The number of students enrolled in distance education courses continues to rise as learners choose flexible online programs for finishing degrees, changing or boosting their careers and acquiring new skills.
Data released early last year by the Babson Survey Research Group revealed that the number of U.S. higher education students taking at least one distance education class rose by 3.7 percent from fall 2012 to 2013. While this statistic marks the slowest rate of growth in more than a decade, online courses remain a viable option for millions of people, with career preparation serving as the primary motivator, according to 2015 survey data released by Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House.
Students considering online learning can use U.S. News' 2016 Best Online Programs rankings to research and compare their options.
In addition, the Best Online Programs for Veterans are ranked for the fourth year. To be considered, a program must first rank within the top 75 percent in the 2016 Best Online Programs rankings. It must also belong to a school that is certified for the GI Bill and that helps veterans reduce tuition costs via the Yellow Ribbon Program or by offering in-state tuition to out-of-state veterans. Pennsylvania State University—World Campus maintained its No. 1 rank among the online bachelor's degree programs for veterans, tying this year with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University—Worldwide.
In total, U.S. News received and analyzed data from more than 1,200 online degree programs. The rankings include programs that are completely online, though a program still meets the criteria if it has in-person requirements for orientations, testing and support services. The rankings do not include blended learning programs, nor do they distinguish between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.
Rankings are determined by factors including student engagement, faculty credentials and training, peer reputation, and student services and technology. Each ranking category weighs the factors differently, and all except for online bachelor's degree programs also weigh admissions selectivity.
Some programs saw major changes in their rankings this year, which is typically the result of schools completing survey questions that they had not in the past.
Below is a sampling of some of this year's top programs.
Bachelor's: Penn State—World Campus earned the top spot for the second year in a row among online bachelor's programs, tying with Embry-Riddle, which tied for fifth last year. Meanwhile, Western Kentucky University dropped one spot to third, and the University of Illinois—Chicago fell two spots to fourth.
Founded in 1861 and now one of the nation’s premier technological institutions, MIT is the No. 10 college on FORBES' rankings list this year. MIT’s academic community includes 80 Nobel laureates, 56 National Medal of Science winners, 43 MacArthur Fellows, and 28 National Medal of Technology and Innovation winners. Located in Cambridge, MA, MIT is part of a vibrant intellectual community that includes cross-registration partners Harvard University and Wellesley College. Home to the acclaimed MIT Media Lab, the school excels in the art, science, and business of innovation. According to the National Science Foundation, MIT ranks first in industry-financed research and development expenditures among all universities and colleges without a medical school. About 56% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $36,000. Though best known for its excellence in STEM fields, the university also has noteworthy fiction and poetry programs. The school is often referenced in popular media such as “Good Will Hunting” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Notable alumni include the billionaire Koch brothers, American economist Lawrence Summers, and Khan Academy founder Salman Khan.
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#9. Amherst College
Ranked at No. 9 this year, Amherst College is one of the top small private liberal arts schools in the country and one of the few need-blind institutions. About 57% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging nearly $43,000. Since Amherst belongs to the Five College Consortium, students can attend free classes at Hampshire, Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts. Amherst offers bachelor’s degrees in 38 fields of study, and many students work one-on-one with renowned faculty members who have received awards from National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Mellon Foundation. The college boasts one of the oldest intercollegiate athletics programs in the nation, with 27 NCAA Division III varsity teams known as Lord Jeffs. Students can select from over 100 different clubs and groups, including Croquet Club and a Much Ado About Knitting group. The 1,000-acre campus is home to the Wildlife Sanctuary, the Book & Plow Farm and four museums. Students take advantage of the snowy Massachusetts winters by grabbing dining trays and sledding down Memorial Hill.
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#8. Brown University
Ranked at No. 8 this year, Brown University has the reputation as the most eccentric and liberal of the Ivies. Brown offers an open curriculum in over 40 academic departments, imposing no core requirements and allowing students to “concentrate” rather than “major” in their preferred areas of study. About 47% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $36,000. Established in 1764, Brown is the seventh-oldest institution of higher education in the U.S., celebrating its 250th anniversary in the previous academic year.
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#7. Swarthmore College
Swarthmore College, ranked at No. 7 this year, is a private liberal arts school in Swarthmore, PA, whose students are known for their academic intensity. Founded in 1864, the college is located just 11 miles outside Philadelphia. Students can choose from more than 40 courses of study. First-year seminars are capped at just 12 students. Swarthmore is a member of the Tri-College Consortium with Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and students can cross-register for courses at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. About 49% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $36,000. Those looking to get involved outside of the classroom and laboratory can participate more than 100 student clubs and organizations. Around 93% of students live on the 425-acre campus, which is home to the 300-acre Scott Arboretum full of trees and perennials. Swarthmore is the third-highest producer of Ph.D. students in the country, with nearly 20% of students entering doctoral programs after graduation.
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#6. Harvard University
Founded in 1636 and now ranked No. 6, Harvard University was the first institution of higher learning in the U.S. Its history, influence and wealth haven’t stopped it from experimenting with new educational models in experiential learning and online platforms, such as edX, co-founded in 2012 with nearby MIT. Harvard alumni include 47 Nobel Laureates, 32 heads of state, 48 Pulitzer Prize winners. Scores of prominent people in business, the arts, politics and more have studied and taught at the university, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., NBA star Jeremy Lin, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and actress Natalie Portman, who delivered the 2015 Class Day address. FORBES' No. 46 Power Woman Drew Gilpin Faust currently serves as the university’s president. Harvard boasts the largest university endowment in the U.S. at $36 billion and has taken a stand against fossil fuel divestment. In June 2015, Harvard received the largest gift in its history of $400 million to endow a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The school motto is “veritas,” which is Latin for “truth.” About 58% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging about $42,000.
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#5. Yale University
Granted its charter in 1701, Yale is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the country and ranked at No. 5 in the country this year. The 1,153-acre campus in New Haven, CT, is home to 440 buildings and four museums, including the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Collection of Musical Instruments. Undergraduate students can choose from more than 2,000 courses and 81 majors. The most popular majors are economics, political science, history and psychology. The library is one of the largest in the country and houses more than 15 million volumes. Yale boasts an endowment of $19.3 billion. 51% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging nearly $43,000.
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#4. Princeton University
Chartered in 1746, Princeton University is one of the oldest colleges in the country, and ranked No. 4 on this year's list. Nassau Hall, first among the historic buildings that adorn Princeton’s 500-acre campus in Princeton, NJ, served as the nation’s capital in 1783. Undergraduates may select from 36 academic departments. Nine current faculty members are Nobel Prize recipients. The university’s generous financial aid program provides grants and campus jobs in place of student loans. 60% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging more than $34,000. Admitted students can defer their enrollment for a year to participate in community service work abroad through the Bridge Year program. On-campus housing is guaranteed for all four years for undergraduates.
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#3. Stanford University
Located in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the tech world, Stanford University is a private research university ranked at No. 3 this year. The school is known for its strength in research and successful alumni. Railroad magnate Leland Stanford founded the school in 1885. Stanford boasts more than 5,300 externally sponsored research projects with a total budget of over $1.3 billion. About 53% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging more than $39,000. The university has produced a number of leaders in government and finance, including U.S. president Herbert Hoover, four U.S. Supreme Court justices and business moguls like Steve Ballmer, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Marissa Mayer. Around 93% of students live on Stanford’s campus, which consists of around 700 major buildings across 8,180 acres.
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#2. Williams College
The No. 2 Top College, Williams College is a highly elite liberal arts school in Williams, MA whose students are known for their academic and athletic prowess. Founded in 1793 as a men’s college, it began admitting women in 1970. Williams follows a 4-1-4 annual schedule, in which students take four courses during the fall and spring semesters and one course during the winter term. While students can choose from 36 majors, they are required to take three languages and arts, three social sciences and three science and math classes. Around 96% of the student body participates in at least one of the 150 student organizations and 53% of freshmen receive school grants averaging $40,000. The 32 varsity athletic teams, nicknamed the Ephs, compete at the NCAA Division III level.
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#1. Pomona College
The No. 1 college in the country this year, Pomona College is a private liberal arts college in Claremont, CA, offering 47 majors and 600 classes. Established in 1887, it is the founding member of The Claremont Colleges, a consortium of neighboring schools. Students can choose from over 2,000 classes offered through the consortium. Around 80% of students have taken a class at another Claremont school. 57% of freshmen receive grants from the school averaging nearly $40,000. Nearly all students live on campus.