Why You Shouldn’t Trust Online College Rankings – A Cautionary Tale

As someone who obsessively tracks online college degree offerings, I see every Google alert announcing a new list of the “top” Online Colleges. The US News rankings are best known, and of course they have their own issues. But in truth, most sites use rankings to gain exposure via the SEO, PR and headline game.

Just a couple of weeks ago there was a press release from a well-established lead gen site revealing “the Best Online Colleges & Universities for 2019-2020.”

I’m not going to say the name of the site (so as to deny them any more clicks than they deserve) but what I will say is that they self-identify as a “a nationally recognized publisher of college resources and rankings”. Their goal is to “help students find affordable, quality schools that provide a high return on investment.”

Since I’m also in the business of helping students find affordable, quality schools that provide a high ROI I needed to check this out!

According to the site their rankings are based on “affordability and return on investment, while also considering factors such as graduation and retention rates according to NCES College Navigator reporting.”

OK, sounds fair enough. Let’s take a look.

Ranked #1 is The University of Michigan. UM is certainly one of the best public colleges in the country, but it seems there’s a bit of a problem with this ranking. What this site is telling me is that the best Online College for 2019-20 is a college with a grand total of 3 online degree programs?

That’s like saying I’m the best chef in America cause I can make three excellent breakfast dishes.

The site includes as supportive information the retention rate of 97%, a grad rate of 92% and a ROI of $559,000. Impressive!

However…the University of Michigan announced its Online Master’s programs, done in partnership with Coursera and Noodle, will launch in Fall of 2019.

So the flagship campus of the #1 ranked Online College in this site’s “Best of 2019-20” hasn’t even started offering online degrees! In fact, the retention and grad rates that it mentions are based on every program that UM offers EXCEPT for the very programs that the rankings are based on!

Let’s go a bit further down the list. The #2 ranked school is Villanova and #3 school is the University of North Florida. Knowing the other Florida schools with large and industry-leading online operations, I was somewhat surprised that UNF rank third-best in the entire nation.

I also noticed elsewhere on the site they have a ranking of the top Online Colleges in Florida.

Guess what?

University of North Florida is ranked THIRD on that list.

So the #3 ranked online college in all of these United States is not the top online college in its own state? I live in Florida so I know it’s a bit different, but c’mon.

So in other words these rankings, as is the case with most online college rankings, are worth about as much as the paper they’re not even printed on. They are designed to create clicks and generate leads for paying customers, and certainly not to help students find the right school.

So beware!

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