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Check These Virtual College Degree Rankings

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The COVID-19 pandemic is in the process of making significant changes in our culture and the way we think about things. Two of the things that many students and families are thinking about right now are higher education and debt.

Anyone who is even marginally involved in the world of higher ed knows about the almost incomprehensible amount of student loan debt that exits right now: $1.6 trillion. I don't know about you, but I can't wrap my mind around that much money.


Accordingly, one of the cultural shifts that is taking place today in higher ed for students and their families is the search for ROI — a meaningful return on their educational investment. That's why I found the news about a new online learning rankings site so well-timed, relevant and appropriate.

Virtual Classes Gain Steam

Remote learning is here to stay, I believe. You may have been following the latest surges in the coronavirus on campuses around the country, along with the decisions to move from what were thought to be safe, in-person courses back to remote status. This is giving many high school seniors and their parents pause for thought about the value of online learning when paying full fare for what should be a traditional on-campus, face-to-face classroom experience.

I've written about virtual learning before and how colleges are dealing with it. The plans for Spring Semester 2021 are starting to come out now and virtual learning is definitely in the mix, much to the dismay of current and even prospective students. Take Dickinson College, for example:

Freshmen and sophomores there will return to campus in January at the normal time but will go home for good at spring break. Juniors and seniors will then take their place for the second half of the semester. Some classes will be in-person but the logistics about that are unclear since half the school can't attend in-person half the semester. Students who wish to remain remote can do so.

This is just one of many examples that shows the likelihood of a virtual learning environment active for some time, at least at some level. The hopes of a vaccine nullifying the COVID-19 virus and its consequences remain mixed. Plus, with the documented evolutionary nature of the coronavirus, who's to say that there isn't a COVID-20 in our future?

Families Seek College ROI

It's easy to speculate, but prospective college students and their families are very concerned about the economic impact and payback (ROI) of a traditional college education. The new rankings site I mentioned above is targeted specifically at how to make virtual learning a win-win. It ranks online degree programs that are not only a bargain but also strong in giving students the best return on their investment for career opportunities.

The college rankings and reviews company Optimal has just launched OnlineU, a comprehensive portal to help students and parents navigate the latest online offerings in order to make informed decisions. Their 2021 rankings for Best Online Colleges for Return on Investment evaluate colleges based on alumni salaries and debt as reported to the Department of Education's College Scorecard. I see this as a valuable resource for any students who want to understand the short- and long-term financial outcomes of a particular collegiate choice.

OnlineU has calculated a 10-year ROI score for thousands of online degrees to highlight those that lead to the best financial outcomes for graduates. Since the upfront cost of a degree is also an important decision-making factor, they have listed online tuition rates for each program, as well.

Optimal founder Sung Rhee has a pragmatic approach to college planning. He believes that we must slow the rising $1.6 trillion student debt and not contribute further to the financial crisis that many are facing due to the pandemic. To do that, he says people need to completely change how they view college educations, from an emotionally driven, rite-of-passage experience to an intentional, purposeful investment that targets a specific ROI. These rankings are meant to be a first step in that direction.

In addition to the rankings, OnlineU also provides the option for students to search by degree, which results in a list of top online colleges that offer the degree at the lowest tuition combined with a high mid-career salary. This is a new approach to the college search and may require a change in thinking, since many prospective collegians, and even their parents, assume that the key to the highest career earnings is a degree from an expensive school.

The introduction to OnlineU's rankings site states, in part:

Our 2020-2021 rankings are the first of their kind to use student salary and debt data from the government to highlight the best online colleges. For each online degree, we calculated a 10-year return on investment using these program-specific outcomes data. Schools with ROIs in the highest percentiles were ranked on our lists. While the data reflect student experiences in all learning formats, program data were only used for schools offering online degrees in the subject. With coronavirus continuing to impact higher education across the country, choosing a college with a high return on investment is even more important

Students can search by bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and colleges by state. Salary and debt data are program-specific. Tuition rates and degree offerings are manually researched and online-specific. School websites and government databases are the primary data sources. All schools listed are accredited and partner schools are not given preferential treatment. If you care to, check the full methodology.

Top 10 "Best Online Bachelor's Degrees"

Rank SchoolTuition ROI Score
1University of Virginia$14,64098.9%
2Northeastern University $16,23097.6%
3Excelsior College$15,30096.9%
4Cappella University$9,60094.8%
5SUNY Empire State College$10,94394.7%
6University of Alaska Anchorage$25,44094.3%
7Roger Williams University$12,99092.9%
8Thomas Edison State University$9,27892.1%
9Rider University$45,12089.9%
10Colorado State U. Global$10,50089.0%

These Are the "Best Online Master's Degrees"

RankSchoolTuition ROI Score
1Fordham University$47,78897.0%
2UC Berkeley$26,81796.9%
3Northwestern University$19,37390.7%
4Columbia University in NYC$34,91585.2%
5Johns Hopkins University$28,50584.9%
6Cal State University Northridge$13,95084.1%
7George Mason University$13,30583.1%
8U. Minnesota Twin Cities$16,81381.5%
9St. John's University$22,18581.4%
10U. Maryland College Park$13,92081.2%

Majors Vary in Online Programs

I wanted to check out one of the "Most Popular Majors for Bachelor's Degrees," so I clicked on the University of Arizona's BS Degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering to see what that involves. Here's an excerpt from their description:

Earning your bachelor's online means you'll learn from the same experts and receive the same student-centered curriculum as your on-campus peers, including one-on-one attention from professors and advisers. And, thanks to longstanding partnerships with companies such as Raytheon, Intel, Microsoft, NASA, Pixar and more, this degree gives you an edge in the job market as well. Most UA Electrical and Computer Engineering students receive job offers before they graduate. Others move on to become entrepreneurs or successful grad students. An online bachelor's degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering will open new doors and power up your future

That sounds pretty good to me. OnlineU's site lists UArizona's annual online tuition as $11,800. Barring any dramatic increases, that seems like a true value for an engineering degree. Of course, there will be other ancillary expenses, but, overall, that's one online engineering degree program that I would be looking into if I were interested in gaining the credential at what I view to be a bargain price.

Relatively inexpensive online degree programs offered by accredited, well-known colleges and universities may be a so-called "megatrend" in the making. If you want the best combination of value and return on your college investment, then you should consider giving an online degree some serious consideration.