.
Class size 10 A school’s mean class size and maximum class size each comprise half the weight
One year retention rates 10 A school’s mean re-enrollment rate over four years.
Time to degree deadline 10 A school that requires students to complete their degree within 1.5 times the program length receives the full score. Other schools score progressively lower the longer their time to degree deadlines.
Student services and technology (20% of ranking)
Ranking indicator Category weight (percent) Scoring process
Student indebtedness 50 Half of the weight is a school’s mean student debt at graduation compared with the median such value among other schools; the other half is the percentage of a school’s graduates with debt compared with the median such value among other schools. Only schools with below median debt levels for either were awarded scores.
Technological infrastructure 25 An index based on student access to 10 equally weighted technologies: application for smartphone; application for tablet; remote access to the following: chat rooms, recorded audio, recorded video, simulations, software-based readers, streaming audio, streaming video, visual software.
Support services 25 An index based on student access to 10 equally weighted services: academic advising, bookstore, 24/7 tech support, financial aid services, live librarian, local area network, mentoring, live tutoring, writing workshops, career placement assistance.
Admissions selectivity (15% of ranking)
Ranking indicator Category weight (percent) Scoring process
Undergraduate grade point average 30 The mean GPA of new entrants multiplied by the percentage of new entrants submitting GPA scores.
GRE scores 30 The mean math and verbal GRE scores of new entrants each multiplied by the percentages of new entrants submitting these scores and weighted equally.
Experience 30 An index based on three equally weighted parts: the extent work experience and relevant undergraduate course work are required for admittance, requiring three letters of recommendation including one by a professional contact, percentage of new entrants sponsored by an employer.
Acceptance rate 10 A school’s admitted students divided by applicants.
Faculty credentials and training (15% of ranking)
Ranking indicator Category weight (percent) Scoring process
Ph.D. faculty 40 Schools employing at least 50 percent of faculty with terminal degrees receive the full score; schools with below 50 percent receive a score based on their percents of faculty with terminal degrees multiplied by 2.
Preparedness to teach distance learners 30 An index based two-thirds on whether the school finances training on online teaching best practices and the number of training hours required; one-third is based on whether continuing training is required and if a system of peer review is in place.
Tenured faculty 20 The percentage of full-time faculty who are tenured or tenure-track faculty.
Technical staff available to faculty 10 The ratio of full-time staff members employed to offer technical assistance to program faculty relative to the number of faculty at the institution to whom they are available.
Peer reputation (15% of ranking)
Ranking indicator Category weight (percent) Scoring process
Score 100 A school’s weighted mean of scores on a 1-5 scale as rated by online master’s in education degree programs.

Data Reporting

Respondents were instructed to provide information specific to their online degree programs. This means they could not report on any of their campus-based programs. Exceptions were made for fully blended programs from which online and campus-based students were admitted from the same applicant pools and enrolled in the same courses.

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, such as tuition or application deadlines, schools were instructed to report on their online education program with the largest enrollment.

Peer Assessments

Complementing the statistical data from this questionnaire was a separate peer reputation survey administered for U.S. News by Ipsos Public Affairs, a market research firm. Deans of education schools with online graduate programs and top distance learning higher education academics were mailed postcards with links to online peer reputation surveys.

Each program was sent two surveys. Between August 2013 and October 2013, higher academics responded by evaluating the academic quality of the other online graduate education degree programs listed on the survey on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (outstanding), or by responding "don't know" to any program with which they were unfamiliar.

Although the 2014 rankings are the first to include peer assessment data in the methodology, these data were collected in the summers of 2012 and 2013. To increase the number of ratings for a greater representation of schools, U.S. News aggregated the peer reputation data across both years. In total, 120 surveys completed by schools with online graduate education programs were submitted.

The two highest and lowest scores for each school in both years were removed from the totals before calculating the average peer score among those who rated the program.

Some programs received fewer than 10 scores from other schools after this trimming, indicating very few of their peers were familiar with them. In such cases, U.S. News imputed their scores by assuming a rating of 1 for every additional rating needed for the school to have a total of 10 ratings, and then calculated an average score based on the sum of all scores. Programs with fewer than 10 ratings do not have their peer reputation scores published.

Because the number of online graduate education programs is continually growing, 17 of the 195 ranked schools were not included in the peer reputation survey and did not receive any ratings. For ranking purposes these schools were assigned the median peer reputation score derived from the data collected in 2013. These values are not published and will not carry over into future rankings.