Ranking Online Colleges: 2014 – 2015: Methodologies

AffordableCollegesOnline.org (AC Online) strives to provide valuable content with accurate data. To facilitate this goal, we use the following respected data sources:

  • NCES is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education. It provides consistent, reliable, complete, and accurate indicators of education status and trends.
  • IPEDS is the primary federal source for data on colleges, universities, and technical and vocational post-secondary schools in the U.S.
  • Carnegie Classification is a framework widely used in the study of higher education, both as a way to represent and control for institutional differences, and also in the design of research studies to ensure adequate representation of sampled institutions, students, or faculty.
  • PayScale.com is a leading provider of career-related data on a national, state, local, and individual basis. PayScale’s team of statisticians continually refines data collection methods to maximize accuracy and integrity.

Below you’ll find details on our individual ranking list criteria.

Best Online Master’s Programs for 2015

Online master’s programs represent the fastest-growing level of distance learning today. Colleges and universities everywhere continue to add online master’s that cater to both traditional students and to working adults. Some of these institutions, however, offer higher quality and more flexible options than their peers, along with affordable cost structures and a wealth of student support services. Details of criteria and scoring for the list are as follows:

General criteria:

  • Must offer 5+ online master’s degrees
  • Public, not-for-profit colleges only

Scoring metrics:

  • Count of online master’s degrees available
  • Graduate tuition + fees
  • Academic and career counseling services
  • Job placement for graduates
  • AC Online Peer-Based Value (PBV)*


*PBV: A proprietary metric that compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or a similar) qualitative score. It also compares the qualitative score of the program to the score of other programs with the same (or a similar cost). In short, the PBV calculation denotes the overall value or “bang for your buck” of an online master’s degree.

Nation’s Best Online Accounting Degrees: 2015

With online accounting degrees, some colleges stand above the rest. They have cost, quality and support services that attract students and help them move from college education to career success. To see how we selected the Nation’s Best Online Accounting Degrees, please see our detailed criteria and scoring below:

General criteria:

  • Must offer online accounting degrees at the bachelor’s level
  • Public, not-for-profit colleges only

Scoring metrics:

  • Number of online accounting degrees available
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • 6-year graduation rate
  • % of students receiving financial aid
  • EPP program accreditation
  • AC Online Peer-Based Value (PBV)*

*PBV: A proprietary metric that compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or a similar) qualitative score. It also compares the qualitative score of the program to the score of other programs with the same (or a similar cost). In short, the PBV calculation denotes the overall value or “bang for your buck” of an online accounting degree.


Best Online Teaching Degrees for 2015

When it comes to online learning for teaching and education programs, some colleges stand above the rest. They have excellent balances of cost, quality and support services that draw students in and help them transition from education student to teaching professional. To better understand how we selected the Best Online Teaching Degrees for 2015, please see our detailed criteria and scoring below:

General criteria:

  • Must offer teaching degrees at the bachelor’s level
  • Public, not-for-profit colleges only

Scoring metrics:

  • Number of online teaching programs available
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • 6-year graduation rate
  • % of students receiving financial aid
  • EPP program accreditation
  • AC Online Peer-Based Value (PBV)*

*PBV: A proprietary metric that compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or a similar) qualitative score. It also compares the qualitative score of the program to the score of other programs with the same (or a similar cost). In short, the PBV calculation denotes the overall value or “bang for your buck” of an online teaching degree.


Best Online Christian Colleges for 2015

Many Christian colleges have stand-out academics in a Christ-centered environment. Now, some of these institutions have impressive collections of distance learning opportunities, as well as a number of quality and support benefits that make them top choices for religious-minded students. Our data analysts and higher education experts collected data from IPEDS and schools themselves to identify the 49 Christian colleges with the best online learning options. Detailed criteria and scoring is as follows:

General criteria:

  • Clear and active religious affiliation
  • Must offer online programs at the bachelor’s degree level
  • Private, not-for-profit colleges only

Scoring metrics:

  • No. of online programs available
  • Online tuition cost
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • 6-year graduation rate
  • % of students receiving financial aid
  • Academic & career counseling services = yes
  • Placement services for completers = yes

Best Online Colleges: 2015 – Methodology Details

To identify the online-focused colleges that offer the best quality, support and cost structures for students, AC Online spent months combing through data from the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Our higher education experts and data team then created a proprietary weighting system to score each college by value to students. The criteria and scoring systems are as follows:

General criteria:

  • Must have full regional or national accreditation
  • Must have a clear online focus, with a majority of degree programs and coursework available online
  • Must have at least five years of experience in online college education

Scoring metrics:

  • No. of online programs available
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • 6-year graduation rate
  • In-state tuition + fees (undergraduate)
  • Academic & career counseling services = yes
  • Placement services for completers = yes

Best Online MBA Degree Programs: 2015 – Methodology Details

To find the online MBA programs with the best combinations of quality, cost and student support, AC Online collected and analyzed data from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the schools themselves. Our data analysis team and higher education experts worked together to create a scoring system that includes key qualitative and quantitative metrics, and that weights each metric by estimated impact on the online MBA student. The criteria and scoring system are as follows:

General criteria:

  • Must have at least one fully online MBA program
  • Must have full AACSB accreditation
  • Not-for-profit colleges and universities only

Qualitative metrics – 76% of total score:

  • Student-faculty ratio for the program
  • Percentage of faculty with PhD
  • Number of online MBA options
  • Number of MBAs conferred (2013)
  • AC Online Peer-Based Value (PBV)*

Cost-related metric – 24% of total score:

  • Online tuition cost of program

*PBV: A proprietary metric that compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or a similar) qualitative score. It also compares the qualitative score of the program to the score of other programs with the same (or a similar cost). In short, the PBV calculation denotes the overall value or “bang for your buck” of an online MBA program.

To see the rankings in full, please visit the new online MBA degree programs page.

Affordable Colleges with High ROI list – Methodology Details

For the AC Online Affordable Colleges with High ROI list, we took several factors into account, leveraging our breadth of data source mentioned above:

  • 4-Year In-State Tuition less than $40,000. This is important as it provides a cost of education which is significantly lower than the average cost of a quality 4-year education
  • Public and Private schools included
  • Non-profit (For-profit schools excluded)
  • 4 year school, degree granting
  • Fully accredited institution
  • 30 Year Net ROI: This data point leverages Payscale.com survey data, published on an annual basis
  • Location: United States

The top 50 colleges and universities were selected from 875 schools meeting the above criteria. To see the AC Online’s Affordable High ROI schools, click here.

Million-Dollar ROI Lists – Methodology Details

Both exclusive million-dollar ROI lists took several factors into account, using data from our trusted sources and partners. Criteria for each list included the following:

Subject ROI Ranking – Methodology Details

All subject-specific ROI lists took several factors into account. The criteria for the political science list include the following:

  • Total weighted cost (provided by IPEDS)
  • 30-year Net ROI (provided by PayScale.com)
  • 4-year degree-granting institution
  • Fully accredited institution
  • Private, for-profit institutions excluded

To see the subject-specific ROI rankings, please click below:
English Humanities

High ROI Colleges by State – Methodology Details

The High ROI by State lists took a variety of important factors into account, including education and income related data from highly reliable sources. Criteria for each list included the following:

  • Public colleges and universities (Carnegie classified)
  • Private colleges and universities (Carnegie classified)
  • Four-year, degree-granting institutions only
  • Fully-accredited colleges and universities only
  • ROI according to PayScale’s 2013 College Value Report
  • “Tuition” = tuition + fees
  • U.S. colleges only

To see state specific rankings, please select your state in the “State” drop down navigation menu.

Calculating ROI for Our Lists

How is the ROI calculated? (The simple version)
Simply, the ROI is the incremental lifetime earnings of a political science major as a result of earning a college degree minus the cost of the education.

Incremental lifetime earnings is the amount of salary earned by a graduate over a 30 year period over and above the amount earned by the average worker with a high school diploma.

The total cost of education includes tuition and fees, room and board, and supplies and fees. Total cost also factors in time to graduates. For example if the average time to graduation for a college is 4.5 years, then the total cost includes 4.5 years of the expenses.

ROI calculation for demonstration purposes
Incremental Lifetime Earnings (Discounted): $1,000,000
Total Cost of Education: $200,000
Return on Investment: $800,000

How often is the state ROI ranking released?
This information is released on an annual basis.

Can you tell me about Affordable Colleges Online?
College is becoming more expensive and student debt is ballooning. Affordable Colleges Online provides information to help future students and parents find a more affordable college education.

We aim to educate so that potential students are aware of their options for obtaining a degree and, most importantly, for paying for one. What are the most affordable and highest return on investment options – online study, two-year, four-year, public or private colleges? What financial aid options are available and what pitfalls should you avoid? We keep our finger on the pulse of college-related issues, the latest research, how the government is responding, and help you analyze your options.

Can you share the specific details for how ROI is calculated? (For the Finance Geeks)
For more information see the link here. PayScale did a great job documenting the specific details.

Affordable Colleges – Methodology Details

All colleges, universities, and online programs included in AC Online’s Affordable Colleges Rankings List passed the following criteria:

  • Public colleges (Carnegie classified), or
  • Private, non-profit colleges (Carnegie classified)
  • Offered at least one degree program fully online
  • 4-year degree-granting, full accreditation
  • Net price below $15,000
  • U.S. colleges only

Affordable College Degree by State – Methodology Details

AC Online ranked the most affordable colleges in each state. Each school had to pass the following criteria:

  • Public colleges (Carnegie classified), or
  • Offered at least one degree program fully online
  • 4-year degree-granting
  • Full accreditation
  • U.S. colleges only
  • Tuition at or below $15,000

Cheap Online Colleges with Quality Programs – 2014

Cheap Online Colleges with Quality Programs focuses on colleges and universities that hit specific online program cost and quality standards. For example, some colleges have low tuition and fees, but fail to measure up in the classroom. Or, they have clear academic prowess but cost an arm and a leg. This list aims to find the best of both worlds. Here’s a more detailed look at the criteria:

  • Online program tuition & fees < $500 per credit
  • 6-year graduation rate > 50%
  • Undergraduate aid rate > 30%
  • Full regional accreditation of all campus and online programs
  • Academic counseling for students
  • Job placement services for graduates

To see the Cheapest Online Colleges rankings, please click here.

40 Top Online Community Colleges for 2014 – 2015

The 40 Top Online Community Colleges for 2014 – 2015 identifies two-year institutions across the country with the best combination of online learning and affordability. While many junior and community colleges have low-cost tuition, few currently have full collections of online programs and courses for students to choose. Therefore, it’s important to recognize the schools making the effort to give their communities the best of both worlds. Criteria for the list include:

  • Annual tuition & fees < $3,000
  • Full accreditation by a regional agency
  • At least 10 full online degree programs

To see the Online Community College rankings, please click here.