Online programs at USC and UCLA were among those receiving top ratings in a new report to be released Wednesday by U.S. News & World Report, which also found that highly ranked programs are more common at established public universities than at for-profit online providers.
The University of Southern California's online graduate computer information technology program was top-ranked nationally, the same position it held in last year's listing, while UCLA had the second-best ranked online graduate engineering program, moving up from 11th last year.
USC's graduate online engineering program was ranked fourth this year, down a few places from first last year. New York's Columbia University ranked first in the 2014 rankings.
In other categories, Cal State Fullerton tied for 22nd place among online graduate education programs and 16th in graduate engineering.
In top online bachelor's programs, Central Michigan University was top-ranked with the private, nonprofit California-based University of La Verne in a tie for 13th place.
The 2014 survey also ranked online graduate business and nursing programs. Campuses were scored based on a variety of factors, including graduation and retention rates, class size, faculty credentials, student debt and use of best practices. For the first time, the survey also included peer reviews.
Although some private nonprofit and for-profit universities were highly placed in some categories, officials said large public universities tend to have better resources and infrastructure to invest in online programs.
The U.S. News listings of highest ranked universities in various categories are widely watched, although the publication has been criticized in the past for its methodology and some colleges have been accused of manipulating data.
The online rankings, now in their third year, are intended to help students sort through a proliferation of distance education courses and programs that have gained traction -- and notoriety -- with the advent of Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, that can enroll thousands of students.
Information from nearly 1,000 programs offering classes entirely online were evaluated this year, up from 860 the previous year, indicating a growing demand, said Eric Brooks, lead analyst for the 2014 rankings.
"Students want to take a class by remote method, especially if they're older and working and can't be a full-time student," Brooks said.
But there is also no evidence that online education is poised to replace campus classrooms, especially for more traditional, high-school graduates.
"Schools like UCLA and Columbia are trying to broaden their market while still serving their traditional base," said Robert Morse, director of research for the academic rankings. "But do we think the Westwood campus or USC is going to be put out of business or that an 18 year-old is not going to want to have a college experience because of online programs? No."
Students taking USC's online graduate computer science and engineering programs tend to be older, working professionals. They are required to meet the same admission criteria as traditional students, said Kelly Goulis, senior associate dean of graduate and professional programs in the Viterbi School of Engineering.
The online courses are taught by regular faculty in a studio classroom -- with students in attendance -- equipped with high-tech cameras and microphones. The lectures can be viewed live or can be retrieved later from an archive.
"It's the same USC program that students could take on campus and if they wanted to take some courses on campus or online, they could do that," Goulis said. "It's a delivery system that works for us and we're pleased it's highly rated."