A Note on Methodology: Best Colleges For Adult Learners

You can find our full rankings of the best four-year colleges for adult learners here and the best two-year colleges for adult learners here.

We began with the 7,687 postsecondary institutions listed in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) as being active in the 2014–15 academic year. We then limited the sample to all colleges with a Carnegie basic classification in 2015 of between 1 and 23, excluding many certificate-granting institutions as well as special-focus institutions such as medical schools or rabbinical programs. We dropped fifty-eight colleges for being outside the fifty states and Washington, D.C., dropped seven colleges for closing or merging since 2014–15, dropped four colleges for not participating in any federal financial aid programs, and dropped the five service academies to be consistent with the main rankings. An additional 130 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 513 colleges were dropped for not participating in the College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges, which is key in our rankings. Fifteen colleges did not have data on the percent of adult students, 315 colleges did not have data on average earnings of independent students, and we excluded 808 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 twenty 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 1,749 colleges, of which 571 are considered four-year colleges (based on Carnegie classification and whether they awarded more bachelor’s degrees than certificates or associate’s degrees) and 1,178 are two-year colleges. As a final precaution to weed out especially questionable colleges, we cross-checked all our rankings with the Department of Education’s level-two Heightened Cash Monitoring List. We then randomly selected five schools on each of the two lists, checked their status on the less severe level-one Heightened Cash Monitoring List, verified their accreditation, and searched through local and national news clips over the past year for signs of problems.

We used the following seven metrics in constructing our inaugural rankings for adult students:

(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 advisor 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 6 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 age 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 due to there being no missing data on this measure and the extremely strong correlation between the two measures.

(5) 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.

(6) 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). For the 122 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, a new article by Mark Wiederspan of Arizona State University has found an empirical relationship between colleges that refuse to offer federal loans and worse academic outcomes for their students.

(7) 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 seven measures, and we show the top 100 colleges in each sector.

A note on process: Initial decisions on what data to use, how to weigh that data, and which colleges to include in the rankings were made by Washington Monthly data manager and assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University Robert Kelchen, Washington Monthly guest editor and New America education program director Kevin Carey, Washington Monthly editor in chief Paul Glastris, and Becky Klein-Collins, associate vice president for research and policy development at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. We then presented those decisions to a vetting committee consisting of Shanna Smith Jaggars, director of student success research for the Office of Distance Education and E-Learning at Ohio State University and formerly assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University; and Jack Buckley, senior vice president for research at the College Board and formerly commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. With Jaggars’s and Buckley’s input, we adjusted the methodology, built the rankings, and ran the rankings past our vetting committee for final approval.

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