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For more than 30 years, prospective college students and parents alike have looked to the U.S. News & World Report college and university rankings to gauge the top institutions of higher learning. Now the publisher has gone beyond ranking prominent brick-and-mortar programs with its 2013 listings of best online education programs.

Online education is growing in popularity and numbers. Across the board, college administrators and online education companies are reporting increased enrollment numbers for online courses – in fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported a nearly 25 percent increase in online enrollment over the past four years. For many students, online education provides a less costly alternative to getting that valued degree the traditional way.

The evolution of Web-based learning has provided prospective students with many resources to evaluate whether online education is right for them. Highlights from the rankings can be found at the end of this article; additional education resources from Collegeonline.org can be utilized to determine if a Web-based education is the right fit for you. In addition to understanding the opportunities for learning through online education, students will also discover the opportunities for their careers and their futures.

Why Study Online?

After choosing an area of study, which is widely regarded as the most major decision facing students, degree-seekers should understand what will be required of them in online learning. There are a number of factors to be taken into consideration; an online education offers more specialized programs, flexible schedules and lower tuition rates, but chief among its drawbacks is the isolated nature of studying and learning and the physical distance from faculty and peers. These are aspects that some consider the most crucial element of the traditional, liberal arts-style of education found on American campuses.

Take Into Consideration…

The quality of the program. Despite popular belief, many online programs have the same caliber of teaching as their on-campus counterparts. In essence, professors are doing two jobs: teaching in-person classes and online sessions. Whether or not that instruction comes across as effectively over the Internet as it does in person depends largely on the program, the technology and the student.

Access to teachers. Obviously, there is a physical distance between students and professors with online learning, but many programs offer videoconferencing opportunities with professors and regular email contact. Online education boosters tend to downplay the concern for physical closeness as an relic of a bygone era.

The student’s lifestyle needs. Just like taking a campus tour at a traditional college or university, online learners should look into the programs they are considering to determine the most appropriate fit to their needs and life circumstances. For instance, a working parent who goes back to school for career advancement might put a high priority on having a flexible schedule, whereas a recent high school graduate working two jobs to make ends meet may put a higher priority on low tuition rates. Invest time looking into a number of different offerings to find the program that best meets your needs.

The technological and material requirements. Just as most traditional college courses have required readings and textbooks, online programs usually require students have a reliable computer with two-way videoconference capability, Web access and good writing and organizational software. Students should inquire about specific technological requirements to ensure they aren't left scrambling to connect on their first day of classes.

What’s Next?

Demand for a quality education has enabled the evolution of online learning. States like California are moving ahead with pilot online education programs that may set new precedents for learning on a budget. In addition, there are many Web-based programs offering accreditation.

Here are the top five online undergraduate and graduate degree programs, as ranked by U.S New & World Report:

Best Online Bachelor's Programs

  1. Pace University (New York)
  2. Daytona State College (Florida)
  3. St. John's University (New York)
  4. Westfield State University (Massachusetts)
  5. Graceland University (Iowa)
  6. Lawrence Technological University (Michigan)
  7. Colorado State University/Global Campus
  8. Brandman University (California)
  9. Bellevue University (Nebraska)
  10. Regent University (Virginia)

Best Online Graduate Programs

Business

  • Washington State University
  • Arizona State University (Carey)
  • Indiana University/Bloomington (Kelley)
  • University of Florida (Hough)
  • California State University/Fullerton (Mihaylo)

Education

  • St. John’s University (New York)
  • Auburn University (Alabama)
  • South Dakota State University
  • Northern Illinois University
  • University of South Carolina

Engineering

  • University of Southern California (Viterbi)
  • Pennsylvania State University/World Campus
  • Columbia University (Fu Foundation) (New York)
  • Purdue University/West Lafayette (Indiana)
  • University of Michigan/Ann Arbor

Info Tech

  • University of Southern California
  • Sam Houston State University (Texas)
  • Virginia Tech
  • University of Bridgeport (Connecticut)
  • Pennsylvania State University/World Campus

Nursing

  • Ferris State University (Michigan)
  • Lamar University (Texas)
  • University of Michigan/Flint
  • Clarkson College (Nebraska)
  • Graceland University (Missouri)

The rankings are based on several factors, including graduation rates, indebtedness of new graduates, support services offered to students, faculty credentials and student engagement.

Students should do their research before committing to anything; it’s important to sift through the common facts and misconceptions to determine if an online college education is the right fit for you.

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