Online Schools programs

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For the first time, online MBA and graduate criminal justice offerings are among the programs being ranked.

Indiana University—Bloomington, Temple University and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill tied for the top spot in the inaugural Best Online MBA rankings.

About 5.4 million students, or 1 in 4, took at least one distance education course during the fall of 2012, according to the most recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics. A 2014 survey of online students found that they put the most emphasis on reputation and cost when choosing an online program. But there are many other factors – from class meeting times to graduation rates – to consider.

For the fourth year, the rankings include online bachelor's degrees, as well as online master's degrees in business, engineering, computer information technology, education and nursing. This year, for the first time, U.S. News has ranked online graduate criminal justice programs, and it has created a stand-alone ranking of online MBA programs.

Tied for the top spot in the new online MBA rankings were Indiana University—Bloomington (Kelley), Temple University (Fox) in Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler). The inaugural criminal justice rankings were led by the University of California—Irvine. In the online bachelor's category, which includes the most ranked programs with more than 280, Pennsylvania State University—World Campus landed in the No. 1 spot.

In total, U.S. News assessed more than 1, 200 online degree programs, up more than 20 percent from last year. Only degree-granting programs offered mostly or entirely online were considered. The rankings made no distinction between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

The addition of Best Online MBA Programs was one of the biggest changes to the rankings. While U.S. News has ranked online graduate business programs since 2012, previous editions combined MBA and non-MBA programs into a single ranking. Non-MBA master's programs in areas such as accounting and finance continue to be ranked, but in a separate category. Both methodologies focus on factors such as faculty credentials, selectivity and reputation.

Similar factors were also used in the first rankings of online graduate criminal justice programs, though the methodologies used different weights. The rankings include both criminal justice and criminology master's degrees, since students tend to research both when choosing a program.

Revisions to the methodologies used to assess other online programs led to some changes in the rankings. In the case of online bachelor's degrees, for example, U.S. News significantly decreased the weight given to a program's percentage of tenured faculty, reflecting that many of those programs are more focused on vocational skills than on research.

However, the most dramatic movement in the rankings was caused by the schools themselves, as they reported new or more complete information about their programs.

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