Picking a School

Picking a school is perhaps one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Not only is the decision vital in your academic career, but it is one that will follow you throughout your professional career as well. Be sure to choose one that is worthy of your tuition dollars by being a wise consumer and paying attention to the following.

Look at the Numbers

There are a variety of statistics used to measure a school’s performance, ranging from admissions selectivity to post-graduate employment. Often, these statistics are used to determine the top-rated online universities so they can provide great insight into the value and quality level of the academic programs offered. Here are some of the numbers you should take note of, and what they mean when it comes to academic reputation.

  • Post-graduation Employment Levels: Colleges often keep track of their students after graduation, and publish a percentage of recent alumni who have attained a job in their field of study, or who are fully employed at all. While this number is no guarantee, a high post-graduate employment rate can point to a school’s relevancy in certain fields, or a strong career services department for students.
  • Graduation/Retention Rates: Retention is the number of students who stay at a school after their first year there, and the graduation rate is the percentage of students who complete their degree programs in time. If 90% of a school’s first-year class makes it to graduation, that’s impressive, but if a large percentage of the students that start taking classes never actually get a degree, it’s important to ask why.
  • Grade Point Averages: Grade inflation and new research about how people learn have somewhat diminished the significance of a school’s average GPA, but a lot of people are still impressed at seeing a 4.0. A college whose students mostly have high GPAs gets some points for its academic rigor, but take GPA reports with a grain of salt. Getting good grades still matters, though, so you should pay attention.

Look at the Rankings

There are many organizations that claim to provide unbiased reviews of both online and campus universities, but even if the rating organizations seem legitimate, it can be hard to know how they arrive at their school rankings, so you will want to check out the methodology page. Typically, ranking methodologies are based on factors like student selectivity, freshman retention, graduation rates, faculty credentials, classification, financial resources, and alumni performance.

Different rankings may carry different weight for your personal situation as well. If you’re looking for top-ranked online universities, it probably doesn’t matter much whether the school has a great athletic department. Rating agencies usually offer ratings for different general types of schools. Ultimately, the factors that are important to you may not be the same factors that ratings agencies use to judge schools. Do careful research on the schools you apply to, and if you look at ratings, make sure you’re only using them to supplement other hard data you’ve found, and remember that your own needs should take the priority when choosing where to invest in your education.

Still, rankings can certainly provide you with valuable insight into an institution of higher education. Here are some of the top publications that have annual rankings you can trust for some of the top online universities in the country.

  • U.S. News & World Report: Now online-only, U.S. News & World Report’s rankings are still highly respected. They rank the best traditional and online universities in the following categories: faculty credentials and training, student engagement and assessment, student services and technology. In addition, there is the Honor Roll ranking for schools that perform well in all three categories.
  • Forbes.com: Forbes is a leading source of reliable news that publishes an annual list of America’s best undergraduate institutions. According to Forbes, the rankings are based on five categories: post-graduate success, which evaluates alumni pay and prominence; student satisfaction, which includes professor evaluations and freshman to sophomore year retention rates; debt, which penalizes schools for high student debt loads and default rates; four-year graduation rate; and competitive awards, which rewards schools whose students win prestigious scholarships and fellowships like the Rhodes, the Marshall and the Fulbright.
  • The Princeton Review: This well-regarded site has many different ranking lists, from top party schools to most politically active student bodies. The Princeton Review divides the country into four regions and identifies 629 colleges that “stand out as academically excellent institutions of higher learning.” Their rankings rely on both student opinion and statistical data.
  • The Wall Street Journal: WSJ places heavy emphasis on employment, job-satisfaction, and salary to rank U.S. colleges and universities. The journal arrives at its rankings by polling companies across the U.S. in a variety of industries about their highest performing employees, and which college they graduated from. Since many companies in the U.S. recruit employees directly from college campuses, the companies can provide highly performance-correlated data about which schools turn out the best graduates for a given profession.
  • Washington Monthly: WM is a political newsmagazine based in Washington, D.C., which offers news and opinions about the U.S. higher education scene as well as college rankings. According to their website, WM’s college rankings are based on three categories of factors: Social Mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), Research Production (producing cutting-edge scholarship and Ph.D.s), and Commitment to Service (encouraging students to give something back to their country). WM ranks colleges by category as well, and offers ranked lists of “liberal arts colleges” and “national universities,” among others.

Look at the Accreditation

In addition to reviews by the above listed publications, it is important to consider the accreditation status of any school you might attend. Any legitimate college needs to be evaluated for its efficacy and contribution to academia in its fields. There are several regional and national bodies that provide accreditation for postsecondary education institutions. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) does not accredit schools, but does provide a list of accredited institutions, and approved accrediting bodies.

According to the DOE, there are two basic types of educational accreditation: institutional and specialized and/or programmatic. Institutional accreditation normally applies to an entire institution, indicating that each of an institution’s parts is contributing to the achievement of the institution’s objectives, although not necessarily all at the same level of quality. Specialized accreditation normally applies to the evaluation of individual programs, departments, or schools within a university, which usually are parts of a total collegiate or other postsecondary institution.

The accrediting process includes a battery of quality assurance tests that are applied to any institution seeking accreditation. The school that wishes to be accredited must prove that its “mission documents are clear and articulate publicly the institution’s commitments.” This criterion is intentionally left vague because it is not the goal of the accrediting body to force all schools to fit a particular mold, but rather to assure high educational standards in diverse institutions. Other criteria for accreditation include:

  • “Understanding and support for [the institution's] mission pervade the institution.”
  • “The institution assesses the usefulness of its curricula to students who will live and work in a global, diverse, and technological society.”
  • “The institution has the capacity and commitment to engage with its identified constituencies and communities.”
  • “Internal and external constituencies value the services the institution provides.”

The full list of accreditation requirements postulated by the Higher Learning Commission, one of the DOE-approved regional accrediting bodies in the U.S., is available at their website. You should be wary of online universities that are not accredited by an approved accrediting body, as a degree from that school may have less credibility in both academia and the business world than a degree from an accredited institution.

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