Online Programs to Be Ranked by 'U.S. News and World Report'

For nearly 30 years, 'U.S. News and World Report' has published a well-known and generally respected guide ranking colleges and universities throughout the United States. Now, it will be turning its sights to ranking online programs. But is the idea being well-received?


No Easy Task

Near the end of June 2011, the editor for U.S. News and World Report sent memos to more than 1,000 online and traditional colleges and universities alerting them to look for surveys about online degree programs that were being sent by the magazine, in hopes that these institutions would be interested in participating. The magazine is seeking to rank programs offered by both online colleges and traditional schools with programs that are conducted at least 80% online.

For now, U.S. News is focusing on online programs with the highest enrollments: bachelor's degree programs in addition to those offering a master's degree in business, engineering, education, nursing and computer information technology. It will only be ranking programs and not the institutions offering the programs.

In a paraphrase of Tom Cruise's well-known and oft-quoted line from the movie Jerry Maguire, 'Show me the money!', the answer from many schools when asked if they would take part in the survey was: Show us the questions first. (U.S. News stresses that even if a small number of surveys are returned, they will publish something and simply notify readers that the information is provided using 'limited responses'.)

Why the hesitancy? For one, questions about the magazine's methodologies abound, as many feel it is a much more difficult task to compare online programs than it is overall institutions. Robert Morse, the director of the rankings, admitted to Inside Higher Education in June that the criteria for evaluating programs had not yet been determined, mainly because U.S. News wants to get back the surveys and study the responses first.

But Morse says it may not be as difficult to measure such programs as some might think. One way is to look at similar programs. Programs offering the same degrees will likely have outcomes that can be easily compared. Other indicators might include the extent of training online faculty has received; if an online instructor also teaches the same course or courses in the classroom; how a program monitors cheating on online tests; and the percentage of online faculty who are adjunct instructors. Graduation rates and job placement could also be measured.

A 'Worthwhile Effort'

Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Networks director Frank Mayadas said that the upcoming rankings by U.S. News indicates online education as 'significant' and validated, and believes the magazine's attempt is a 'worthwhile effort.' He did remain cautiously optimistic, however, mainly because of an error by a website affiliated with U.S. News which illustrates the potential difficulty of assessing online schools and programs.

The site, U.S. News University Directory, posted a positive review about Almeda University, a non-accredited online institution. Although the posting was removed, some say such mistakes could hurt the magazine's credibility. The University Directory incident might have prompted Mayadas to tell The Chronicle of Higher Education, in addition to his support of online rankings, that 'I'm not sure that U.S. News will get it right this time around' and added that they might need to 'keep working' to make the rankings accurate.

U.S. News has stated that surveys were being sent only to colleges and universities with proper accreditation. Both Morse and U.S. News editor Brian Kelly feel that they may face the most difficulty getting online schools to respond to the surveys, as these institutions typically do not disclose any more information than is legally required. Morse and Kelly hope that these schools will realize that in the long run the rankings will be in their best interests and will accurately portray the data being provided.

But for the most part, schools who have invested in online education will likely cooperate with U.S. News. Officials from University of Central Florida and University of Massachusetts at Lowell, for instance, have already anticipated their participation. The for-profit American Public University System has also voiced its support.

The targeted release for the online rankings is October 2011.

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