Best Value Online Colleges Rankings: the Methodology

Read below for all the details on how we determine the top schools for each “best values” online ranking article.


For all of our online best college value rankings, we stick to the same basic methodology. However, in certain cases we may add a rating category or make another minor adjustment as the article’s subject matter requires. Please see the individual rankings for any subject-specific information related to the methodology.

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In general, we consider two essential factors in our rankings:

Graduation Rate: Using data available on College Navigator, we determine each online college’s graduation rate, which is defined as the number of students who graduate in “time and a half.” This would mean three years for an associate’s program, six years for a bachelor’s, etc. We consider this graduation rate rather than “on time” figures because of how common it is for students to take more than four years to earn a standard degree. In fact, the majority of students don’t graduate in the traditional time frame. Considering the complexity of today’s economic climate, the increasing competitiveness for college degrees, and the number of nontraditional students enrolled in school, this statistic is unsurprising. It’s also not bad that some students need more time – in fact it can be a sign of maturity that they don’t rush through their studies – so we use this modified graduation rate in an attempt to specifically identify the schools that offer ample student support and focus on overall retention, not turnover.

Cost: It’s difficult to have a conversation about value without taking into account the financial burden that one might incur in order to obtain it. For us, value extends far beyond quality. We encourage students to see their collegiate experience as an investment – and to analyze the potential returns accordingly. For articles that focus on undergraduate education, we use College Navigator data on “net price,” a figure that incorporates annual tuition as well as average financial aid packages and miscellaneous expenses including room and board.

Even though it incorporates expenses that don’t apply to online students (like room and board), net price is nonetheless a good indicator of how much an online student may expect to pay relative to other schools. It is also an indicator of how generous a school may tend to be when awarding scholarships and other financial aid.

Because online tuition can vary among programs within an institution, we encourage prospective students to contact schools directly for information about exact costs for their program of interest.

For articles that focus on advanced degrees, we report a combined price that represents an average of in-state and out-of-state tuition and fees at the graduate level. We draw this distinction because College Navigator calculates net price numbers using undergrad-specific data (including tuition rates) and thus would not be relevant for students seeking a master’s or PhD program. In the case of combined rankings that include both undergraduate and graduate programs, we stick to general tuition rates for the sake of consistency.

In all cases, we weight the categories equally and determine a combined total score for each college out of a maximum total of 100 points. The top scorers take the top spots on our rankings. We then provide informative summaries and links – but leave the rest up to you!