U.S. News has just published its inaugural Best Online Programs for Veterans rankings, available only at usnews.com. We believe these are the first rankings to focus specifically on military veterans in the evaluation of online degree programs.
Few benefit from the growth of distance learning more than people with military experience. They value knowing that if relocated for work they may still further their educations from wherever home is, without having to retake courses or contend with separate admissions and accreditation standards.
Therefore, to be ranked, a school had to demonstrate it took advantage of a wide range of government-backed programs that make credits portable and affordable to people with military experience.
One requirement was that programs belong to institutions that are part of the Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC) Consortium, which enables progress toward a degree at one school to be transferable to other member schools.
For example, if a veteran relocates and decides to change schools to qualify for in-state tuition or receive a diploma from an institution with a stronger local reputation, he or she will have flexibility to do so.
Another ranking criterion was that programs must offer a credit-granting course in the Defense Activities for Non-Traditional Education Support (DANTES) catalog. This factor was included because DANTES courses must adhere to certain federal quality guidelines, and because participating schools allow military service in some cases to be applied toward a degree.
Finally, belonging to an institution that is certified for the GI Bill and participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program were rankings criteria because students can use these benefits to partially or fully finance their education. Lower costs may entice students to stay enrolled and help them graduate with manageable debt loads.
But these outcomes are not universal. Because GI Bill subsidies help schools collect more tuition than if they were to offer grants or scholarships, there is a financial incentive for them to admit many veterans into their programs.
However, a program serves its students poorly if it focuses heavily on marketing to veterans instead of investing in academic and career support services; if its class sizes are too big; or if its student body is not adequately prepared for rigorous course work.
Therefore, to ensure that online programs are providing proper support to their students, each one included in the new rankings must also have earned a numerical rank in the broader 2013 U.S. News Best Online Education Programs rankings, released earlier this year.
This means each is housed at a regionally accredited institution, and that the highest ranked schools performed best among their peers on measures such as services available to students, class size, quality of instructional faculty, retention and graduation rates and student indebtedness at graduation.