Affordable Colleges Online Ranking Methodology

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How We Rank Programs

At AffordableCollegesOnline.org, we help students identify affordable education pathways. Our site offers program overviews, career and financial aid guides, and school and program rankings. Our rankings sort schools by affordability, major, program type, and state. We only rank accredited online schools that offer at least 10 online master’s or bachelor’s degrees.

Affordability counts for 60% of our ranking decisions, while academic quality counts for 40%. We assess affordability based on factors such as net tuition rates, annual tuition changes, financial aid statistics, and loan default rates. AffordableCollegesOnline.org measures academic quality by student-to-faculty ratio, graduation and retention rates, and number of programs available. For graduate program rankings, we measure academic quality based on the percentage of online master’s programs and graduate students at a given institution.

Using credible, objective, and current education sources, we update our rankings annually to accurately present affordable higher education online programs available. Read further to learn more about our data sources and ranking methodology.

About the Data We Use



To create accurate, reliable rankings, AffordableCollegesOnline.org uses aggregated data from tools provided by the U.S. Department of Education such as College Scorecard and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

College Scorecard compiles data on higher education institutions and fields of study into accessible school profiles. These profiles offer information on cost, graduation rates, graduate employment, and student loan statistics.

Our ranking methodology also relies heavily on data from IPEDS, a National Center for Education Statistics program that surveys, aggregates, and analyzes information from over 7,000 postsecondary schools annually. IPEDS data measures student outcomes, debt, and institutional financing.

A Breakdown of Our Ranking Methodology

Online Academics Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 20%
Affordability 35%
Reputation 20%
Program Offerings 10%
Online Enrollment Score 15%
On-Campus Academics Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 30%
Affordability 40%
Reputation 15%
Program Offerings 15%
Best Online Colleges Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 20%
Affordability 35%
Reputation 20%
Online Enrollment Scores 25%
Best On-Campus Colleges Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 30%
Affordability 40%
Reputation 30%
Online Undergraduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 10%
Affordability 60%
Reputation 10%
Program Offerings 10%
Online Enrollment Score 10%
Online Graduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 15%
Affordability 60%
Reputation 15%
Online Enrollment Scores 10%
On-Campus Undergraduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 10%
Affordability 65%
Reputation 12%
Program Offerings 13%
On-Campus Graduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 10%
Affordability 65%
Reputation 12%
Program Offerings 13%

About Our Ranking Factors



AffordableCollegesOnline.org considers many factors when assessing online schools and programs. Our ranking factors include:

Academic Quality
Our rankings consider academic quality factors such as student retention rates, graduation rates, and full-time faculty ratios. Low student-to-faculty ratios also tend to correlate with high academic quality, so AffordableCollegesOnline.org also considers this data when ranking schools.
School Affordability
Since our site serves users seeking affordable higher education options, school affordability is weighted at 60% in our ranking system. We assess affordability based on many factors, including number of financial aid recipients, average amount of financial aid received per student, and median student debt.
School Reputation
Since school reputation often correlates with student success, we incorporate reputation into our rankings decisions. Graduates of reputable schools and programs often earn high salaries, so we consider graduate earnings when ranking a school’s reputation. Prestigious schools also typically admit only their top applicants, so we consider admission rates and enrollment rates as well.
Program Offerings
AffordableCollegesOnline.org only ranks schools that offer at least 10 online bachelor’s or master’s programs. High numbers of online programs tend to indicate established, successful online education systems.

Subfactors for Academic Quality


  • Graduation Rate

    This measure indicates the percentage of students who finish their degree in six years or less. A high graduation rate indicates that a school offers adequate support for its students.


  • Retention Rate

    This measure indicates what percentage of first-year students return to the same school for a second year. Since dissatisfied students may drop out or transfer to other schools, a high retention rate usually reflects a high satisfaction rate.


  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio

    This ratio indicates the average number of students per faculty member. Low student-to-faculty ratios often appear at smaller schools and elite schools. A low ratio typically means that students receive abundant personalized attention from faculty.


  • Proportion of Full-Time Faculty Ratio

    This ratio indicates the percentage of full-time faculty at an institution. A higher percentage often indicates higher quality academics because full-time faculty typically boast more competitive credentials and professional experience than part-time faculty.


Subfactors for Affordability


  • Average Net Price For Students Awarded Financial Aid

    This measures indicates the total tuition amount a student pays after receiving financial aid. By factoring in both tuition and financial aid, average net price serves as a very strong affordability indicator. The lowest net prices typically appear at the most affordable schools.


  • Average Loan Default Rate

    A program’s loan default rate measures how many graduates were able to repay their loans after completing the program. A high loan default rate indicates that many graduates were unable to repay their loans, which often points to a lack of employment opportunities. A low loan default rate indicates strong job prospects after graduation. Our methodology factors in the loan default rate as a measure of a degree’s affordability and its ability to prepare graduates for the workforce.


  • Percent of Undergraduate Students Awarded Federal Student Loans

    Federal loans make education more affordable by offering lower interest rates than private loans and allowing students adequate time for repayment. At affordable schools, a high percentage of the student body may receive federal student loans.


  • Average Amount of Federal Student Loans Awarded to Undergraduate Students

    This ranking factor measures the average loan amount the federal government awards a school’s enrollees. Federal loans typically come with lower interest rates than private loans. A high federal loan average can indicate a more affordable school.


  • Percent of Full-Time First-Time Undergraduates Awarded Any Financial Aid

    This number indicates the percentage of full-time undergraduates who receive any financial aid. A high percentage of financial aid recipients indicates that a school supports students in securing financial aid.


  • Average Amount of Grant and Scholarship Aid Awarded

    This figure measures the average grant and scholarship funding students receive. Unlike loans, scholarships and grants do not require repayment. Therefore, high scholarship and grant award amounts may correlate with less student debt.


  • Median Debt for Students

    This measure indicates the median debt that students owe six years after starting at a school. Schools with lower median debt accruals typically prove more affordable than schools with high debt medians.


Subfactors for Reputation


  • Admission Rate

    This statistic measures the percentage of applicants that a school admits. Elite schools often admit a small percentage of applicants. Consequently, schools with lower admission rates typically boast strong reputations.


  • Enrollment Rate

    This measure indicates the proportion of admitted applicants that actually end up enrolling. A high enrollment percentage indicates desirability and positively correlates with school prestige.


  • Average Earnings of Students Working

    Average earnings measures how much graduates make annually. Measured six years from first enrollment, a high earnings figure often suggests that the school’s offerings make profitable careers accessible to graduates.


Subfactors for Program Offerings


  • Percentage of Degrees Offered

    When ranking online programs, schools with a higher percentage of online degrees score better than schools with fewer online offerings. A high number suggests that a school significantly invests in organizing, developing, and improving online education.


  • Percentage of Students Enrolled in Online (Degree Level) Programs*

    Measuring the number of distance learners in relation to the school’s total enrollment, this percentage highlights the prevalence of the school’s online degree programs.

    *We only consider this subfactor for our online program rankings; not our on-campus rankings.


  • Overall Online Enrollment*

    Overall enrollment numbers include learners who take courses both on campus and online. This figure communicates the general popularity of online learning at a given school. A high online enrollee rate positively correlates with strong online programs.

    *We only use overall online enrollment as a subfactor in our online program rankings; not our on-campus rankings.


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