U.S. News Ranks 2021 Best Online Programs

Josh Moody
·7 min read

In a year marked by a deadly pandemic, much of life in 2020 was spent on the internet. That's especially true of education, with colleges scrambling to shift learning online as the coronavirus disrupted daily operations.

Online learning offered students continuity, a chance to finish the semester wherever they were as colleges closed dorms and emptied campuses. Such disruptions, however, were likely limited for online programs, such as those ranked in the 2021 U.S. News Best Online Programs, where the vast majority of coursework is delivered in an online format.

Most of the institutions included in these rankings, released today, have offered online options for years, leading a sector that higher education experts see poised for further growth even once the dust from COVID-19 settles.

[See: 10 Big Mistakes Online Students Make.]

With the future seemingly bright for online education, the 2021 edition marks 10 consecutive years that U.S. News has ranked the Best Online Programs. In addition to online bachelor's degrees, U.S. News ranked master's programs in business, education, nursing, engineering, computer information technology and criminal justice. Online MBA programs were split from other business degrees and ranked separately. New this year, U.S. News added rankings of online bachelor's programs in business and psychology, two popular majors.

U.S. News also ranked the Best Online Programs for Veterans. To be eligible for the veterans category, schools must be in the top half of the rankings of Best Online Programs; certified for the GI Bill; and be either Yellow Ribbon Program participants or public institutions that offer in-state tuition costs, which can be fully paid through the GI Bill for veterans from out of state. Additionally, online bachelor's programs must have a minimum enrollment of 25 veterans and active service members; the requirement is 10 for master's programs.

The top three online bachelor's programs for veterans remain unchanged from last year with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University--Worldwide in Florida at No. 1, followed by the University of Florida at No. 2 and Oregon State University at No. 3.

U.S. News has once again expanded the rankings to its largest number yet, with 1,641 programs assessed. These rankings do not include degree programs that were delivered temporarily online in 2020 as many colleges shifted to remote instruction.

U.S. News ranks programs that operate predominantly online, though a school with in-person orientations, clinical requirements, testing and support services may also be included. The rankings do not differentiate between programs operated by for-profit and nonprofit schools. Blended learning programs, which involve significant in-person and online instruction, are not included.

Factors considered in the rankings include student engagement, services and technologies available to students, faculty credentials and training, as well as expert opinion on the academic quality of programs. Student excellence is also considered for schools offering online master's degree programs.

Here are some of the top online degree programs in the 2021 rankings.

Best Online Bachelor's Programs

Compared with the prior year, the top three online bachelor's programs saw a slight reshuffling and a new member. Embry-Riddle moved up one spot to No. 1, while the University of Illinois--Chicago moved up to No. 2 from No. 3. The University of Florida also moved up one spot to No. 3 from a previous ranking of No. 4.

Ohio State University--Columbus, last year's No. 1, slipped to a tie at No. 4 with Oregon State University.

Some online colleges that didn't crack the top 10 still made significant jumps, such as North Carolina State University, which improved from a tie at No. 39 to a tie at No. 14. Also tied at No. 14 is the University of Missouri, which soared 85 spots from its position at a tie for No. 99 last year.

[See: Discover the Top 20 Online Bachelor's Programs.]

Prospective students can also look beyond the overall bachelor's program rankings to the two new rankings by major. In the undergraduate business category, two schools share the top spot, with Arizona State University and the University of Florida tied at No. 1. Oregon State University, the University of Massachusetts--Amherst and Washington State University are all locked in a tie at No. 3, thus rounding out the top five schools.

Pennsylvania State University--World Campus is No. 1 in the inaugural rankings of online psychology programs for undergraduates. PSU is followed by four schools locked in a tie at No. 2. Those online colleges rounding out the top five are Arizona State, Loyola University Chicago, Oregon State and the University of Florida.

Best Online MBA Programs

In the rankings of online MBA programs, Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business in Pennsylvania moved up from No. 3 to a tie at No. 1 shared with the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. Indiana University--Bloomington's Kelley School of Business, which had tied with UNC at No. 1 last year, moved down to No. 3.

[See: Explore the Top 20 Best Online MBA Programs.]

Some programs saw significant movement, climbing numerous spots in the online MBA rankings.

The program at the Rice University Jones Graduate School of Business in Texas, which recently graduated its first cohort of students, jumped dramatically to No. 9, up from a tie at No. 123 last year. The University of South Florida's Muma College of Business also shot up from a tie at No. 95 last year to a tie at No. 26.

Best Online Graduate Business Programs

Among online business master's programs, the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business and Indiana University--Bloomington's Kelley School of Business are once again No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. The Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business rounds out the top three, up from a tie at No. 6.

Online colleges making major gains this year in these non-MBA program rankings include the Texas Tech University Rawls College of Business, which improved from a tie at No. 63 to a tie at No. 17, and the University of Missouri Trulaske College of Business, which moved up more than 85 spots from a tie at No. 120 last year to a tie at No. 34.

Best Online Graduate Education Programs

The top two schools in the rankings of online master's in education programs traded spots from last year, with the University of Florida now at No. 1 and Clemson University's Moore School of Education in South Carolina at No. 2. The University of Illinois--Urbana-Champaign lands at No. 3 this year, an improvement from a tie at the No. 8 spot in the 2020 rankings.

Best Online Master's in Nursing Programs

Rush University in Illinois remains at No. 1 among online nursing master's programs, though it is now tied with the University of South Carolina, which was ranked No. 2 last year. Duke University in North Carolina and Ohio State University are tied at No. 3.

Best Online Graduate Engineering Programs

The top three online graduate engineering programs remain the same, albeit with slight reshuffling. After sharing the top spot last year, Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science in New York claims sole possession of No. 1 in the 2021 rankings. The University of California--Los Angeles Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science moved down from a tie at No. 1 to No. 2 this year, and Purdue University--West Lafayette remains in the No. 3 spot.

Best Online Graduate Information Technology Programs

For the online graduate information technology rankings, the U.S. News methodology no longer requires institutions to have ABET accreditation in computer science, computer engineering, information technology, information systems and software engineering -- fields that fall under the information technology umbrella. This change expanded the number of ranked schools in the Best Online Graduate Computer Information Technology category from 62 to 81, which prompted shifts throughout the rankings, including a school that was not ranked previously claiming the top spot.

For the first time since 2013, a new school is No. 1: Columbia University in New York. Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School of Engineering in Maryland is tied at No. 2 with the University of Southern California, the perennial No. 1 in prior editions of these rankings.

Best Online Graduate Criminal Justice Programs

The master's in criminology degree at the University of California--Irvine remains at No. 1 among online graduate criminal justice programs. Boston University is tied at No. 2 this year with Sam Houston State University in Texas. Both schools were previously in the top three, with Sam Houston in the No. 2 spot last year and Boston University tied at No. 3.

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.