'U.S. News' Plan to Rank Online Colleges Worries Some Officials

June 30, 2011

The annual college rankings by U.S. News & World Report—demonized by many college leaders as being overly simplistic yet touted by institutions that score well—will soon expand to include online programs. The move is already drawing concern from some longtime distance-education leaders, who argue that virtual programs are even more difficult to compare than traditional ones, in part, because they are still so new and untested.

This week the editor of U.S. News, Brian Kelly, sent an e-mail to hundreds of top college officials announcing the magazine's intention to extensively rank online programs for the first time in the 28-year history of the popular college guide. Editors say they consulted with leaders of several major online programs to create surveys to score the quality of virtual programs, which they plan to mail to institutions in the next few weeks. However, the magazine has not yet revealed the methodology it will use to make comparisons.

Robert J. Morse, director of data research for U.S. News, said the magazine made the move to fill what its leaders see as a gap in reliable and easy-to-find information about online programs, which are growing rapidly in number and popularity. Enrollment in these courses shot up by 21 percent last year, according to the most recent survey of 2,500 institutions by the Sloan Consortium, which promotes online education.

The big question is whether colleges and universities will participate in the magazine's survey, especially for-profit providers of online education who are historically guarded about statistical information on the performance of their institutions and students.

When asked if they would join in, several college leaders interviewed by The Chronicle this week revealed a common refrain: Show us the questions first.

"It would depend on the survey," said Chip Cassano, director public of relations for the University of Maryland University College. "If it was making a good-faith effort to really rank schools on quality, then we would probably be open to participating in it," he said, noting that academic and administrative officials at the college would have to look at the survey before making a decision.

Joel L. Hartman, vice provost and chief information officer at the University of Central Florida, said he is eager to hear more details. "There's a lot that has not yet been explained," he said. Still, he says the university will probably cooperate with U.S. News because his institution is "deeply invested in online education" and has worked hard to ensure the quality of its online courses.

Some, like Jacqueline F. Moloney, executive vice chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, were more enthusiastic. She said her college would "absolutely" participate, so long as the magazine's criteria are based on "best practices in the field," such as those outlined by the Sloan Consortium.

Brian Muys, a representative from the for-profit American Public University System, wrote by e-mail: "While we are reserving judgment until we see what is actually published by U.S. News, we are generally supportive of efforts to share accurate, relevant, and consistent data on institutions' academic quality and cost of attendance that help prospective students make better informed decisions" on choosing what the right option is for them.

A representative of Kaplan University, one of the largest for-profit providers of online education, did not return e-mail requests for comment Thursday.

A Complex Process

Setting fair criteria for assessing online colleges will prove complex, as common standards for excellence in traditional institutions—such as average class size, alumni participation and giving, and peer assessment—may not apply as well to online programs. And even the definition of an online degree can be fuzzy. Some students take a mix of in-person, online, and so-called "blended" courses that mix face-to-face class time and coursework completed online, said Mr. Hartman, of the University of Central Florida.

Most of the guides to online education available today do not rank the programs they profile—an intentional move by officials who believe that no simple metric is up to the task.

"We've just presented the information, and it's up to the students to figure out what best fits their needs," said Russell Poulin, who has helped organize a three-year-old online education guide called College Choices for Adults. Mr. Poulin is associate director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, which promotes online education as part of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. "Each student has very different sets of needs, and it's very difficult to capture that into a ranking system."

The author of one of the longest-running guides to online education, John Bear, said rankings of online education will likely warp the development of fledgling online programs, whose leaders might be tempted to hit whatever targets will get them on the list rather than working to build a program that works well in their institution's setting.

"Even more than with their regular rankings, schools are going to adjust to what they measure to get a better ranking, and I think that's unfortunate," said Mr. Bear, who has served as co-author of Bears' Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning for decades. "Online is so much easier to do—you can do it badly overnight," he argued. "This happens far too often," he added, saying that a college official will say to themselves, "'Hey, online stuff is hot, and we can take our very popular course in whatever and do it online.'" Making a high-quality program in the new, faceless world of Internet education takes careful design and effort, he argues.

'There May Be Limited Response'

Mr. Morse, of U.S. News, counters that it is entirely possible to compare programs that offer similar degrees, and whose graduates all enter the same job market. "They're all ending up with the same degree," he said. "You'll be able to come up with comparable factors to judge the schools because their outcome is the same."

He conceded that the survey may not be perfect at the start, but it will be refined over time.

Is there a chance that the magazine will delay issuing a ranking the first year if turnout is low?

"Our intent is to come out with something," said Mr. Morse. "There may be limited response, and if so, we'd have to come up with something based on that limited response" while making those limitations clear to readers, he added.

A site affiliated with U.S. News recently discovered the challenges of covering online education when it gave a glowing review of Almeda University, which is not accredited by a government-sanctioned body and has been identified as a "degree mill" by officials in Oregon, according to a report in Inside Higher Ed.

Mr. Morse said that will not happen in its new online rankings, however, because surveys will only be sent to institutions with proper accreditation.

Frank Mayadas, the director of the Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Networks, called the news "somewhat a validation" of the advancements made in the quality of online education in recent years, saying it indicates that it is "no longer an interesting curiosity" or "footnote" but rather, a "significant part of the education picture."

"I'm not sure that U.S. News will get it right this time around," he said. "But I think it's a worthwhile effort" to bring some order to this sector of higher education. "I think if they don't get it right the first time, we'd better keep working on this."