Private universities: Online college rankings’ laggards

The 2014 U.S. News college rankings drive home a point trumpeted by many in higher education last year: Public universities are well ahead of their private counterparts in online education.

Two in 10 fully online college students attend private universities.

A perusal of the U.S. News rankings, released Jan. 8, shows that public campuses dominate the top of nearly every category. One would have to look well down the list of top online bachelor degree programs to find a private school in the ranks.

The same goes with graduate business programs, where Indiana University at Bloomington led the way, and graduate education programs, a category led by Northern Illinois University.

U.S. News announced that it had changed its college rankings methodologies to emphasize one-year retention rates and include peer-review data based on universities’ evaluations of each other.

More than 3 million American students, or 14 percent of the college population, only take credit-bearing courses online (no in-person classes), with only two out of 10 of those students taking web-based classes at private non-profit universities, according a survey conducted by Learning House Inc. and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).

Nearly half of online college students take classes at public non-profit universities, according to AASCU. About three in 10 receive their online education at for-profit colleges.

“Private colleges and universities have each responded differently to this technology,” the AASCU report authors wrote, adding that some private schools “have rejected it as contrary to their mission to provide personalized, intimate learning environments.”

The report points out that private institutions like Saint Leo University and Regent University were seen as online education pioneers in the nascent days of the nontraditional learning platform.

Fifty-nine percent of private campus respondents to a recent survey said “greater faculty time and effort” was a central barrier to a more thorough embrace of online education, with 27 percent of responding institutions saying they had overcome this obstacle.

The cost of web-based courses doesn’t seem to be a barrier for private institutions. Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents pointed to those costs as a reason for avoiding online classes.

Half of public universities now offer five or more fully online programs, the report said. Only 15 percent of private universities have reached that level of online learning.

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