As more students turn to online education during the pandemic, they’re becoming increasingly interested in learning about the costs and payoffs of online degree programs. Now, Optimal (formerly the SR Education Group and the host for GradReports.com) has rebranded its Guide to Online Schools as a new source of such information.
The new product is called OnlineU, and this month it released 2021 Best Colleges for Return on Investment Rankings. The rankings are based on major-specific median salary and mean debt numbers gathered from the U. S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
“The pandemic has significantly accelerated the growth of online learning and delivered us into a territory where there is not a lot of qualitative or quantitative information yet,” said Optimal founder and CEO Sung Rhee. “OnlineU is looking to fill this space with our data-driven articles and outcomes-based rankings focused specifically on return on investment, so students are able to vet the value and outcome of their choices rather than playing the guessing game.”
To determine mid-career return on investment (ROI), schools were ranked by graduates’ salaries and debt payments 10 years after graduation, accounting for standard salary growth and interest on debt payments. Each school was given a percentile “ROI score” that shows how the salary and debt of alumni from that school’s online programs compared to similar ones.
A statistical score was calculated that compared each degree program’s 10-year ROI with the average 10-year ROI for all other programs in the same field. The scores for the programs offered online at each school were averaged and schools were ranked from highest to lowest on this average score. To be considered, schools needed to have the necessary data available for a minimum number of online programs at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s level.
The Top 20 Online Universities based on bachelor’s degrees include public, private non-profit, and for-profit institutions. They include traditional campus-based institutions as well as those that are exclusively online:
- University of Virginia
- Northeastern University
- Excelsior College
- Capella University
- SUNY Empire State College
- University of Alaska, Anchorage
- Roger Williams University
- Thomas Edison State University
- Rider University
- Colorado State University Global
- Drexel University
- University of Maryland Global Campus
- Concordia University, St. Paul
- St Joseph’s University
- Brandman University
- Bellevue University
- Miami University
- Western Governors University
- American Pacific University System
- Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide
The Top Ten Online Universities based on master’s degrees are all well-established public or private, nonprofit schools.
- Fordham University
- University of California, Berkeley
- Northwestern University
- Columbia University, New York
- Johns Hopkins University
- California State University, Northridge
- George Mason University
- University of Minnesota
- St. John’s University
- University of Maryland
In addition to these rankings, the site also ranks individual degree programs in a number of fields.
- So for example, if you’re considering earning a bachelor’s degree in Arts and Design, the University of Montana ranks #1 in ROI, with annual tuition of $21,600 and a median mid-career salary of $80,300. It’s followed by the University of Iowa (annual tuition: $8,073; mid-career salary: $61,914) and the University of Denver (annual tuition: $30,060; mid-career salary: $69,729).
- For a student wanting a Master’s in counseling, West Virginia University ranked #1 in ROI with annual tuition of $16,960 and median mid-year salary of $109,600. It was followed by Rutgers University (tuition: $11,040 and mid-career median salary: $72,600) and Pepperdine University (tuition: $49,135 and mid-career salary of $85,000).
Every college ranking system is limited by its methodology, and consumers need to understand that interpreting the results must be tempered by what data are collected and how. In the case of these online degree rankings, the reported salaries are specific to a limited time frame, and they’re extrapolated from earlier figures. The debt figures cover only federal loans, not other sources. Additionally, universities with a small number of online programs, and programs with a small number of graduates are not included.
Finally, the value of college should not be measured only in terms of dollars and cents. Many students don’t go to college merely as a financial investment—a plan to make a profit. They want to learn how to lead informed, engaged lives combined with the opportunity to be paid well as they do so. They want to encounter new ideas from people who are different from them. And they want to develop relationships that give lasting meaning to their lives. No ranking system fully captures all those motivations.
Nonetheless, understanding future financial outcomes is of interest to prospective students and their families as they grapple with the question of whether a college education is worth it. The 2021 Best Colleges for Return on Investment Rankings offers some useful information on that score.