This is the methodology page for our ranking of the best value online schools in each state.
To us, the colleges with the best value aren't necessarily the absolute cheapest options. Rather, the top online schools are those that provide high-quality educational experiences at a reasonable price. For each article in this series, we considered all public and private (excluding for-profit) institutions with an active distance learning component. This included 100% online colleges as well as traditional universities with a division of online learning.
To be eligible for our ranking, each school must enroll at least 15% of its student body in some or all distance education coursework. We acquired this information using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). In order to be as accurate as possible, we calculated online enrollment rates over a three-year period (2012-15) and averaged the results.
We also looked at average undergraduate graduation rates over the same time period. Looking at a school's graduation rate is one of the best ways to gain quantitative insight into students' performance, satisfaction, and feelings of competency in college. Of course, it's unrealistic to expect all students to graduate right on time. Therefore, we used six-year rates (approximately 150% of time for a typical four-year degree) to account for students who are happy with their experience but perhaps slow to finish due to personal, occupational, or familial barriers.
To measure affordability, we examined in-state tuition rates for the most recent school year (2015-16). Focusing exclusively on in-state rates provides an ideal way to compare the affordability of schools that are in close proximity to one another (where cost of living and utility expenses are more consistent). In many cases, this gives public and rurally-located schools an advantage, as it should. For online students who want to capitalize on in-state rates and don't have to factor in a daily commute, those are the colleges that will provide the best overall value.
Giving each category equal weight, we used a point system to assign scores in each category before calculating a total sum. At this point, we had a tentative final ranking of best value online schools. But we weren't done!
To verify these results, we then vetted each of the final contenders individually, researching their distance education programs to ensure that they fit our definition of value. In particular, we made note of the:
- range and variety of online class offerings
- stability (Is there an established division of online learning? How long has the school been offering distance programs?)
- the university's overall effort to promote and/or expand virtual classroom initiatives
While the answers to some of these questions are unavoidably subjective, we feel it is an important part of the best value ranking process. And as always, we work to be as objective as possible at each stage of the analysis.
The cut-off for each online school ranking article varied according to the state. In large part, this threshold was dependent on the total number of colleges we initially reviewed. States like California, Texas, and Florida have many dozens of universities, which almost inevitably leads to a more varied distribution of points and a larger number of schools with high final scores. States like Alaska and Delaware, on the other hand, begin the process with fewer than five eligible colleges to consider. In the latter cases, we were more lenient with our cut-off mark (and in some instances, we simply had to "take what we could get"). For larger states, we set the threshold anywhere between 50 and 70 points, depending on the spread of final scores in each ranking.
See the individual articles for more information.