Methodology for Our School Rankings

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@support.bestcolleges.com so we can address it.


Best Online Colleges

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

Affordability - 25% of total score

Online Programming - 25% of total score


Best Online Associate Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

Affordability - 25% of total score

Online Programming - 25% of total score


Best Online Bachelor's Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

Affordability - 25% of total score

Online Programming - 25% of total score


Best Online Undergraduate Certificate Programs

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

Affordability - 25% of total score

Online Programming - 25% of total score


Best Online Master's Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

Affordability - 25% of total score

Online Programming - 25% of total score


Best Online Graduate Certificate Programs

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

Affordability - 25% of total score

Online Programming - 25% of total score


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

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 50% of total score

Affordability - 25% of total score

Online Programming - 25% of total score


Best 2-Year Colleges in State

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 60% of total score

Affordability - 40% of total score


Best 4-Year Colleges in State

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors

Academics - 60% of total score

Affordability - 40% of total score


Most Affordable Online Degrees

Minimum Requirements

Ranking Factors


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.