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Best Online College Programs Methodology

OnlineU's program rankings compare the real-world outcomes of online school alumni. We evaluate online programs based on alumni salaries to help prospective students determine which online degree programs would 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. Regionally 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 for graduates who majored in that program area.


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

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 data from College Scorecard, a resource provided by the U.S. Department of Education. To calculate a school’s overall Salary Score by level, we compared alumni earnings for each individual program to 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.

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. Therefore, 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. We calculated our chosen threshold by pulling data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to determine a value that indicates a substantial ratio of online to on-campus student
  • 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 in entry-level positions. 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.

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.

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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