The number of students enrolled in distance education courses continues to rise as learners choose flexible online programs for finishing degrees, changing or boosting their careers and acquiring new skills.
Data released early last year by the Babson Survey Research Group revealed that the number of U.S. higher education students taking at least one distance education class rose by 3.7 percent from fall 2012 to 2013. While this statistic marks the slowest rate of growth in more than a decade, online courses remain a viable option for millions of people, with career preparation serving as the primary motivator, according to 2015 survey data released by Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House.
Students considering online learning can use U.S. News' 2016 Best Online Programs rankings to research and compare their options.
For the fifth year, U.S. News ranked online bachelor's degrees as well as master's degree programs in business, computer information technology, education, engineering and nursing. As a result of adding new disciplines last year, U.S. News also ranked online criminal justice master's degree programs, and online MBA programs were once again ranked separately from other business degrees.
Explore the full [2016 Best Online Programs rankings.]
In addition, the Best Online Programs for Veterans are ranked for the fourth year. To be considered, a program must first rank within the top 75 percent in the 2016 Best Online Programs rankings. It must also belong to a school that is certified for the GI Bill and that helps veterans reduce tuition costs via the Yellow Ribbon Program or by offering in-state tuition to out-of-state veterans. Pennsylvania State University--World Campus maintained its No. 1 rank among the online bachelor's degree programs for veterans, tying this year with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University--Worldwide.
In total, U.S. News received and analyzed data from more than 1,200 online degree programs. The rankings include programs that are completely online, though a program still meets the criteria if it has in-person requirements for orientations, testing and support services. The rankings do not include blended learning programs, nor do they distinguish between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.
Rankings are determined by factors including student engagement, faculty credentials and training, peer reputation, and student services and technology. Each ranking category weighs the factors differently, and all except for online bachelor's degree programs also weigh admissions selectivity.
Some programs saw major changes in their rankings this year, which is typically the result of schools completing survey questions that they had not in the past.
Get tips from online students and instructors on the [Online Learning Lessons blog.]
Below is a sampling of some of this year's top programs.
Bachelor's: Penn State--World Campus earned the top spot for the second year in a row among online bachelor's programs, tying with Embry-Riddle, which tied for fifth last year. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky University dropped one spot to third, and the University of Illinois--Chicago fell two spots to fourth.
Among some of the most drastic rankings changes this year were the University of Georgia's rise to No. 5 from a tie at No. 90 last year, and West Texas A&M University moving to a tie at No. 11 from a tie at No. 119.
MBA: Temple University stayed at No. 1 among top online MBA programs, while Indiana University--Bloomington and the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, which also tied for the top spot last year, fell to No. 2 and 3, respectively.
Discover the [best online MBA programs.]
Business (master's): Among online non-MBA business master's degree programs, Indiana University--Bloomington remained in the top spot. The University of Connecticut rose one spot to No. 2, while Arizona State University remained at No. 3. The University of Texas--Dallas fell two spots to fourth in the rankings, tying with Florida State University, which surged from No. 26 last year.
Engineering (master's): The University of California--Los Angeles again ranked first among online engineering master's degree programs. The University of Southern California, which ranked third in 2015, rose to No. 2 this year, switching spots with Columbia University.
In some of the greatest changes among engineering programs, Mississippi State University rose to No. 7 from a tie at No. 20 last year, and Missouri University of Science & Technology, which also ranked 20th last year, rose to a tie for ninth.
Criminal justice (master's): The University of California--Irvine, which ranked first in last year's inaugural rankings of online criminal justice programs, fell to No. 4 this year. Boston University is the new No. 1, rising from a tie at the No. 2 spot last year. Arizona State stayed in second, and Sam Houston State University rose two spots to No. 3.
Computer information technology (master's): Last year's top five online master's degree programs in computer information technology all held the same spots this year. The University of Southern California was the top performer, followed by Virginia Tech, Boston University, Penn State--World Campus and Johns Hopkins University.
Education (master's): The University of Florida rose 12 spots to No. 1 this year in the online education programs rankings, tying with the University of Houston, which also held the top rank last year. Florida State fell one spot to a tie at No. 3.
Among the greatest ranking changes in this category were the University of Georgia, which tied for third this year, up from a tie at No. 28 last year, and the University of Illinois--Urbana Champaign, rising to a tie at No. 7 from a tie at No. 47.
Nursing (master's): The top three online master's programs in nursing swapped places this year. The University of South Carolina rose to first from a tie for third last year, while the Medical University of South Carolina fell one spot to No. 2. St. Xavier University also fell a spot to third.
Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.
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