2021 Best Online Colleges by Program Methodology

Our goal is to provide resources that allow prospective students to compare online degrees based on data from real-world outcomes. By using government data for alumni salary and debt to calculate the projected net earnings over 10 years, these rankings provide an initial gauge for whether a program may be worth the investment over time.

There are many factors that impact the value of a degree. Because an online degree is a huge financial investment, we focused on data related to financial outcomes. We hope that this can be a helpful first step for students to find online programs that will meet their needs.

Data Sources

Program-specific median salaries and median debts were collected from College Scorecard, a website run by the U.S. Department of Education. These data were published in December of 2020. Median salary reflects the earnings measured in 2017 and 2018 for students who graduated in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Median debt reflects students' debt upon graduation.

Tuitions were manually researched and reflect the lowest tuition rate available at the specified degree level. Out-of-state tuitions were used unless in-state tuition is offered to all online students. Figures are accurate at the time of publication; please check with the institution for current tuition rates.

Degree offerings, tuition rates, and details about program coursework were collected from official school websites, reflecting data for the 2020-2021 school year.

Programmatic accreditation and profit status of schools were collected from official websites of the accreditation agencies or from the National Center for Education Statistics. The NCES is the primary governmental entity for gathering and presenting data related to education. NCES data are updated annually, but the NCES does not release data into downloadable formats until they have been approved. We used data from from 2018-2019, which were the most current available data when the rankings were created.

10-Year ROI Calculation

For each school’s salary and debt for a given CIP code and degree level, we calculated a 10-year net return on investment (ROI). To calculate this 10-year ROI, salary (from one year after graduation) was multiplied by 129.5%, based on PayScale’s research on salary growth, to approximate growth for 10 years. Debt was assumed to be paid over 10 years with the current interest rate for federal loans at the time of publication, 4.53%.

CIP codes were grouped by our internal classification of subjects, then schools were ranked by their 10-year ROI for the subject. In situations where a school has data for multiple CIP codes for the same subject, we used a weighted average based on the graduate count for earnings.

ROI amounts were rounded to the nearest hundred.


To be considered for these rankings, schools need to be regionally or nationally accredited and need to offer at least one fully online degree in a given subject for the degree level that is ranked. Schools with programs that require some on-campus coursework were still considered for our rankings if the amount of in-person work required was limited to two weeks or less per year. This allows students to retain their current employment or other personal responsibilities.

Because our 10-year ROI calculation uses program-specific salary and debt data from College Scorecard, schools must also have salary and debt data available for the program and degree level specified.

Limitations of these Rankings

Like any data set, our rankings have limitations and shortcomings.

The data from College Scorecard are based on students who received financial aid through federal loan programs (accounting for around 86% of students), and does not have data for students who did not receive financial aid.

The ROI amounts were projected over ten years to account for how much salaries can change over time as well as the typical repayment rate for federal student loans. However, data were only available for the first year after graduation. For our calculations, income growth is approximated and debt is assumed to be paid over 10 years with the current interest rate for federal loans at the time of publication.

To protect student privacy, College Scorecard suppresses student count and earnings data that could be personally identifiable and adds noise to earnings data. This decreases the data coverage for some programs and makes the data less precise than they would be without privacy suppression methods. More information can be found in College Scorecard’s data documentation.