Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges Methodology

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The 2018 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges list evaluates schools on 17 different data points – each related to one of the three major ranking categories – affordability, accessibility, and academic quality. A few of the data points were used for each online college and university to gain inclusion into the ranking evaluation pool, while the rest were used to rank the schools against each other.

The rankings data that the College Atlas Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges list utilizes are the most important elements for potential students and their parents to consider.

Inclusion Factors, Data, and Weights

The 2018 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges dataset started with the NCES College Navigator database [2018] to narrow down four-year colleges offering inexpensive online degree programs. Schools were sorted first by a maximum tuition of $10,000. Of those schools, only those that were accredited by one of the top six regional accrediting agencies were considered and any schools that were not accredited by these agencies were eliminated.

The data from the NCES College Navigator database was then compared to data on the full IPEDS universe of 7,500 accredited colleges and universities as well as each school’s website to ensure each school was vetted for quality factors such as acceptance rate, student-faculty ratio, freshman retention, graduation rate, financial aid, and Learning Management System (LMS) technology. A full listing of all of the quality factors and criteria is below.

In addition to these quality factors, each school website was researched to verify a listing of at least 10 or more online degree programs. We also confirmed this data with IPEDS survey data as well. Any schools that did not have at least 10 online degree programs were removed from the list.

We used the following criteria to compile the 2018 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges list.

Affordability – 50% of total ranking

The cost of college is an increasingly important element to consider when choosing a college or university. For the 2018 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges list, the affordability category is composed of:

  • A tuition cost of no more than $10,000 for the 2017-2018 school year for each school
  • In-state undergraduate tuition vs. out-of-state undergraduate tuition
  • Percentage of students receiving financial aid
  • Average amount of aid compared to tuition

Accessibility – 20% of total ranking

To ensure that a majority of potential American students can attend the colleges on the 2018 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges list, the following factors were used to determine accessibility:

  • Acceptance rate
  • Number of students enrolled
  • Number of programs offered online
  • School location in any of the 50 U.S. states
  • Open enrollment policies that allow all races, genders, ages, and religions to attend
  • Online programs that are available to students in all locations throughout the U.S.
  • Available and sufficient Learning Management System (LMS) technology for online classes

All schools located outside of the mainland United States or schools that were only open to a certain religion, sex, or race were eliminated from the list to ensure that all schools listed were available to a majority of American citizens.

Academic Quality – 30% of total ranking

The academic quality category consists of the perceptions of students, faculty, parents, and future employers. For the 2018 Most Affordable Accredited Online Colleges list, academic quality is composed of:

  • Regional accreditation by one of top 6 regional accrediting agencies**
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • Enrollment rate
  • First-year retention rate
  • Six-year graduation rate
  • At least a 4-year institution offering a variety of degrees

* Tuition listed on the ranking list is based on in-state tuition.

** The top 6 regional accrediting agencies include the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Higher Learning Commission, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.


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