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Best Online Colleges by Salary Score Methodology

OnlineU's program rankings compare the real-world outcomes of alumni from online schools to those of graduates with the same degrees across the country. We evaluate online programs based on alumni salaries to help prospective students determine which degree will be the best long-term financial investment.

From this analysis, each program is assigned a Salary Score that represents its position relative to other programs. Each school is also given a Salary Score based on an average of its program scores, weighted by the number of graduates in each program. Accredited colleges that meet our online eligibility requirements are ranked by Salary Score in order to determine which colleges tend to have higher alumni salary outcomes across majors.

We rank schools based on Salary Score because the cost of college is a significant investment and we believe students deserve to know the financial outcomes of graduates. We hope that our rankings will be a helpful starting point for students researching colleges and know that there are many other factors they will want to consider based on their goals and priorities.

Eligibility Requirements

To be considered for OnlineU's overall rankings list, a school needs to meet the following criteria:

  • Offer enough fully online degrees at the correlating degree level to provide a variety of options for online students to choose from.
  • Have enough earnings data from College Scorecard to calculate Overall Salary Score
  • Meet threshold for online student representation

About the Data

Salary Score

Salary Scores represent alumni salaries after graduation within specific programs and degree levels. This rankings system — proprietary to Optimal — allows readers to compare real-world salary outcomes for the alumni of their desired majors across universities. Armed with this data, prospective students can gauge which specific program might offer the highest financial outcome for graduates.

Salary Scores are calculated using earnings data for median earnings in the year after graduation and graduate count sourced from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard Field of Study data, released in March 2022. Data is for students who graduated in 2017 and 2018, with earnings measured in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and inflation-adjusted to 2020 dollars.

To calculate a school’s overall Salary Score by level, we compared alumni earnings for each individual program to earnings for graduates from the same programs at schools across the country. In this way, a degree program at one school was evaluated against the same degree program across all schools. We assign each school a Salary Score from 0-100, with 100 being the best, to show how well students fare in their field of study compared to other schools.

Online Learning Representation

Programs must be primarily administered online in order to be considered for our rankings. A fully online degree is defined as such when the majority of lectures, discussions, and assignment submissions occur through a remote learning management system. OnlineU manually collects this information from college websites. Schools with programs that require some on-campus coursework were still considered for our rankings if the amount of required in-person work was limited to two weeks per year.

To maintain a strong focus on online education, we wanted our rankings to focus on schools with significant online student representation. All ranked schools must meet at least one of the following thresholds for online representation:

  • A significant percentage of the student population is represented as distance learners. OnlineU calculates our chosen threshold by pulling data from the NCES' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).
  • The median number of online students for a certain degree level is proportionate to typical online representation across institutions.

Data Limitations

Like any data set, the data used for our rankings has some limitations and shortcomings. College Scorecard and IPEDS data are not separated by online versus on-campus students, so schools with records that contain both online and on-campus data may not have data specific to online graduates.

The earnings data used in our Salary Score is based on alumni earnings in their first year after graduation. This does not take into account alumni's potential for growing their income as their careers develop, and only includes the earnings of students who received federal financial aid. This also does not take into account students who did not finish their degree.

To protect student privacy, College Scorecard suppresses student count and earnings data that could be personally identifiable. This impacts the data coverage and accuracy for some programs. More information can be found in College Scorecard’s data documentation.

College Scorecard data is not online specific, which is why we chose to utilize an online threshold in our college eligibility. 

Information on offered online degrees is manually collected from school websites. If you are a school representative and have corrections or additional data on your school's offerings, please contact us.


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