America’s Best Colleges for Adult Learners

Nearly half of all college students are twenty-five or older. Yet no publication ranks the top schools for them—except us.

In college, as in life, youth and glamor go together. The top schools on the U.S. News & World Report rankings and similar college lists recruit virtually all of their freshmen right out of high school—or perhaps after a “gap year” spent, say, saving baby sea turtles in Australia.

By contrast, colleges that cater to adult students, the kind with jobs and families, aren’t given much attention or credit by the usual gatekeepers. There’s never been a good reason for this bias, and it makes even less sense today, when roughly 40 percent of all college students are adults (defined as twenty-five years old or older). Yes, America’s young people are our future, as the commencement speakers say. But with rampant income inequality and stagnant wages, our higher education system must also do more to help adults earn the diplomas they need to get ahead.

Unfortunately, the nation’s “best” colleges aren’t doing their part. They aren’t recruiting more adult students or offering them the services they need—like abundant evening and weekend classes to accommodate work and family schedules. And the publications that ignore these shortcomings are part of the problem, not the solution.

That’s why last year the Washington Monthly launched a first-of-its-kind ranking of four-year and two-year colleges that do the best job of serving adult learners. We’ve updated those rankings this year. To create them, we took data from two federal government sources as well as the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges and combined them into seven general measures of colleges’ openness and responsiveness to adult students and to how well those students fared once they left. Our rankings for four-year schools can be found here, for two-year schools here, and a detailed methodology is available here.

The first thing you’ll notice in our ranking of four-year universities is the complete absence of Ivy League and other elite private schools. There are also no for-profit colleges on the list (even though 59 percent of their students are adults) other than Walden University in Minnesota (number 93), a private institution organized as a “public benefit corporation.” While a few flagship public universities like the University of Iowa (number 11) and University of Texas at Austin (number 61) make the cut, the top 100 is dominated largely by unheralded regional state and private nonprofit schools.

Bellevue University in Nebraska, for instance, falls into the “unranked” category on the U.S. News rankings but is number six on our list. The school does well on a host of our metrics, including how much their students earn annually ten years after entering college ($61,406) and the share of its students—82 percent—who are adults. Southern Illinois University–Carbondale is number 214 on U.S. News’s ranking of national universities but number 36 on our best for adult learners list. Only 19 percent of SIUC students are adults, but it makes up for that with the highest possible scores for metrics of adult friendliness, like flexibility of programs and the ease with which it accepts credits from other colleges.

U.S. News doesn’t even bother to rank two-year community colleges. But these schools are the workhorses of higher education, and especially valuable resources for adult students—44 percent of community college students are adults. The colleges on our two-year list—schools like Central Texas College and Montgomery College in Maryland—may be largely unknown outside their communities, but they deserve a moment in the national spotlight for delivering quality educations for adult learners.

Several of our top 100 four-year and two-year colleges have something else to recommend them. Instead of resting on their laurels, they are constantly challenging themselves to get better, as you’ll see in an accompanying feature, “The Twelve Most Innovative Colleges for Adult Learners”.

Policymakers and journalists have a blind spot when it comes to adult learners because of their own traditional college experiences: most went to college (probably selective ones) right after high school and didn’t stop until they had a diploma or two. But for nearly half of all American college students, the path is different, and tougher. Instead of dorm rooms and late-night bull sessions with friends, they’re hitting the books at the kitchen table by themselves after putting the kids to bed. But there’s plenty that colleges can do to make the adult learner’s experience less hard, and more rewarding. The schools on our lists are proof of that. By honoring them, we hope to spur more colleges to follow their lead.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.