We began with the 3,487 postsecondary institutions in the fifty states and Washington, D.C., that were listed in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) as being active in the 2016–17 academic year and had a Carnegie basic classification in 2015 of between 1 and 23, excluding many colleges that only grant certificates as well as special-focus institutions such as medical schools or rabbinical programs. We dropped any colleges that were graduate-only institutions, did not participate in any federal financial aid programs, were one of the five service academies (to be consistent with the main rankings), and that we know have closed or merged since 2016–17. An additional 138 colleges were excluded for having fewer than 100 students in any of the last three years in which they were open.
The next sample restriction was to exclude colleges that did not have data on all of the outcome measures. Another 311 colleges were dropped for not participating in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, which is key in our rankings. Forty-one colleges did not have data on the percent of adult students, 277 colleges did not have data on average earnings of independent students, and we excluded thirty-two colleges that participated in the federal student loan program but did not report a separate repayment rate for independent students. As we used the percentage of adult students as one of our metrics, colleges with insufficient numbers of independent students to have a separate repayment rate for independent students were unlikely to score highly in this ranking anyway. For three colleges that served at least 75 percent adult students and did not have separate data on earnings or repayment rates for independent students, we instead used data for all students. Our resulting sample is 2,212 colleges, of which 1,124 are considered four-year colleges (based on Carnegie classification and whether they awarded more bachelor’s degrees than certificates or associate’s degrees), and 1,088 are two-year colleges.
As a final precaution to highlight especially questionable colleges, we used the Department of Education’s list of colleges on the most serious level of heightened cash monitoring for significant financial or operating concerns.
We used the seven metrics in this year’s rankings as we did in 2016 and 2017—and we added one, thanks to new data from the federal government. The metrics are the following:
(1) Ease of transfer/enrollment. This is designed to reflect how easy it is for adult students to either initially enroll or transfer in a given college. It includes data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges on whether there is an orientation program for transfer students, whether transcript review is available prior to admission, whether students can transfer in at an upper level (seniors for four-year colleges and sophomores for two-year colleges), whether a college is test-optional for adult students or open admission (four-year colleges only), and whether a transfer adviser is available. Four-year colleges could score up to five points on this metric, while two-year colleges could score up to four points.
(2) Flexibility of programs. This metric considers whether colleges are flexible enough to meet the needs of adult students, and again is based on IPEDS and College Board data. Colleges receive a point if they allow credits to be earned by life experience/prior learning assessment, if credits can be earned via examination, if accelerated programs are available, if at least some distance programs are available, if independent study classes are available, if student-designed majors are allowed, if weekend and/or evening classes are offered, if academic support is available after six p.m., or if academic support is available on weekends. Colleges could earn a maximum of nine points on this metric.
(3) Services available for adult students. This is based on IPEDS and College Board data and reflects whether a college offers services that adult students are most likely to use. Colleges receive a point if they offer general services for adult students, financial aid counseling, on-campus daycare, counseling services, job placement services, or veterans’ services. Colleges could earn at most six points on this metric.
(4) The percent of adult students (age 25+) at the college. This measure is from IPEDS and represents the percentage of undergraduate students who are twenty-five or older, which is the age at which students are automatically considered as independent from their parents for financial aid purposes. We used this measure instead of the percentage of independent students from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard because there was no missing data on this measure and there was an extremely strong correlation between the two measures.
(5) Graduation rates of part-time students. This new measure from IPEDS (which makes its rankings debut this year) tracks the percentage of first-time, part-time students and not-first-time, part-time students who graduated from that college within eight years of entry. Since adult students are more likely to attend college part time than younger students, part-time graduation rates are more relevant for students who will be juggling work, school, and family obligations all at once.
(6) Mean earnings of adult students ten years after entering college. Here, we used newly released data from the College Scorecard to examine what the average earnings were for independent students a decade after they entered college regardless of whether they graduated or dropped out. (Independent students include all adult students, as well as younger students who are veterans or have children of their own—people who benefit from additional flexibility.) We would ideally like to compare this to students’ earnings before they entered (or reentered) college, but this is still a big step forward in showing which colleges seem to serve their adult students well.
(7) Loan repayment rates of adult students five years after entering repayment. We use this metric from the College Scorecard to see what percentage of a college’s former independent students were able to pay down at least $1 of their loan’s principal five years after entering repayment (typically, six months after leaving college). This is the updated loan repayment rate released by the Department of Education in January 2017 after they fixed a coding error that made repayment rates appear artificially high. For the 115 colleges (all two-year institutions) that did not participate in the federal student loan program and did not fully meet all students’ financial need, we assigned those colleges a repayment rate of zero. Recent research by the Institute for College Access and Success showed that nearly one million students attend community colleges that will not offer their students federal loans, instead steering them to private loans with far less favorable terms to borrowers. Additionally, Mark Wiederspan of Arizona State University found an empirical relationship between colleges that refuse to offer federal loans and worse academic outcomes for their students.
(8) Tuition and fees for in-district students. This metric comes from IPEDS and is a simple measure of affordability. We do not use net price in the adult student rankings because net price data is only available for first-time, full-time students—a far cry from this group of students.
We constructed the rankings by rescaling each of the first three measures to have a maximum score of five points each. We then standardized each of the other four measures separately for two-year and four-year colleges to have a mean of zero and a standard deviation of one, trimming back a small number of observations that were more than five standard deviations away from the mean. The resulting rankings are then a sum of each of the eight measures, and we show the top 100 colleges in each sector.