At BestColleges, we recognize that there is no “perfect” ranking methodology; rather, we aggregate what we believe are the most relevant school indicators to provide you with rankings that are useful. We hope our approach helps you find the school that's best for you.

The BestColleges Ranking Team is made up of contributors from our data science and product management teams. These contributors operate independently from the editorial team, and all of the BestColleges.com school rankings that use the methodology documented on this page are produced by the Ranking Team and are free of editorial influence.

The methodology behind our rankings is grounded in statistical data and a few consistently applied guiding principles, including academic quality, affordability, and online competency. Our 2021 rankings reflect the most recent data available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and College Navigator, both of which are hosted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Due to a multitude of delays and complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many schools are delayed in reporting their annual dataset to NCES. We are committed to providing students with the latest and best information they need to make their school choice in 2021. Therefore, we published our 2021 school rankings by combining the 2020 dataset with 2021 data available from NCES sources.

Our goal with our school rankings is to objectively assess relative quality based on academic outcomes, affordability, and the breadth and depth of online learning opportunities.

To assess academic quality, we focus on what we believe are the most important distinguishing factors. We compare a school's admission rate to its enrollment rate to gauge the rigor and competitiveness of a school. We use full-time retention rate (or, the rate at which students return after their freshman year) to rank a school's effectiveness at keeping students enrolled. Similarly, graduation rate is crucial in weighing how many enrolled students successfully complete their degree program (note that graduation rate measures full-time, first-time students).

To further vet academic quality on our school rankings for specific subject areas, we look at the total number of students that have graduated for that particular major within the reported academic year (first major). This demonstrates a school's commitment to a given program and the subsequent resources that program may receive.

Our affordability score considers the cost of the program (average net price) with the amount borrowed (percentage of students taking loans) and the ability to repay a loan after graduation (average loan default rate). Our goal is to reward schools not only offering competitive tuition but also providing students with the skills needed to graduate and successfully enter the workforce.

Finally, we assess the quality of a school's online offerings by first looking at the percentage of total degree programs offered online. This allows us to determine the school's level of commitment to distance learning. We also consider the percentage of students enrolled in online classes as an indicator of the school's investment in remote learners. To gauge the school's suitability at a particular degree level, we look at the percentage of programs offered by the school at the given level.

All eligible institutions are ranked on a 100-point scale. A perfect score of 100 is earned by ranking #1 within each of the three ranking categories. Unless otherwise noted below or on the specific ranking page, we applied our 11 ranking factors to the 4,170 eligible schools currently offering online programs.

To learn more about how to utilize rankings in your college search, check out our Rankings Guide.

Data Collection

To collect data for our 2021 rankings, we pulled the most current, publicly available datasets from NCES beginning in October 2020. Data was QA'd by our internal team. Schools missing a substantial number of ranking factors or with unreported data were omitted from our rankings list.

We know data is complex and acknowledge that we may not always get it right; if you spot missing or outdated information on our site, please contact us at contact@bestcolleges.com so we can address it.


Best Online Colleges

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must be a four-year college offering at least 10 online bachelor's degrees and three online master's degrees.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate

Affordability - 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming - 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online Associate Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online associate degree program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate + Transfer Rate
  • Number of Associate Degree Graduates in the Given Subject

Affordability - 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming - 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Associate Degree Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Associate Level
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online Bachelor's Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online bachelor's degree program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Bachelor's Degree Graduates in the Given Subject

Affordability - 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming - 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Bachelor's Degree Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Bachelor's Level
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online Undergraduate Certificate Programs

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online undergraduate certificate program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Undergraduate Certificate Completions in the Given Subject

Affordability - 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming - 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Bachelor's Degree Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Bachelor's Level
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online Master's Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online master's degree program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Master's Degree Graduates in the Given Subject

Affordability - 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming - 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Students Enrolled at the Master's Level
  • Percentage of Master's Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Master's Level

Best Online Graduate Certificate Programs

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online postgraduate certificate program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Postgraduate Certificate Completions in the Given Subject

Affordability - 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming - 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Students Enrolled at the Master's Level
  • Percentage of Master's Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Master's Level

Best Online 4-Year Colleges in a Region, State, or City

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer at least one online bachelor's degree program.
  • Must be located in the given region, state, or city.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate

Affordability - 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming - 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best 2-Year Colleges in State

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must primarily grant two-year associate degrees.
  • Must be located in the given state.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 60% of total score

  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Part-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate + Transfer Rate

Affordability - 40% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans

Best 4-Year Colleges in State

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must primarily grant four-year bachelor's degrees.
  • Must be located in the given state.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

Academics - 60% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate

Affordability - 40% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Most Affordable Online Degrees

Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online degree program in the given subject at the given level.
  • Must submit an annual report to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Ranking Factors

  • Average Net Price - 25% of total score
  • Loan Payment / Salary - 25% of total score
  • Average Loan Default Rate - 20% of total score
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans - 15% of total score
  • Graduation Rate - 15% of total score

Note: BestColleges publishes new school rankings throughout the course of the year. The methodologies detailed here apply to 2021 rankings published from December 2020 to present.