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Now Available: A New Ranking Of Online College Degree Programs – Forbes

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As more students enroll in online degree programs, the need for objective data about various options … [+] for study increases.
Students interested in earning their college or graduate degrees through an online program have a new resource for evaluating their options. It comes from Academic Influence, the company that uses artificial intelligence to arrive at its various rankings. Now, Academic Influence has applied its unique methodology to generate its first-ever rankings of dozens of online degree programs at the Associate, Bachelor, and Masters degree level.
Using the same methodology it’s employed to rank all kinds of higher education institutions, including liberal art colleges, research universities and international institutions, Academic Influence’s bases its approach on the simple but objective premise that across time the people affiliated with a school determine its quality.  
Using machine-learning technology developed with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Academic Influence searches open-source data in two massive sources – Wikipedia and CrossRef – for papers, chapters, books, and citations to individuals worldwide. Collectively, these databases contain billions of continuously updated data points about millions of individuals’ achievements.
Then, an influence score of a specific program is calculated by combining all the “mentions” of the individuals who’ve been associated with that program as faculty, administrators or alums. That score is then used to compare similar programs in terms of their cumulative influence.
In order to control for confounding factors, the searched data are restricted to the past ten years, and the names of famous politicians, artists, and performers are suppressed, solving the problem that they otherwise would exert an inordinate influence on the rankings. Because individuals’ influence can be tracked constantly in real time, influence scores are updated quarterly and rankings are recalculated annually.
At this time, Academic Influence has published rankings for 30 online programs, seven at the Associate level, 11 for the Bachelor’s degree (including the RN-to-BSN degree) and 12 at the Master’s level. The complete list of programs can be found here. More rankings are being calculated and will appear soon.
For example, if you’re interested in cybersecurity, here are the top undergraduate programs, according to Academic Influence:

If you’re considering an online BA in criminal justice, the top five are:

How about a Bachelor’s in accounting? Academic Influence’s ranked the following online programs the highest:

Want to pursue an online MBA? Here is Academic Influence’s take on the best five:

Another popular online graduate degree is Healthcare Administration. Here are the highest ranked programs, according to Academic Influence:

While the ranking of each online program was limited to the influence of students and faculty associated only with that program rather than the university in its entirety, the influence score for the online program is the same as the score that would be given to its on-campus version.
Is that lack of differentiation a problem? Here’s how Wayne Downs, a veteran analyst of online eduction and now CEO of Academic Influence, answered that question when I posed it to him:
“Because most online programs are led by the same faculty and use the same curriculum as their on-campus counterparts, the influence and reputation of a school or department should rightfully cover the online degree. If the faculty and curriculum are the same, and the degrees are the same, then what other significant difference is there to consider?”
“Even when online programs employ TAs to oversee courses, the main instruction is comparable. In most cases, online students watch lectures from core faculty, and the use of TAs overseeing courses isn’t exclusive to online cases. In addition, employers are generally unaware if job candidates completed programs online or in-person; the degree and name of the school are the same on one’s resumé. Lastly, many online students report having more engagements with their classmates and professors through online education versus on-campus instruction because they must present their ideas in online forums, whereas traditional classroom discussions are too often dominated by a few extroverts while introverts sit silently.”
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According to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 5.4 million students, or more than one-third of all college students took at least one online class. And more than 3 million students – about 16% of all college students – took online courses exclusively.
Online courses and programs are gaining popularity, and despite some disappointments associated with the huge pivot to online courses necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, online enrollments are expected to grow, particularly among adult students and those pursuing advanced degrees. In fact, on a percentage basis graduate students are twice as likely as undergraduate students to take online courses only.
All signs point to online higher eduction continuing to grow. It’s more flexible and often cheaper than in-person instruction. As to the matter of which of the two modalities has the better results or outcomes, that’s a complicated, and still open, question.
While any college ranking system is subject to a number of limitations and criticisms, there also is clearly a value in giving students as much information as possible about the comparable value or quality of the institutions and academic programs they might be considering. The Academic Influence rankings is a useful tool that provides a unique, objective calibration of those qualities.

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