The University of Maryland University College is one of the largest online-centered universities in the country. Part of the University of Maryland public system, it awarded more than 4,100 bachelor’s degrees in 2014, and it enrolled nearly 48,000 students.
But it doesn’t show up, at all, in the new U.S. News and World Report list of “best online bachelor’s programs” published Tuesday.
Tied atop the U.S. News list was Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University-Worldwide (14,200 students), based in Florida, and Pennsylvania State University — World Campus (10,800 students).
The full top 10 is:
1. (tie) Embry-Riddle and Penn State — World Campus
3. Western Kentucky University
4. University of Illinois at Chicago
5. University of Georgia
6. Temple University
7. (tie) Daytona State College, Ohio State University, Oregon State University and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Ranking online universities is tricky. Many are relatively new, and they cater to a market that varies hugely from the face-to-face sector of higher education. The U.S. News ranking of online schools, in its fifth year, weighs data on student engagement, faculty credentials and student services and technology. Much of the data is gathered through surveys of the schools.
“Online learning is becoming an integral part of higher education, and consumers are hungry for information related to legitimate online degrees,” Anita Narayan, managing editor of education at U.S. News, said in a statement. “The Best Online Programs rankings can help prospective students begin their search for a program that suits both their academic and career goals, as well as their work and family schedules.”
The U.S. News rankings of conventional colleges and universities, released every September, are controversial and influential.
The ranking of online programs draws less attention. One reason: There is less data on these programs. Fewer analysts track them. There is little consensus on how to judge them.
“U.S. News deserves credit for shining a light on online education, an area in which there seems to be far more shady websites designed to funnel students to a particular college than reasonably objective attempts to estimate quality,” said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University. He is the architect of an alternative annual ranking of conventional universities published by Washington Monthly magazine. Kelchen said the U.S. News methodology “seems reasonable, given that data are rarely available on these particular online programs at the federal level.”
But UMUC takes issue with how U.S. News tracks the field. Its views are significant because the school is a leader in public online education.
Asked for UMUC’s views on the rankings, university spokesman Bob Ludwig wrote in an email Monday:
“We do not participate in the U.S. News rankings of online bachelor’s programs because we believe that the rankings are not appropriate for UMUC. But before I provide some specific reasons, I want to make clear a few points:
1. UMUC is committed to accountability and is very open about sharing data. In fact, we have graduation rate metrics on our website that we believe more accurately reflect UMUC and our student body — we are an open university whose mission is to serve working adults.
2. We want to keep our focus on student success rather than chase a ranking that doesn’t fit our institution.
3. We recently met with folks at U.S. News who put together the rankings and we had an open discussion about our issues and concerns and their approach to the rankings. We agreed to keep the dialogue going.
Here are specific reasons we do not participate in the rankings.
1. The U.S. News rankings use graduation rates that are based on [federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] data, which do not reflect our type of institution.
2. There are no criteria that address/measure student outcomes.
3. A program can be ranked that is really a completion program (i.e., a program that requires you to finish the first two years before you are admitted into the program, and then complete the final two years. This can skew data about that program.)
4. Some online programs that are ranked are part of a traditional university, and are not separated out. This can also skew data about the program. We believe the ranking of ‘all online bachelor’s degree programs’ should be an apples-to-apples comparison.”
A U.S. News spokesman, Enxhi Myslymi, said Monday that there are “inaccuracies” in UMUC’s statement, and on Tuesday Robert J. Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News, sent this response:
“The Best Online Programs rankings provides students with apples-to-apples comparisons of online programs, including those offered by brick-and-mortar universities, such as University of Georgia or Ohio State University, for example. These online programs are degree-granting programs at regionally accredited institutions that have few, if any, in-person attendance requirements. The U.S. News rankings pay close attention to student outcomes – graduation and retention rates, student debt and student assessment account for 30 percent of a program’s ranking.
There is an active and ongoing debate about how to best measure quality in education – especially online education – and we pay close attention to that debate through maintaining an open dialogue with school officials. UMUC does not participate in our rankings because they only want to be ranked against schools that are primarily distance education oriented. They don’t want their online programs to be compared to online programs administered by brick-and-mortar institutions.
We believe this would be a disservice to students for two important reasons:
1. Many brick-and-mortar institutions offer excellent distance learning options
2. To find the best program, students need to be able to make comparisons between online programs, whether they are part of a traditional university, like Pennsylvania State or Arizona State, or online only.”
This story has been updated.