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January 18, 2013 10:00 AM “Best” Online Programs

By Daniel Luzer

Part of the reason that online courses can transform American higher education, according to advocates, is that they offer the potential to offer a low cost education to many, many students. It’s an economy of scale thing. While traditional courses might top off at 300 students, in an online course one professor could potentially teach thousands.

But could he teach them effectively? What do good online programs look like? U.S. News & World Report, America’s major college ranking guide, has now released a ranking of online bachelor’s degree programs. And they’re mostly small.

The top ten schools in the rankings, “based on factors such as graduation rates, indebtedness of new graduates, and academic and career support services offered to students,” it’s are, in order, the online programs of Pace University, Daytona State College, St. John’s University, Westfield State University, Graceland University, Lawrence Technological University, Colorado State University, Brandman University, Bellevue University, and Regent University.

The publication gives scores to schools in various categories. Pace gets an 81.3 for “faculty training and credentials.” Graceland gets a 69.9 for “student engagement.” Brandman gets a 48 for “student services and technology.”

U.S. News also notes graduation rates. While few of the schools boast anything particularly high—Pace is 49 percent, Westfield State is 60 percent, Colorado State University is 31 percent—those grad rates appear pretty high for online programs, and not notably lower than those of many real colleges. But when attempting to generalize or lean anything from these rankings, however, it’s notable that most of these programs are tiny.

Pace University’s online program might have a 3-year graduation rate of 49 percent, but it also only has 212 students. Graceland University (number five) has 132. Lawrence Technological University only has only 50 students. St. John’s University’s online program (the third best program in America!) only enrolls 37 people.

So yes, these schools might technically be the “best” online academic programs in the country, but the reality is that most of these programs are so tiny as to be statistically meaningless. No wonder they have high student engagement and can boast extensive personal interaction; the programs themselves are smaller than the introductory lecture courses offered to most college freshmen.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer