One of the biggest changes to higher education in recent years has been the evolving profile of the average college student. While that student was once full-time, young and financially dependent on loans or other support, today he or she is more likely to be part-time, older and working, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
"Students today are doing more than one thing," says Karen VanGorder, director of online learning and credit programs at Indiana University-Purdue University—Fort Wayne, a school that offers several online bachelor's programs. "It's just not possible to fit on-campus courses into their schedules and online learning helps them fit it in."
To help students make smart decisions about their online education, U.S. News has released the 2014 Best Online Programs rankings. Now in their third year, the rankings cover online bachelor's degrees and online master's degrees in engineering, business, education, nursing and computer information technology.
[Learn how to tell whether an online program is accredited.]
Nearly 1,000 distance education programs submitted a completed U.S. News questionnaire during the summer of 2013, up from 860 programs the previous year. Only degree-granting programs offering courses entirely online were considered. The rankings are the only ones published that compare data of online degree programs rather than the schools that offer them.
The methodologies behind this year's rankings changed significantly to reflect additional data and statistical processes used to do the calculations. These changes are the primary factors behind why schools moved up and down in the rankings.
For the first time, all six rankings include peer review data based on schools' evaluations of each other. The new rankings also give greater weight to one-year retention rates, graduation rates and required time to graduate. Selectivity has less weight in some of the master's disciplines and again is not a ranking factor used in the online bachelor's programs rankings, since most online undergraduate programs don't require standardized test scores or high school transcripts.
[Discover the Best Online Bachelor's Programs.]
While students don't necessarily need straight A's to get into a top online education program, that doesn't mean they should discount the difficulty of the course work. Experts and online students say online education is just as hard – if not harder – than work in an on-campus program.
"People say it's easy, but that's so far from the truth," says Billie Jo Parker, a 45-year-old woman earning her bachelor's degree at Central Michigan University, which tied for the No. 1 spot among the online bachelor's programs. "You have to be so disciplined and organized. I am tired of coming home, doing dishes and doing homework."
Below is a sampling of some of the top online programs this year.
Bachelor's: Most online undergraduate students study business, according to a June 2013 report by Learning House. Within business, the most popular degrees include business administration and management, accounting and finance.
The online bachelor's rankings saw significant changes as a result of the updated methodology and the higher number of programs evaluated. Central Michigan University moved up from No. 39 last year to tie for first place with SUNY College of Technology—Delhi, which did not submit data to U.S. News for the 2013 rankings. Pace University, which earned the highest distinction last year, tied for third with Pennsylvania State University—World Campus. Westfield State University went from No. 4 last year to a tie at No. 32 this year, while Graceland University fell from fifth to a tie at No. 65.
Business (master's): Indiana University—Bloomington Kelley School of Business was ranked No. 1 on the list of online graduate business degree programs, moving up from third place last year. Arizona State University's Carey School of Business was second on the list, followed by the University of Florida Hough Graduate School of Business. Among the big movers in this category was James Madison University, which rose from 49th place to a tie for the No. 9 spot with Quinnipiac University and Temple University.
[Explore the Best Online Business Programs.]
Engineering (master's): Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science earned the highest distinction among online graduate engineering programs. The Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of California—Los Angeles came in second, followed by the engineering program at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, which placed third.
Computer Information Technology (master's): The University of Southern California once again placed No. 1 on the list of online graduate programs in computer information technology. Boston University tied with Virginia Tech for second place. North Carolina State University and Syracuse University were ranked fourth and fifth, respectively.
Education (master's): Northern Illinois University earned the distinction of the best online master's in education program, followed by Indiana University—Bloomington. Central Michigan University and University of Houston tied for the No. 3 spot. St. John's University, which was ranked first last year, placed fifth.
Nursing (master's): St. Xavier University earned first place in the rankings of online nursing master's programs, unseating Ferris State University, which previously held the top spot. Medical University of South Carolina placed second, followed by the University of Massachusetts—Amherst, George Washington University and East Carolina University.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.