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Optimal Choice Online Colleges Methodology

OnlineU's Optimal Choice selections are primarily online colleges that combine relatively low cost with high starting salaries for alumni. To compile the list, we analyzed the tuition and alumni salary information for eligible schools that offer online bachelor's degrees. Below, we've included information on how we determined eligibility, along with the sources and limitations of our data.

Optimal Choice logo with background image


OnlineU created several data thresholds to allow us to curate the selection of Optimal Choice online colleges. To be considered for OnlineU's Optimal Choice list, a school needed:

  • A Salary Score in the 60th percentile or higher
  • Tuition below the average amount for a bachelor's degree in the U.S.
  • 15 or more online bachelor's degree programs
  • Five or more bachelor's programs with known alumni earnings data
  • At least 50% of undergraduate students taking primarily online classes

About the Data

Salary Score

Salary Scores provide a comparison of starting salaries for graduates of a particular major at one school to starting salaries for graduates of the same major at other schools. These scores draw from College Scorecard data on alumni salaries for bachelor's degree graduates.

To calculate a school’s overall Salary Score for the bachelor's level, we first calculated z-scores for the median earnings one year after completion for each individual program with the same CIP code and level in the College Scorecard data set. In this way, we evaluated a degree program at one school against the same degree program across all colleges. Next, we calculated an average of the z-scores of all the bachelor's programs at a school, weighted by the number of students in each program. We then converted this average z-score into a percentile, represented by the Salary Score.


We manually collected tuition amounts from each college's website. For public colleges, we used the out-of-state tuition rate unless the school offers the in-state rate to online students, which is not uncommon. If we found a global tuition at the bachelor's level for a college, we used that number. Otherwise, the tuition we made our calculations using the bachelor's degree with the lowest tuition.

To calculate the threshold, OnlineU determined the average undergraduate tuition rate based on our manually collected online tuitions for colleges that offer undergraduate online degrees.

Number of online bachelor's degrees

OnlineU manually collected online degree data from college websites. A degree was considered online if the majority of lectures, discussions, and assignment submissions take place via a remote learning management system. 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, allowing students to work around job or other responsibilities.

CIP count

OnlineU wanted to ensure diversity in our data points while calculating Salary Scores. Therefore, we only considered schools with available earnings data for graduates of at least five different bachelor's degree programs. This data is based on the number of Classification of Instructional Programs codes detailed in a school's College Scorecard profile.

Percentage of online students

To guarantee that our data was representative of online graduates, we excluded colleges whose student populations take mostly in-person classes. We took the numbers of online undergraduates for a particular school from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). We then divided this number by the total undergraduate student population to find the percentage of distance learners.

Data Limitations

As with any data set, the data used for our rankings has limitations and shortcomings. College Scorecard and IPEDS data is 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. However, the majority of graduates included in the data sets attended school online because we are comparing primarily online colleges.

The earnings data used in our Salary Score is for alumni in the first year after completing a degree. This does not take into account the levels of growth income alumni can experience in the years after graduation and does not make predictions about future income. The data is based on the earnings of students who received federal financial aid because that is the sample for which the Department of Education has data. This excludes students who did not receive federal financial aid.

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

Tuitions are manually collected and undergo quality assurance checks, but there may still be errors due to the complexity of tuition details and differences in processes for calculating rates. If you are a school representative and have questions or resources for how your school's tuition is calculated, please contact us.


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