Using College Rankings to Choose the Best Colleges: The Ultimate Guide

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Are you ready to find your fit?

Figuring out what college to attend can be a bit like taking a drink from a fire hose, so we’ve assembled a comprehensive guide to selecting the top colleges that are right for you. Using this College Choice Rankings Guide will help you quickly understand the basics of getting into college or university, what to expect once you’re there, some of the ins and outs of good colleges, and the usefulness of college rankings systems in helping you make an informed decision.

Divided into eight short lessons, this College Choice Guide to getting in and college rankings will provide you with:

  • An overview of the college application process.
  • What you can expect attending the best universities.
  • The differences and similarities between kinds of programs and approaches to education.
  • Techniques for discerning your needs and preferences so you can choose from the best colleges in the USA.
  • The value of college ranking systems, criteria used in determining college rankings, and criticisms of college rankings systems and lists.
  • Using rankings systems to select the top colleges that are right for you.

Lesson #1: How Do You Select the Best School?

Aside from using college rankings to determine your academic future, you’ll have to focus on your academic present. Getting into one of the best colleges in the USA isn’t easy, but with a little guidance, College Choice can help you focus. Aside from the obvious “get good grades in secondary school,” here’s a handy list of best practices and things to work on while you peruse college rankings to help you clarify your academic future. The top colleges in the USA have one thing in common: they want people to apply, decide, and attend. They need you as much as you want them!

  • Start ASAP

    Grandpop was right: The early bird gets the worm. Looking through college rankings is a nice practice, but it alone won’t qualify for working hard and working early. Get organized as soon as possible and—if possible—apply for early application, as it increases your chance of admission into the best colleges.
  • Know thyself

    Be serious about your personal discernment process by doing some contemplative writing about your individual and professional priorities, your strengths and weaknesses as a person, student, and employee. Overall, be ready to have succinct answers and explanations for your aspirations and interests. You’ll be able to use these musings for your application essays and on-site interview prep, so nothing will be wasted.
  • Talk with people

    Set up meetings with people who have been to college or people who can help you choose from the best colleges—guidance counselors, teachers, pastors, community leaders, local politicians, students who are currently enrolled in school are all good options. Pick their brains about your application, talents, and perspectives on learning and college life. Take notes and listen. Let their advice shape the way you think.
  • Focus on test scores

    Begin studying for the SAT or ACT or any other test you’re going to need to be an undergrad or grad student. Spend some money on a test prep class or series of practice books and programs. Form a study group with friends and compete for progress. Make flash cards. Study, study, study! Your score could mean the difference between paying for school and getting a full ride to college.
  • Write a strong essay

    College essays are helpful for reviewers to pick out low-hanging fruit and cast it aside quickly, so be sure you write, revise, edit, and rewrite many, many times. Send substantial time developing an essay idea that reflects your personality, creativity, and interesting approach to life-long learning. An essay about winning the big game or grandma’s death and her importance to your life won’t cut it—these are tired tropes that could get you automatically into the maybe pile, or worse. Take a look at this essay where this student demonstrated her personal philosophy, creativity, and critical thinking and writing skills all in one brief essay and landed spots in several prestigious schools. (Information retrieved from:
  • Master the Common App

    Use the Common App to apply to as many schools as possible, even if they’re not on your core lists of schools you want to attend. You never know—your top schools might not give you what you want, while a new option—willing to pay for everything—might become a dark horse for your academic attention. The Common App keeps your application costs low by offering you several application choices with minimal variation between applications. Leverage it to your advantage.
  • Connect with your community

    Get involved with community services initiatives that you can place on your application. Be sure they reflect your interests and passions as well as offer an actual benefit to the place where you live. This part of your application should be sincere—not simply service for the sake of amassing karma points to look good before a committee. Maybe even create a service opportunity that fills a need and allows you to fulfill your passion for service in a unique way.
  • Prep for on-campus interviews

    Set aside time to prepare for sitting down and talking with admissions counselors, faculty members, deans, and—maybe—even university presidents. Memorize talking points from your application and essays, formulate thoughtful questions about the university, practice being articulate. Be sure you dress professionally. Send a note of gratitude once you get home from your campus visit, either by hand or digitally. Time in front of people is the best chance you’ll have to convince them of your character.
  • Go on campus visits

    Start by making a list of colleges and universities near you and set up tours and meetings. Even if these schools aren’t on your radar, you’ll get a feel for the process and schedule of a campus visit, which can give you an idea of what to expect from other schools as well. You also might discover some hidden treasure right in your own backyard.
  • Ask for letters of recommendation

    Think about who might have some nice things to say about you as a student, budding professional, thinker, and the substance of your character. Send a formal request to these individuals complete with necessary paper work, deadlines, and any other requirements for the recommendation, such as procedures for submissions and specificity of the nature of the reference. A month before the note is due, check in with the people who have agreed to help you with a polite note asking if there is anything they need from you. Once the deadline has passed, send them a nice note or gift of thanks and check in, gently. Remember, you’re asking people to do work on your behalf, so it’s important to express your gratitude and recognize that they’re giving you a gift, not performing a service for you.

Lesson #3: What and How Should I Study at the Best Colleges in the USA?

What are top colleges, anyway? How are they different from best universities? These seem like questions with obvious answers to some, but it’s important to know about the different kinds of colleges and universities, regardless of university ranking and stature. Many potential students begin with knowledge gaps, but College Choice is here to help you ask the right questions, big or small. Here are some basic questions to give you a handle on the collegiate lingo to which college rankings lists make myriad reference.

College or University?

The difference is simple: degree offerings.

The best colleges are usually smaller institutions offering undergraduate degrees and sometimes selected associates degrees, though some colleges may offer two-year degree programs, like community colleges. Colleges offer diverse course offerings to students eager to obtain degrees.

The top universities are usually larger institutions that grant both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and sometime post-graduate degrees, like a Ph.D. Often times, students can move from their undergraduate program to a graduate program all in one university, and do so with ease that may not exist when attending separate schools. Many universities have medical and law schools as well. Generally speaking, the best universities have more class offerings than the best colleges.

Private School, State School, or For-Profit School?

These superlatives often confuse people. Generally speaking, the school’s funding dictates it status as a private, public, or for-profit college or university. Here are some general qualifications between the three different types:

  • Private Schools

    Non-profit private colleges and universities are schools where the facilities and funding are not provided by the federal, state, or local governments. Most of the non-profit private schools in the USA are run by religious institutions or other organizations.
  • State Schools

    State Schools are public colleges and universities which are founded and operated by the state government, utilizing taxes for funding. These schools give tuition breaks for in-state students. Each state in the USA has at least one public institution of higher education.
  • For-Profit Schools

    You may have also heard of “for-profit” schools, like DeVry, Brown Mackie College, and University of Phoenix. These “institutions of higher education” are operated by private, profit-seeking businesses selling the commodity of education. Many of these schools capitalize on people ignored by traditional colleges, but it’s clear that many for-profit colleges are doing little more than exploiting people for money, as their degrees are largely empty, providing graduates of their programs with inadequate job preparation as compared to the cost of investment in education.

Traditional or Non-traditional Student?

This distinction is very simple: Traditional students are students coming from high school directly into college. Non-traditional students could mean one or more of the following:

  • Students completing much of their education on a non-traditional education delivery system such as an online classroom, night school, or in an intensive education program.
  • Students below the age of 18 and over the age of 25 who are just starting their education or returning to school after a long absence.
  • Part-time students.
  • Students with families, full-time occupations, or other adult responsibilities.

These student populations represent an under-served market for degree-granting institutions and many of the best colleges and top universities are developing quality degrees that service this growing category of student. Online degrees are a serious benefit for non-trads, as they present flexible ways to complete career-advancing degrees.

BA v BS?

There are two basic kinds of academic degrees that you can obtain from a college or university, both of which are four-year undergraduate degrees with the substantive difference in required course work, though there is often overlap between disciplines in degree requirements and subject matter (for example, psychology engages both the sciences and the humanities, as do a handful of other subjects). Generally speaking, at the best colleges and top colleges, you can pursue one of the following:

  • Bachelor of Arts

    This expansive approach to learning usually requires fewer credits that are connected to the individual’s selected major. Students earning a BA will be required to take courses in the humanities, like philosophy, theology, English, foreign language, and social science.
  • Bachelor of Science

    This specialized approach to learning focuses students in the fields of hard science (STEM) and on the mastery of technical, practical material related to a scientific field. Students earning a BS have fewer opportunities to explore disciplines outside of their chosen major and stick to studying computer science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, nursing, physics, or chemistry.
  • Liberal Arts, STEM, or Technical School?

    There are three basic kinds of higher education, and there’s robust debate about what’s the most useful for the economy, the worker, and the world, but we won’t get into that here. This division didn’t always exist, but in an increasingly tech-driven world—as with all things—even education is changing. While these divisions are a bit reductionist, they will help you get a quick grasp on the categories on which college rankings are based:

  • Liberal Arts

    Encompassing a rounded approach to learning and the development of individual personhood, a degree based in the liberal arts is founded on knowledge for the sake of knowledge to improve humanity and preserve individual dignity. In a liberal arts program, students will study in several disciplines such as, literature, mathematics, art and music history, philosophy, theology, psychology, and science, which provide a well-rounded, generalized education. Obviously, students will select a major in which to focus, but they will be required to learn from subjects not directly concerned with their field’s immediate knowledge base. A liberal arts education encourages cross-disciplinary thinking that is both creative and critical.
  • STEM

    With a focus on hard-science—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)—and an applied, interdisciplinary approach combines the science-oriented disciplines and integrates them for practical application. Students in a STEM program do not focus on the Humanities (language, philosophy, etc.), but instead direct their efforts to learning about how the sciences might be use to improve well-being through computing, traditional engineering, life science, math, and physical science. Students are encouraged to focus on a particular scientific discipline and integrate the other scientific disciplines around it. STEM education is focused on practical application of science and technology in both the private and public sector.
  • Trade, Technical, or Vocational School

    These education institutions teaches skills related to specific jobs. Typically lasting two years or less, students in vocational schools focus on developing technical, manual skills—rather than academic skills—that can be immediately applied to a trade, with career tracks including being a welder, carpenter, plumber, machinist, electrician, or technician. Like degree-granting institutions, vocational schools offer financial aid, grants, and scholarships so that students can start a fulfilling, life-long career.

Lesson #4: What Can You Expect from the Top Universities in the USA?

While there is diversity of cost, academic rigor, and campus life, many of the best colleges and top universities look the same, and you should expect your tuition dollars and extra expenditures to provide a few services. After examining information concerning graduation rates, student debt figures, job placement records, and other metrics that indicate quality instruction, consider the following when choosing from the top colleges in the USA, and using college rankings lists to do so:

  • Academic Support

    Facing the challenges of the top universities in the USA is no small task, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed academically. Whether you’re getting a traditional degree from one of the top universities in the USA or getting a hybrid degree from one of the best colleges, be sure that your school has an academic support center that can aid you through tutoring, training, and job placement assistance. Learning support centers, convenient access to faculty and staff, and access to networks associated with the university are all good measures of a thriving institution.
  • Social Networks

    Clubs, organizations, intermural sports, and academic groups are excellent ways to flourish as a college student. Many schools will already have a club for your interests, but if not, you can help to found one. Of course, there’s always alternatives to generalized campus life, like Greek life, which is a mainstay at many universities. Whatever your interests, get plugged in fast so that you can establish a routine and social relationships with people who will become life-long friends. Related to this, don’t forget that you’ll be developing professionally through your time at the best colleges. Understand the level of interaction you’ll receive with your peers and profs and take advantage of any networking events the school has.
  • Health Support

    No matter your able-bodiedness, sexual preference, gender, or ethnicity, the best colleges and top universities offer students much in the way of personal and physical flourishing (for an example of such attentiveness, see our LGTBQ Guide to College Rankings here). The best colleges have gymnasiums and outdoor spaces for students to use to promote physical well-being, counseling services to promote mental health and stability, religious and social organizations to promote tolerance through campus wide initiatives, and medical services to help students manage being far from home if they’re in need of discrete medical assistance. Many of the best colleges even offer financial services to help students manage their money and learn positive life habits.

Lesson #5: Are Rankings Helpful to Prospective Students and Colleges?

The response to this question is complicated. Perhaps it might be better to ask “How are college rankings lists helpful to students and how are they helpful to colleges?”

College rankings—whether US News College Rankings, or some other organization’s list—are a nuanced research tools that demand attentive and vigilant consumers. It’s not enough to examine some lists and declare complete knowledge of a given program or programs at colleges and universities. A potential student must spend time discerning how the college rankings are presented and why certain programs are better than programs of lesser stature. This will ensure that you, the student, apply to programs knowing what to expect.

How are lists like the “Top 100 Colleges” or “College Top 25” compiled? How are the top college rankings determined? How can you know you’re gaining entry into the best colleges and best universities? College rankings lists, like US News College Rankings and the like, answer this question with data inquiry.

Some of that data is objective (quantitative), like prices, test results, post-grad job placement info, and other numerical pieces of statistics. Some of that information is subjective (qualitative), like student fulfillment appraisals of experiences, instructors, and college life. Both the objective and the subjective data are important, but their importance varies from student to student. It’s vital to understand the methodological uses of the data, how surveys are created, and what proportion of data in a given a college rankings list is defining overall quality of a top college.

At the end of the day, rankings provide an advertising edge for the colleges and universities that receive listings. When browsing the internet, you may notice ads for university websites showcasing their accolades or ranking placement. Sometimes you’ll even see banners tailored to your internet browsing habits based on your scholastic interests. You’ll also notice that universities even put similar notations on their physical promo solicitations. In print or online, college rankings are authoritative accessories for a university, inviting scholars to submit an app.

It’s essential to note that some college ranking sites don’t clearly provide material regarding their methodology, information about their data sources, or other necessary pieces of open-source information that would indicate impartiality. Sometimes you have to go digging for this information when it should be voluntarily available and conspicuously presented. Ideally, colleges compiling rankings should be transparent, disclosing their sources without having to have readers hunt for them. Be certain that what you’re looking at is accessible, neutral, and that you have a clear picture of how the rankings were generated—glance at the data evidence as you peruse college rankings lists for the top colleges in the USA.

Lesson #6: Where do lists like “Top 100 Colleges” and “College Top 25” Come From?

College rankings are based on data provided from a few different sources. In this part of our guide we’ll briefly examine how college rankings are made, how the best colleges are determined, and how the top universities in the USA make the lists.

  • Understanding IPEDS and NCES

    Many college rankings sites rely on survey data to formulate their lists. For example, the US News College Rankings conduct their own surveys to collect data. However, this isn’t the only way to examine the inner workings of a higher-ed institution to determine what the top colleges and best universities might be for you. A central, objective data source does exist: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is managed by the government agency the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), uses the data to create academic profiles for all accredited institutions of higher education. Located within the US Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES fulfills “…a Congressional mandate to collect, analyze, and report complete statistics on the condition of American education; conduct and publish reports; and review and report on education activities internationally.” (Information retrieved from:

    As a prospective college student, you can use the tools provide by NCES at the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) website, which aggregates data so that you can look up institutions, track higher education trends, examine statistical tables, and compare institutions. You can also search their data by statistics for colleges, geographical location, and college affordability. The site even has Financial Student Aid apps, loan counseling, and a career options tool so that you can maximize the information to your advantage.

  • Understanding US News College Rankings

    Though there are many rankings sites out there, US News College Rankings are considered to be among the most trustworthy and popular. For this reason, we’ll take an in-depth look at US News College Ranking methodology. The following material was developed from the US News College Rankings methodology website. Where information is quoted, the context can be found here. The rest of the material is paraphrased or summarized from the same website.

    According to their methodological website, the US News College Rankings system “…rests on two pillars. The formula uses quantitative measures that education experts have proposed as reliable indicators of academic quality, and it’s based on our researched view of what matters in education.”

    To begin, the US News College Rankings system organizes accredited schools by their individual missions using the Carnegie classification, a higher-ed research tool developed in the early 1980s. Using this system, the US News College Rankings system organizes schools into the following categories: National Universities, National Liberal Arts Colleges, Regional Universities, and Regional Colleges.

    From there, the US News College Rankings team gathers data in 16 different categories which will eventually be weighed to determine the college rankings. These pieces of data fall into seven large groupings. Here are the seven groupings with their percentage totals, and under them, the different categories that make up the grouping total in college rankings:

    Undergraduate Academic Reputation (22.5% of the whole)

    • Peer Assessment Survey
    • High school counselor’s ratings

    Student Selectivity (12.5% of the whole)

    • Acceptance rate
    • High school class standing in 10%
    • High school class standing in 25%
    • Critical reading and math portions of the SAT and composite ACT scores

    Faculty resources for the academic year (20% of the whole)

    • Faculty compensation
    • Percent faculty with terminal degree in their field
    • Percent of faculty that is fulltime
    • Student-faculty ratio
    • Class size, 1-19 students
    • Class size, 50+ students

    Graduation and retention rates (22.5% of the whole)

    • Average graduation rate
    • Average first year student retention rate

    Financial Resources (10% of the whole)

    • Financial resources per student

    Alumni giving (5% of the whole)

    • Average alumni giving rate

    Graduation rate performance (7.5% of the whole)

    • Graduation rate performance

    The US News College Rankings surveys colleges on the list and creates a designated data window for the academic year. For example, in 2015, 92.7% of the 1,376 colleges and universities polled for the US News College Rankings lists replied with complete data. Colleges that didn’t complete the request from US News College Rankings were researched through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Schools that did not respond to requests are identified as so.

    We at College Choice hope that this brief overview gives you a new understanding of how rankings sites, like US News College Rankings, work.

Lesson #7: What Makes the Best Colleges and Top Universities in the USA?

There are a few general criteria used across the board in each college rankings list, whether a university ranking or a top colleges ranking. Generally speaking, the top colleges in the USA often receive rankings based on variations of the following categories:

  • Academic Excellence

    A subjective category for ranking the best colleges, this offering rates academic quality as compared to other top colleges. Whether you’re looking at a “College Top 25” list or a “Top 100 Colleges” list, this category will help you develop an understanding of the school’s assets, degree requirements, and the unique opportunities of the top universities in the USA, like distinguishing programs, accessibility, and post-graduation competitiveness on job markets. While this category is sometimes based around qualitative data, it seems to be the most important to many students making decisions between good colleges and the best colleges for them.
  • Job-World Experience

    This objective category is built upon the school’s offerings for experiences such as internships, faculty members’ contributions to a particular discipline via publication and research, and post-graduate job employment data. College rankings are often weighted toward this category because of its pragmatic significance and the best colleges conspicuously display their successes in the post-grad work place. Also, it isn’t uncommon for schools to have established relationships and long histories with government agencies, companies, or other occupational entities that act as initial hiring pools for new grads.
  • Degree Options

    The top colleges in the USA offer diverse and flexible programs. Often, college rankings qualify the unique offerings of programs in myriad disciplines. Categories of focus might include specialized degree offerings within a given arena of training (for example Accounting majors, which take classes through a business school at a university, might focus in computer auditing, taxation, management theory, leadership, financial management, business law, or economics.) As you determine your interests in a particular field of study, consider the variety of offerings from the best colleges and top universities.
  • Flexibility

    This category is important to everyone, but may be more important to people in non-traditional situations, like students above the age of 25, learners coming back to complete a degree after a gap in their education, and students with adult obligations. Many students are looking to obtain an online degree, but getting an online degree isn’t inevitably informal or less respectable than getting a traditional degree from one of the top colleges in the USA; top online degree programs do exist, and are proliferating rapidly. Some students may be looking for alternative learning environments, like night school or condensed curricula, which would qualify them as non-trads. In flexible settings like this, degrees can be finished quickly so that education has maximum gain at minimum disruption to the student’s personal and professional affairs. College rankings often take into account a range of issues regarding flexibility, particularly where online degrees can be pursued.
  • Total Cost

    Any savvy spender knows that money makes a difference, and when trying to gain entry to the best universities or top colleges in the USA, finances are an asset and a liability. This is called return-on-investment (or ROI)—where the sum of money put into school is earned back over an optimum amount of time. Because time also matters in such a calculation, a cost benefit analysis can be a delicate thing for a college rankings system since assets and desires are different for all students and prices are different for all colleges. Total cost is evaluated against other factors, like those listed here, to give scholars an idea of how far a dollar might go in college. Students completing degrees at the best universities should get acquainted with the costs of credit hours, digital classes, and other school costs (like books and meal cards), and consider their resources, adjusting for possible increases as their education continues.

Lesson #8: What Are Criticisms of Rankings

It isn’t hard to understand that any ranking system has embedded bias and potentially contains methodological incongruities. These flaws should be taken into consideration when examining rankings lists of any kind. It is up to the consumer of information to be savvy and have a healthy skepticism for claims made on the internet. This isn’t to say that the information can’t be trusted, but that you, the potential student, must understand exactly what you’re looking at, how the data is being collected and interpreted, and how those factors might shape your decision-making. It’s the student’s responsibility to know the facts as best as he or she can.

Along these lines, would-be general education students should be aware of the criticisms of college rankings systems, which include:

  • Hard to Distinguish Rankings

    Unlike more prominent rankings lists, such as business or engineering schools (See our “Ultimate Guide to Business School Rankings” here), college rankings lists often group degrees into generalized programs (e.g.: Business is often a catch all for small business-oriented degrees, such as Accounting, Finance, or Marketing majors). Thus, when determining a specific kind of degree using college rankings it’s important to recognize that some programs are a small part of larger curricula. Plainly stated: A college rankings list, like US News College Rankings, isn’t rating an individual program as much as it’s rating a generalized degree from a particular university.
  • Lack of Objective Measures of Program Quality

    While some ranking systems use some objective methods for determining rankings, such as tuition dollars, job placement data, and post-education salary evidence, some significant pieces of rankings are based on subjective material, such as satisfaction surveys and instructor evals. It’s conceivable that some bits of subjective data are weighed with more significance than objective data, which is why it is vital for readers to understand what criteria were used in the creation of the rankings, and what proportion of the complete picture is made of partly subjective data.
  • Ranking Discrepancy and Variation

    Many of the same schools make the top college rankings lists, and college rankings fluctuate from list to list across rankings sites. This may be due to methodology, but may also be the result of incomplete survey groups, personal prejudices, and numerical narrowness in trying to distinguish the best programs while creating college rankings lists.
  • Self-fulfilling Forecast

    A nuisance in statistical analysis is a chicken-egg scenario: What’s the difference between the influence and the consumer? Did the consumer desire a particular university before he or she knew that its score existed? For example, in a rankings list, substantial scores on prominent lists tend to draw consideration, which can significantly influence students’ interests, expectations, and newly conceived preferences that didn’t exist in the instant before the college rankings were encountered.
  • Best Schools versus Best Degrees

    Many good colleges only provide data for their full-time programs, creating the perception that the school and the programs it offers are always alike. Other important factors, such as part-time programs staffed by adjunct faculty rather than full-time faculty, go unconsidered when they are actually an important part of the school’s academic profile. Sometimes these small, part-time programs often have lesser conditions for admission or diverse instructor demands which aren’t accounted for in the final summation.
  • Use, Mistreatment, and Support

    Some of universities feel that college rankings lists taint the integrity of degrees. These schools are often uncooperative because the data isn’t always used the way the school would like it to be, like for the making of lists that present aggregated data when a prospective student is Googling “Best Colleges.” For this reason, many schools abstain from participation.

In Conclusion… (which should never be written in college-level writing)

Examining methodological method and bias, extra expenditures, and usability, students can get a firm grasp on what a college rankings list means by “Top 100 Colleges” or “College Top 25,” knowing that it isn’t always what it seems to be at first!

At College Choice, we hope to educate potential students on both their options and what those options might mean for their future. To do this, it’s important for students to understand how opinions about colleges and universities are formed, and one significant way that happens is through college rankings systems.

It should be noted that we create our own college rankings lists as well, often using pieces of data from US News College Rankings, surveys from organizations like UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, websites like, and official federally-mandated organizations like the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s our hope to be transparent, clear, and helpful as you use college rankings to help determine your academic future.

Make sure you call your mom and tell her where you want to go to college.

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