Methodology for Our Subject Rankings

The methodology behind our rankings is grounded in statistical data and a few consistently applied guiding principles. For our 2016 lists, we compiled information collected from IPEDS and the College Navigator, both of which are hosted on the National Center for Education Statistics platform. Most of the data available is from the 2013-14 academic year; more recent information is always used when available.

Our ranking criterion changes slightly depending on whether we are listing associate, bachelor’s, or graduate programs, and for our state page rankings. In all cases, our rankings measure a school’s academic quality and affordability. For program rankings, we also consider the depth of each college’s online offerings.

Best Online Associate Degree Programs

Like with other degree lists, our associate rankings are a three-pronged measure of a school’s academic quality, affordability & student experience, and online offerings. The academic quality component accounts for 50% of a school’s ranking. Nearly half of this category is determined by a school’s retention rate for part-time and full-time students. Simply put, we expect premier schools to educate and keep their students until they graduate, and our rankings reflect that. Thirty-five percent of the ranking is determined by a school’s graduation and transfer rate, which measures how many students graduate quickly while also capturing any frustration felt by students who felt dissatisfied with the college. Finally, the degree program participation category is a measure of how many students graduated from the profile in question; more is better.

The affordability measures, which account for 30% of a program’s ranking, are much simpler to calculate. We assigned 50% of the credit in this category to student:teacher ratio. The other half accounts for the average net price that the lowest income students pay to attend school, which measures the cost of attendance after accounting for tuition, scholarships, and grants.

The final 20% is based on a school’s online offerings. Fifty percent of this ranking weighs the number of online programs a school features; the other half measures how many students at school are participating in some form of online education.

Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs

Bachelor’s programs adhere to the same broad ranking criteria as associate program rankings, following the traditional academic quality, affordability & student experience, and online program offerings breakdown. Academic quality is measured by assessing each program’s admissions, enrollment, retention, graduation, and degree program participation rates. Admissions and graduation rate are weighted slightly heavier than the other three indicators of quality, but all five considerations are an important part of the ranking.

The affordability & student experience measures feature a slightly different breakdown for bachelor’s programs than for associate degrees. Here, 40% of the affordability component is a measure of the average net price for lowest income students. Another 40% accounts for the loan default rate at a school, an approximation of how much debt the typical student graduates with.

The final 20% is based on a school’s online programs. Half of this ranking is based on the number of online programs each school offers; the other 50% measures how many students at each school participates in online education.

Best Online Master’s Degree Programs

Master’s program rankings follow the same criteria as bachelor’s programs for everything except for the online program offerings breakdown. This category, which like the bachelor’s and associate program rankings, accounts for 20% of a school’s overall ranking. The breakdown of this category is different, however. Forty percent of the category is covered by the percentage of graduate programs that are offered online. Another 40% accounts for the school’s enrollment figures; the final 20% measures the number of a school’s overall programs that are offered at the graduate level.

Best 2-Year Colleges in State

Our 2-year state program rankings only account for academic quality and affordability & student experience, categories that account for 60% and 40% of a school’s ranking respectively. On the academic side, full-time retention and part-time retention rate compose 20% of the category each. The other 60% is a school’s combined graduation and transfer rate.

The affordability and student experience category weights the average net price for lowest income students and the student:faculty ratio equally.

Best 4-Year Colleges in State

As with the 2-year state rankings, the 4-year schools are ranked based on their academic quality and their affordability & student experience. A school’s admissions rate and graduation rate account for 60% each of the former category; the remaining 40% are covered by retention rate and enrollment rate. The affordability & student experience category is composed of the average net price for low-income students (40%), loan default rate (40%), and student:faculty ratio (20%).