Online course enrollment in the United States hit an all-time high in 2010 with more than 6.1 million students, and the trend shows no signs of leveling off, according to a 2011 report by the Babson Survey Research Group.
Enrollment in online classes doubled between 2007 and 2011, driven largely by a stagnant economy and competitive job market, but also by robust online offerings from established public and private institutions, according to the report. At more than 2,500 colleges and universities surveyed, 65 percent of administrators say that online learning is a vital piece of their institution's long-term strategy.
Recognizing the growing importance of online education in the college experience, and the unique formula necessary to make online degree programs successful, U.S. News is releasing its first Top Online Education Programs rankings.
THE BACHELOR DEGREE HONOR ROLL
U.S. News ranked 196 online bachelor's degree programs and 523 online master's degree programs in business, engineering, nursing, education, and computer information technology. Programs considered for the rankings needed to have at least 80 percent of their course content available online.
Bachelor's programs were ranked in three distinct categories: student engagement and assessment, student services and technology, and faculty credentials and training. Master's programs had similar ranking categories, but were ranked on student engagement and accreditation, rather than assessment, and had a separate indicator ranking for admissions selectivity.
[See the methodologies behind the Top Online Programs rankings.]
The U.S. News honor roll lists single out schools that ranked in the top third across at least three of these indicator rankings. Honor roll lists were compiled for online bachelor's degree programs and master's degree programs in nursing, business, education, and engineering. Online master's programs in computer information technology have no honor roll because too few programs from the smaller universe of schools met the criteria.
While for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, DeVry University, and American Public University are among the schools with the highest enrollments in online programs, no for-profit institutions received honor roll distinctions. Instead, a handful of public and private institutions with established on-campus programs, in addition to online offerings, received high marks across all categories.
The top performers in online bachelor's degree programs include Pace University in New York and the University of Florida. Auburn University in Alabama made the honor roll for its online master's programs in education and engineering, and George Washington University's master's programs earned the Washington, D.C., school mentions in the education, business, and nursing honor rolls.
Bachelor's: The majority of online bachelor's programs are degree-completion programs designed for students with some college credit or applicable work experience. Many students juggle school, work, and family obligations, so teachers must find a way to engage their students despite distractions and minimal face-to-face contact.
Westfield State University in Massachusetts earned the top spot for faculty training and credentials among online bachelor's programs, and Nebraska's Bellevue University earned the No. 1 spot for student engagement and assessment. Technology and infrastructure are also key components of a successful online program, and Arizona State University claimed the top spot for student services and technology.
Business (master's): The top online master's in business programs in each rankings category were Washington State University (admissions selectivity), University of Scranton in Pennsylvania (student engagement and accreditation), Arkansas State University-- Jonesboro (faculty credentials and training), and Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina (student services and technology). While each program performed well in distinct areas, only Gardner-Webb and Arkansas State earned spots on the online business honor roll. Temple University in Pennsylvania, Arizona State's W.P. Carey School of Business, and University of Mississippi are also among the 14 schools on the business honor roll.
[Learn how the online M.B.A. rankings are calculated.]
Engineering (master's): Two of the three schools earning honor roll distinction for their online master's of engineering programs-- University of Wisconsin-- Madison and Auburn University-- are no strangers to U.S. News's traditional graduate rankings. Joining the duo on the honor roll is Lawrence Technological University in Michigan. Auburn's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering topped the admissions selectivity ranking, and UW–Madison's College of Engineering claimed the No. 1 spot in both student engagement and accreditation and student services and technology. The University of Bridgeport in Connecticut leads the pack in faculty credentials and training.
Nursing (master's or doctorate of nursing practice): The master's or doctorate of nursing practice programs that lead the rankings include George Washington (faculty credentials and training), University of Northern Colorado (student engagement and accreditation), Delta State University in Mississippi (admissions selectivity), and Loyola University New Orleans (student services and technology). Loyola and George Washington made the honor roll list for their online master's in nursing programs; also on that list are Drexel University in Pennsylvania, Clarkson College in Nebraska, and the University of Colorado-- Denver Health Sciences Center School of Nursing.
[Read about the factors used to rank the top online nursing programs.]
Education (master's): The highest ranked online master's of education programs are at New York's Syracuse University (student services and technology), Northern Illinois University (faculty credentials and training), Pennsylvania State University-- University Park (admissions selectivity), and University of Northern Colorado (student engagement and accreditation). Northern Illinois, Penn State, and Syracuse also joined a handful of other schools on the education honor roll.
Computer Information Technology (master's): Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore tops the ranking for online CIT programs in student services and technology, and Penn State University-- University Park leads its peers in faculty credentials and training. Southern Polytechnic State University in Georgia earned a No. 1 ranking in student engagement and accreditation, while North Carolina State University-- Raleigh leads the ranking for admissions selectivity in online CIT programs.
Searching for an online program? Get our complete rankings of Top Online Education Programs.