College students invite stereotyping. According to Hollywood, they spend most of their time at raucous frat parties. In the mind of conservative media, they’re entitled snowflakes who demand safe spaces and cultural Marxism. Judging by the attention paid by mainstream or liberal journalists, meanwhile, you might think that most college students attend Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.
What all these clichés about college kids have in common is that they’re about, well, kids. Yet the truth is that a full 30 percent of undergraduates are adults, defined by the government as twenty-five years old and older. These adult learners are too often ignored by university leaders and policymakers, whose own college experience was typically the traditional full-time, straight-out-of-high-school kind.
That’s why, in 2016, the Washington Monthly became the first publication to rank colleges according to how well they cater to adult learners. We took data from two federal government sources, as well as the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, and combined them into seven measures of colleges’ openness and responsiveness to adult students and of how well those students fare once they leave. Click here for our rankings of four-year colleges, and here for two-year; click here for a detailed methodology.
Adult students tend to attend college part time, since they have to balance school with earning a living and, often, raising a family. That means they have different needs: flexible course schedules with plenty of weekend and evening offerings; adult-focused support like on-campus daycare; and the ability to easily transfer or apply previous course work.
When you take these needs into account, the ranking of which schools are “best” starts to look very different from what you find in U.S. News & World Report and other magazines. Elite private colleges are hard to find, and only a few selective state schools—notably the Universities of Utah and Iowa, and Virginia’s George Mason University—make our top 100 four-year school list.
Our rankings are instead dominated by little-known regional public and private nonprofit institutions. Golden Gate University, where 89 percent of students are adults, retains its perch atop the four-year college list. For-profit schools fare poorly, despite the fact that they enroll large numbers of adults. The problem is that they tend to charge too much without delivering the increased future salaries that most adult students are looking for.
This year, for the first time, we had access to federal data on graduation rates for part-time students—which includes the vast majority of adult learners—as well as full-time ones. The addition of that data point explains why two Ivy League schools—Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania—made the top twenty despite not even cracking the top hundred last year. The grad rates for part-timers at those schools—100 percent at Cornell, 90 percent at Penn—blow every other institution on our list out of the water. So do the mean earnings for students ten years after enrollment.
In other words, these schools are a great deal for adults who get in. The problem is that very few do. At Cornell, students twenty-five and older make up only 1 percent of the student body; Penn fares just a little better, with 8 percent. Just imagine how much better the adult learner population would be served if elite institutions like these opened their doors to more of them.