Today the Internet is rife with articles claiming to list the top competitors in a given space. In making a decision as important--and potentially costly (in time and money)--as one on higher education, Best College Reviews realizes that readers will want to know how verifiable and well documented our ranking process is. In short: how do our rankings work?
To answer this question we strive to make the ranking process as transparent as possible, detailing our methodology within the page of each ranking on the site as well as the source for our information whenever applicable. Unless a specialty source of information is required, almost all of the data used to compile our rankings is from the schools that are eligible to be included in a given ranking, or from one of the following sources:
- National Center for Education Statistics: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)
- National Center for Education Statistics: College Navigator
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- American Fact Finder
- The Distance Learning Council
You might ask, with such a wide array of sources--all with differing methodologies--how we're able to compile information in a dependable way. The process of multicriteria optimization is common--particularly to online rankings--and involves the weighting of different variables so as to come up with the most well rounded 'best' answer. For example, say you have four schools (A, B, C, and D), that you want to rank according to academic reputation, affordability, and flexibility. School A has the highest academic reputation, but is also the most costly and least flexible. School B has the third highest academic reputation, but is the most affordable and second most flexible. School C has the second highest academic reputation, and the third highest flexibility and affordability. And school D has the lowest academic reputation, but is the second most affordable and the most flexible of programs surveyed. These sample measurements are in table 1 below.
Assuming that we value three criteria in our higher education decisions (academic reputation, price, and affordability) and that we weight all three of these criteria equally, the above table shows the process of multi-criteria optimization at work.The results might be a bit surprising, and that's why they're valuable. Note that school A, which ranked first in academic reputation ends up ranking last when factoring all of your values. The second lowest ranked school was 'ok' in all three criteria, ranking second for academic reputation, and third in the other factors. The best school--school B--ranks third in academic reputation, but overall aligns with your values the best.
So what values do the rankings at Best College Reviews align with? While Best College Reviews covers a wide variety of programs--traditional and otherwise--our site was established with the explicit goal of focusing on competing with sites like the US News and World Report and Princeton Review with the coverage of online education. To this aim our most prevalent methodology caters to the interests and needs of online students.
While over one third of American students took an online class last year, potential students looking primarily at online education are often adult learners, continuing learners, or students that need additional flexibility to obtain their degrees. It should be noted that online education is not optimal for every student (though the same can be said for traditional education), and that a specific set of instructional techniques not always needed in traditional education settings can greatly enhance the quality of an online educational experience. As noted by the Illinois Online Network, instructional techniques that greatly enhance the online educational experience include elements including (but not limited to) mentoring, small group projects, a active forum community, multi-course learning pathways, and the use of supplementary learning materials with lectures.
In light of the particular demographic and instructional needs often pertinent to students seeking online instruction, some of the core tenets of our ranking methodologies at Best College Reviews include the following:
- Flexibility: generally compiled as the number of alternative delivery modes for a given program, or the number of offerings of a given institution.
- Affordability: depending on ranking, either the average out-of-state tuition for a given time frame, or the program cost.
- Online Learning Best Practices: the number of online learning-enhancing instructional techniques employed by a given program or institution.
- Academic Reputation: a general look at the academic prestige of a given institution according to other ranking bodies, a look at the quality of instruction at a given institution, or other measures of how well respected a program is to its peers and the broader community.
Note that not all of these ranking components are used in every ranking, nor are these four components of rankings the only components used to compile rankings on the site. A number of specialty rankings call for the inclusion of a wide variety of other data types, from the acreage or college farms, to student reviews on faculty, to the number of extracurricular offerings at a given school. At least one or two of the above ranking components are likely to be found in all of the rankings on the site, however, even if the ranking centers on a more niche concern. With this in mind let's jump into more detailed explanations of these components below.
Flexibility is essential to many students looking at online education, and while this criteria can't be pinned down on any one measure, you know a flexible program when you see it. Perhaps it's the ability to take courses at your own pace. Perhaps it's the ability to start and stop a program in between short accelerated courses. Maybe flexibility involves the number of concentrations that can be taken in a given major. Flexibility means different things in the contexts of different rankings, but we know that in principle many learners who are seeking an education online are doing so at least in part for the flexibility.
While affordability is important for most potential students, this is particularly the case for adult or continuing education students. Many online students are attempting to balance work, a family, and other commitments that often hold education that isn't affordable out of reach. This measure depends on the context of a given ranking, whether that the average cost of attendance for an entire institution, or the ability to get a quick and cheap certification from an organization online. Affordability measures are compiled as out-of-state tuition and fees where applicable.
The best overview of online learning that we've run across is presented by the Illinois Online Network. Their overview details a number of best practices including--but not limited to--learning contracts, small group work, discussion, projects, lectures, collaborative leaning, self-directed learning, case studies, mentorship, and a vibrant forum community.
Academic reputation can be a nebulous concept, and on many of the top ranking sites on the web the same few programs always vie for the top spots as far as academic prestige. At Best College Reviews we respect the growing ability to try new things in education, as well as value a diversity of views on higher education online. In line with these values we survey a number of institutions and online resources with the aim of providing a less static view of academic reputation. At the same time we realize the importance of academic prestige in making sure potential students may attend the best school possible, and thus seek to uphold strict scrutiny on our data sources in this realm.
Online College State Guide Rankings
As part of our mission to provide useful and accurate coverage of online learning opportunities for potential students, Best College Reviews would be remiss not to cover state or region-specific learning opportunities. As many traditional students can already attest to, attending school within your home state or region can offer up many cost and employment-related benefits. These opportunities often extend to online programs, with many online degrees offering special tuition rates or support services for in-state or in-region students. While most quality online degrees offer a wide range of support services online, oftentimes degrees offer the ability to accelerate time-until degree, networking, or additional academic support services with occasional in-person visits.
While narrowing a search for online schools to a state or region is a start, more guidance certainly doesn't hurt (some states have over 50 online degree granting institutions). For this reason we've included a ranking of who we think are the best online degree-granting colleges and universities for every state. While you'll still want to check to see if the top online colleges by state rank well in the degrees you're interested in you can rest assured that our state guide methodology helps us to hone our coverage on the best online colleges in the state.
State Guide Methodology:
- Survey all online degree granting colleges and universities in a given state.
- Map out the number of offerings by degree level.
- Survey other rankings for the academic reputation of schools.
- Finalize Ranking.
- Number of Online Offerings (1/2): the total number of online degrees offered fully online from the associates through doctoral levels
- Academic Reputation (1/2): the academic reputation of the parent institution as judged from other prominant rankings such as the Princeton Review and US News