A Note on Methodology: Best Colleges for Adult Learners

We began with the 3,295 postsecondary institutions in the fifty states and Washington, D.C., that were listed in the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) as being active in the 2017–18 academic year and had a Carnegie basic classification in 2018 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 or have any College Scorecard outcomes data, were one of the five service academies (to be consistent with the main rankings), or have closed or merged since 2017–18. An additional 150 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 from the rankings that did not have data on all of the outcome measures. First, 249 colleges were dropped for not participating in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, which is key in our rankings. We then excluded 925 colleges for missing data on student loan repayment rates, the earnings of adult (independent) students, graduation rates for part-time students, and the share of adult students. For colleges where at least 75 percent of students were over age twenty-five, we substituted earnings and repayment rate data for all students if separate data for adult students was not available.

Eliminating colleges without student loan repayment rates for independent students is the most noteworthy restriction, as this includes two groups of colleges. The first group is colleges with small percentages of adult students, who are unlikely to do well in our rankings anyway. The second group is colleges that do not allow their students to access federal student loans, which includes a number of community colleges. As research has shown that access to loans improves students’ academic outcomes, we are comfortable excluding colleges that have chosen to act against the best interest of students.

Our resulting sample is 2,114 colleges, of which 1,136 are considered four-year colleges (based on Carnegie classification and whether they awarded more bachelor’s degrees than certificates or associate’s degrees) and 978 are two-year colleges. We show rankings for the top fifty four-year and top fifty two-year colleges. (Another fifty in each category are available online.)

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. None of these colleges made the top 800 in our lists.

We used the following eight metrics in the 2019 rankings:

(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 IPEDS and the 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 a three-year average percentage of undergraduate students who are age twenty-five or older, which is the age at which students are automatically considered independent from their parents for financial aid purposes. We used this measure instead of the percentage of independent students from the College Scorecard due to there being no missing data on this measure and the extremely strong correlation between the two measures.  

(5) Graduation rates of part-time students. This measure from IPEDS tracks the three-year average percentage of first-time, part-time 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 the same time.

(6) Mean earnings of adult students ten years after entering college. Here, we used three-year average 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 three-year average 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). 

(8) Tuition and fees for in-district students. This metric comes from IPEDS for the 2017–18 academic year 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. —Eds.

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