Why U.S. News Ranks the Best Online Programs

Better data on graduation rates and debt levels allowed us to rank popular online programs.

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Online education is becoming an essential part of the higher education landscape. Students and employers are increasingly finding value in the way subjects can be mastered in a digital environment.

Schools are responding with a proliferation of course offerings. And U.S. News is responding with data and rankings to help our readers sort out the best options for them.

In our third year of collecting data from distance education programs, we've been able to greatly expand the range and depth of our information. Because so little information is publicly available about specific online degree programs, we rely on individual schools to report key metrics such as graduation rates and debt levels.

We're gratified by the growing number of responses: We have assessed nearly 1,000 online degree programs, up more than 16 percent from the 2013 list. That reflects the trust that schools have in us to publish useful information that will help guide students to their programs.

We've been working with the schools and other experts to develop metrics that matter. And we'll continue to refine the data sets and expand the categories.

Some schools argue that you can't compare online programs using traditional measures. We agree. But we also know that at some point there will have to be more tangible and reliable ways of evaluating these programs, or else what's the point of considering an online education?

Online education lends itself to output measures that are more rigorous than what we see from traditional brick-and-mortar programs. Educators specializing in the online space have been eager to help develop and publish those output measures.

That enhanced data allowed us to rank programs in some of the most popular areas, such as general bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in nursing and computer information technology.

It's important to remember that we're ranking programs, not schools. As the methodology makes clear, these are degree-granting programs offering classes needed to complete the degree that are 100 percent online – the federal government standard for qualifying as distance learning programs.

A program still qualifies as online if it has orientations, testing and support services with in-person requirements. We're not including the blended learning programs that combine courses in brick-and-mortar classrooms and online education. We're also making no distinction between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

Programs at some nontraditional schools do quite well, which should probably be expected as they've been at this for a while. Many of the usual high-flyers on our Best Colleges list are only just now jumping into online programs with enthusiasm. And of course there may be some programs that are quite good but simply did not supply us with data.

As with all our rankings, our goal is to provide accurate information that allows consumers to make apples-to-apples comparisons. We don't pick favorites – the numbers do.

But we also stress that numerical lists might not be the right way for some people to decide. The point is to find what works best for you.