Do Rankings Really Matter When You Shop For The Best Online Programs?

Create your own "Best" programs rankings

Are you currently searching the web for best online programs in your field of interest? We collect a significant amount of data from online program websites to share for free with prospective students. And we COULD develop a proprietary algorithm to create a variety of “best” rankings of online degree programs. But we think that there are already too many of these nonsensical rankings sources. It’s truly unfortunate that most are taken seriously as a way to evaluate the quality of  online programs.

What thoughtful person isn’t curious about online degree programs that are, allegedly, the Most Affordable or the Best? But, be careful. Researching online program options is an overwhelming task as thousands of programs are now online. This could lead you to find short-cuts to select your best online programs based only on a few web-based sources that bill themselves as “authoritative”.

You ultimately OWN your purchase decision when you take shortcuts to pick an online degree. Why would you rely on marketing firms who are using rankings to market programs?  You can do your own evaluation based on what’s most important to you using the Online Degree Database.

Here are 3 of many possible examples that prove the rule on why you should create your own short-list of online programs to consider. You don’t have to accept rankings offered by marketers as authoritative.  Most are inherently biased and vastly under-represent your available options.

Example One

There have been numerous stories in the media over the past few years documenting institutions caught providing false data to U.S. News & World Report. The US News methodology relies on institutions being truthful when providing their proprietary data annually in a survey. It also asks institutions to provide specific data points that may be difficult, if not possible, to provide. The pressure to perform well in U.S. News & World Report rankings creates the temptation to cheat or guess / estimate responses. This significantly undermines the value of these rankings to students. It’s a huge thorn in the side of institutions too who come under increasing pressure to rank highly.

Example Two

Many websites offer a listing of ‘Most Affordable Online Colleges’ or some other such tuition-related measure.  If you look at the way they create the rankings, you’ll find that the data used are usually very limited.  For example, one prominent site says their affordability ranking is created using one year’s tuition at both undergraduate and graduate levels. To their credit, they gather their data from the tuition pages on university websites and provide the link to the tuition page to verify these data. But the data are misleading because:

  1. Students generally want to know the total cost of the degree, not just one year’s tuition.
  2. Fees are left out of the annual cost equation (in the case of one #1 ranked institution, the graduate fully online fees raised the total cost per credit to $426 from the $255 reported on the website).
  3. Many institutions price online programs differently (e.g. the online MBA at one institution may be 20%+ more expensive than their online M.Ed. program). This simplistic ranking approach completely obscures this information and offers a misleading impression of real costs to you.

Example Three

Many websites use “proprietary multi-criteria optimization” algorithms that analyze key data points to come up with their rankings. It all sounds very impressive to anyone who is looking for help in finding their best online program.  But, the “multi-criteria” indicators are taken from widely available, high-level data that institutions report to the federal government. The lists of online programs they then feature are only those that pay them to gather prospective students leads. These are not necessarily the best options for you based on what’s most important to YOU.

This secret sauce approach to fancy modeling is a common trait among rankings websites. And they use rankings to game Google algorithms to earn higher SEO scores with large amounts of often meaningless content. How is this helpful to you when you are researching online degree programs for your best options?

Why Accept Less?

The Online Degree Database knows that it’s better for you to have all of the data to use in your decision-making. It’s not helpful to have a hastily-thrown-together, misleading summary of these data. We give you the data and the tools you need to create YOUR OWN FREE short-list of online degree programs. You choose the criteria and the approach that makes the most sense for you. Then you apply it to the universe of available programs in our database. We help you complete the due diligence that a purchase this important deserves!

And, we never ask for or sell your contact information to universities. Our university sponsorship program, a source of funding for the database, is attractive to universities for several reasons: They see the value in competing fairly against each other. And they agree that student enrollment should be driven by positive program characteristics, not the size of the online program marketing budget.

Create Your Own Short-List of Best Programs

We’ve created and published simple, unbiased rankings of online programs by program type using our data before. And we’ve demonstrated how our data are more reliable than what you find at other websites (check out our other blog posts). But with our data, you decide what is BEST. And as mentioned before, it’s free.

Use our interactive tool to select a degree program and complete your own “best” online program analyses. Generate as many free reports as you need to get the result you desire.

Take some time to consider these criteria:

  • Is the location (state) of the school a top priority for you?
  • Is it important that the program is professionally-accredited?
  • What is the total tuition of the program (total cost per credit as reported by the program website times the total credits required to complete the degree)?
  • Is the institution Public or Private? For Profit or Not-For-Profit?
  • What is the minimum GPA requirement you need based on your undergraduate transcripts?
  • Does the online program require a GMAT / GRE score for admissions consideration?
  • Are there specific concentrations you are interested in?

With nearly 5,000 online programs from over 950 institutions in the database (as of July, 2019), you know that the online program research you complete with our website is truly the very best possible.

Example of Personalized Best Online Programs

For our example, we use our interactive tool to generate a hypothetical “Best” online MBA programs short-list. Criteria selected for our best online MBA rankings example are hypothetical and random. They include:

  • Programs with total tuition less than $15,000
  • Undergraduate GPA required for admission to program is minimum 3.0 on 4.0 scale
  • Professionally accredited by AACSB
  • 100% online, does not require students to attend any part of the program on campus
  • Only include Not-For-Profit institutions

The five criteria represent one possible, straight-forward, personalized algorithm for defining BEST online MBA programs among many that are possible. We define “best” here as most affordable, AACSB-accredited, 100% online, with minimum 3.0 GPA requirement, at only not-for-profit institutions online MBAs. The 13 online MBA programs that fit our hypothetical criteria are shown in the table above.

But clearly there are other combinations of criteria available in our database that are more relevant to you. Resist the temptation to use marketing websites that promise the best but deliver limited information and use our database instead!

Data & Tools Designed To Meet Your Needs

Because you start your selection process with very close to the universe of available programs, your free reports are very unique and valuable products.  We help you cut through the misleading information offered elsewhere and give you what you really need to be sure you complete an accurate search: a personalized BEST online program list from the most accurate and complete source of online program information available.

The free report that identified this list of programs provides additional information about these institutions. It includes the location (state), degree name, and public/private institution status.  It also includes a link to the program website of the online MBA, so you can continue your research on your own. And, we’ve recently added more detail about the universities, which you can reach via a link on the free report too.

Create your personalized “Best Online Program” short-list today!

Improve Online Program Visibility and Lead Quality

The Online Degree Database helps universities improve online program visibility and lead quality. It is a unique, unbiased source of information about online degree programs shared for free with students shopping for online programs. Our data comes directly from university online program websites. Today, our database has nearly 5,000 degree programs from more than 950 universities. Some of the key details for each online program contained in the database include:

  • Degree name
  • Location – Region & State
  • Total tuition
  • Cost per credit
  • Concentrations
  • Accreditation
  • Prerequisite requirements
  • Admissions requirements
  • Rankings
  • Institutional details available through IPEDS can be appended to these data

As mentioned above, these data are sourced directly from university online program websites. Details are stored in a relational database with rankings and IPEDS data. We update all records several times a year and strive to include the universe of online programs from the most popular degrees in the U.S. today.  Prospective students who are researching their online degree options visit our website to shop for the best programs possible.

Let’s Level The Playing Field

Our website presents a student-friendly interactive tool that allows students searching for online degree programs to access our data — for free. Unlike other websites that target researching students to generate leads for online degree programs, our website never asks for student’s personal contact information. Students can access our available programs here to start their research on program options. They can select criteria like total tuition, location, or accreditation based on what’s most important to them. And they can generate an unlimited number of Free Reports that identify the universities offering online programs that fit their criteria.

Our Free Reports contain the university name, degree name, and hot links to a page with more information about the university and the program URL so that the student can go immediately to get more information on the programs of interest directly.  When a university decides to sponsor their online degree programs with us, we provide more program details to researching students in their Free Reports. This allows our sponsors to even further improve online program visibility to interested students.

When a university chooses to sponsor us, they are letting students know 1) that they are confident in the quality of their online programs, and 2) they want to provide students with the best information possible as they make one of the most expensive and important decisions in their lives.

And, importantly, when a university sponsors us, they have the option to provide us with a custom link for their online program URLs.  This link takes the shopping student to a page owned by the university where they may choose to leave their contact information for more information. Consider how this process would provide significantly higher quality leads than what may be currently available to purchase in the market. It’s a win-win for prospective students and for universities!

Our comprehensive database, interactive search tool, and Free Reports create greater efficiencies in the online program search for students looking for their best online degree options and universities with competitive online degree programs. For students, we provide free access to the most comprehensive details about online degree programs available — and, for universities, we generate greater visibility for their programs based on program characteristics, not on existing brand strength or size of marketing budget. Student’s do not care about the size of a university’s marketing budget, but they do care about an online program’s tuition, admissions requirements, concentrations offered, and delivery modality. Universities may also provide additional details about their institution and online programs on the dedicated University page on our website that is linked to the prospective student’s free report.

Improve Online Program Visibility

For the first six months of 2019, we had 2,221 visitors to our website who generated a total of 1,381 Free Reports.  Users clicked on a program URL in their Free Report a total of 626 times during this time, which means that we are currently sending pretty decent traffic to university online programs!

During the first six months of 2019, there were 16 universities that received 5 or more outclicks from our free reports, sending prospective students directly their online program’s landing page.

The online MBA, Master of Analytics, Master of Data Science, and Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) are the most popular reports generated so far this year. It’s no surprise that these degrees are among the most popular searches by visitors to our website. As traffic continues to build, we see interest in other programs growing as well. Students who find us and generate Free Reports are definitely taking advantage of the depth and breadth of our data to ensure that they understand and research all of the online programs that meet their criteria. No other resource provides the universe of the most popular programs for their due-diligence shopping requirements.

There are 911 institutions that appeared in the first six months of 2019’s Free Reports.  The institutions receiving the most visibility (appeared the most frequently in Free Reports) include:  Southern New Hampshire University, American Public University System, Western Governor’s University, Bellevue University, Grantham University, Maryville University of St. Louis, University of Maryland Global Campus, UMass Lowell, National University and Grand Canyon University.  Top visibility public institutions include University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, Drexel University, Wayne State College, Indiana University Bloomington, and Arizona State University.

University sponsors also have access to all of the proprietary data we collect on student shopping preferences by degree type, complete with bench-marking data on the traffic generated through our website.

The Online Degree Database Difference

As described above, the Online Degree Database is bringing new and important information to the market about online degree programs. For the first time, researching students can access these details with our easy-to-use tools that allow them to select online program options based on program characteristics that are most important to them.  Universities that fit the student’s profile appear, at no cost, in the Free Reports. And, the Free Reports contain a link to the university’s program website and a page on our website that provides more details about the university. Sponsoring universities may also find high quality leads coming their way!

Consider partnering with us by sponsoring the Online Degree Database!  Contact Michelle directly at to learn more about how we can help you improve your online program visibility and direct prospective students your way.

Visit the Online Degree Database today!







Why Hide Online Degree Tuition?

Online Degree Characteristic

Where Is The Online Degree Tuition?

I’ve spent a good deal of time researching online degree tuition and other key characteristics of online programs for competitive analyses. Our database of online degree program information ( currently holds details for nearly 5,000 online programs from more than 950 U.S. institutions. This makes it, by far, the most comprehensive information available about online degree programs in the U.S. market today.

We update the records in our database at least twice per year. Our updating process includes verifying:

  • the program website link (which we provide to students who download our free reports)
  • degree name
  • available concentrations
  • total credits
  • cost per credit (including in-state where appropriate)
  • prerequisite requirements
  • admissions requirements
  • plus several other key characteristics

The new 2019-2020 tuition is now posted on university websites for most programs. We are in the process of updating the online degree tuition and program characteristics for all of our records.  Our search for online program details replicates how a student would shop for an online program. This means that I’m in a unique position to offer some insights about online program website strengths and weaknesses.

In my experience, the greatest weakness is that online degree tuition, or the tuition / cost per credit of these programs, is often the most difficult item to find. And yet, it is one of the most important considerations for students who are shopping for an online program.

Biggest Website Weakness

There are often no references or links to tuition / cost information on the program websites. Only a few programs have clear, easy to find information about their tuition on their websites.

Many websites link to outdated tuition or to pages that no longer exist (the dreaded “404” error). In some cases, the tuition and fee information provided on the university website is so complicated that it is nearly impossible for an outsider (and prospective student) to interpret. For example: In-state vs. out-of-state costs. Multiple add-on fees with acronyms that make no sense to someone outside of the university. Different tuition for each school or division. Undergraduate vs. graduate tuition. Tuition rates for multiple campuses. Total tuition numbers without clarifying the number of credits each represents. Any or all of this information may or may not apply to an online program vs a campus-based program.

And, even in early July 2019, many programs still have the tuition tables for the previous academic year on their websites (too many with 2017-2018 also!). And many provide tuition data without referencing the academic year to which it applies.

Other Website Weaknesses

To make matters even worse, many websites demure their discussion of cost to information about how to ‘fund’ education costs. Here they introduce their process for helping students get loans and scholarships.

As a consumer, I always get a little worried when someone offers me financing options before I even know the total cost. And online students say they are experiencing buyer’s remorse. This is largely because they did not complete enough research on tuition and fees before enrolling in their online program.

Most university online program websites also lack:

  • complete application deadline information for programs, so there is no way to know how many opportunities a student has during the year to enter the program
  • a thorough discussion of the curriculum, including course descriptions and course sequence
  • prerequisite requirements

It’s time for online program websites to step up to this challenge. Students will move on to other online program websites if they can’t get the information they need on yours.

Website Strengths

There are improvements in the overall level of relevant details provided by most online program websites. More programs are providing meaningful details and improving the usability of their sites:

  • details for all online programs offered are located in the same area of the website
  • online program pages include a “summary” area near the top that includes cost per credit (which includes tuition and fees), total credits, available concentrations, and the time required to complete the program
  • prerequisite and admissions requirements are clearly identified
  • application fees and the application process are also clear for applicants

There are definitely more online program websites with improved content this year vs. the previous three years. But there are also many more online programs in the market, as competition continues to intensify.

The Online Degree Database Difference

Gathering detailed online degree program information takes hours, if not weeks, of time scanning university websites. This is why the Online Degree Database exists.

And, we collect details from university websites for the universe of most popular online master’s degrees like the MBA, MPA, MPH, MHA, MSW, MSN and more. And we’ve significantly increased the number of online information systems master’s degrees and bachelor’s degree programs since last year.

Even more important, our interactive tool allows prospective students to work with the database details to find the best online programs using criteria that are important to them. Plus, we give prospective students helpful information on thinking through what program characteristics are most important. And we offer tips for how to talk with online program advisers for the most popular master’s degrees.

Visit our website today to see what we have to offer. Let us web-surf university program websites for you! With our data, you can complete the due-diligence research a purchase this important deserves!

If you work at a university, let the Online Degree Database help you find your most competitive price and program characteristics. Contact for more information on our market intelligence reports today!