Methodology for BestColleges’ Annual School Rankings

Learn more about how we evaluate the schools that appear in our respected lists of college rankings.

What makes a college "the best"? Truth is, there's no one answer. The best program for you depends on your needs and goals. That said, there are many factors students should consider when searching for a quality program. At BestColleges, we collect those indicators and account for them in our rankings.

In our 2023 College Choice and Admissions Survey, current college students told us what mattered most when selecting a school or program. To rank colleges, we rely on the top factors they identified, including:

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    Affordability
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    Student outcomes
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    Flexibility and accessibility
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    Reputation
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    Ease of admissions
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    Student diversity

Thanks to trusted sources, like the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard, we have data related to these factors at our fingertips — and in our spreadsheets. Our Rankings Team consists of members from our data analytics and editorial teams to ensure we're finding and analyzing the right data to help you make your choice.

How We Collect the Data

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To collect data for our latest rankings, we pulled the most current, publicly available datasets from NCES and College Scorecard. Next, our editors quality-checked these datasets. Schools missing a substantial number of ranking factors or with unreported data were omitted from our rankings lists.

In addition, we omitted schools that did not meet the minimum requirements for inclusion on our rankings lists, as defined in more detail below.

We know data is complex and acknowledge that we may not always get it right; if you spot missing or outdated information on our site, please contact us at contact@support.bestcolleges.com so we can address it.

How We Calculate the Scores

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We ranked all eligible institutions on a 100-point scale. A perfect score of 100 is earned by ranking #1 within each of the ranking categories. Unless otherwise noted below or on the specific ranking page, we applied our ranking factors to the 3,700+ public and private nonprofit schools that have submitted information to NCES.

Curious if you can trust college rankings? Learn about how to use rankings as one part of your college search.


But wait, remember that talk about the best school being the one that's right for your goals and needs? We thought so. That's why we have multiple types of rankings — for online students, master's students, students looking for schools in their state, and more.

Keep reading to find more detailed information about how we rank colleges across our various lists. We hope our approach helps you find the best college for you.

BestColleges Signature Rankings 2024

For 2024, we updated the following signature rankings lists with a new methodology, informed by the factors students told us were most important in their college search.

Best Online Colleges

Minimum Requirements: Each School Must…

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    Be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution
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    Submit an annual report to NCES
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    Be a four-year college offering at least 10 online bachelor's degrees and three online master's degrees
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    Have a graduation rate in the top third of all reporting schools
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    Meet criteria for supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion for all students, further defined below
Ranking Factors
Category Subcategories
Affordability
30% of total score
  • Net Price — 75% of category
  • Federal Student Loan Default Rate — 25% of category
Student Outcomes
30% of total score
  • Graduation Rate — 60% of category
  • Full-Time Retention Rate After First Year — 25% of category
  • Likelihood of Getting Accepted — 15% of category
Reputation
20% of total score
  • Average Earnings Six Years After Entering College — 75% of category
  • Rate of Accepted Students Who Enroll — 25% of category
Diversity and Social Mobility
20% of total score
  • Pell Grant Graduation Rate — 50% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Low-Income Students — 25% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Middle-Income Students — 25% of category

A Deeper Look

Learn More About the Variables in Our Methodology

We weighted factors in our methodology according to what students told us mattered to them in our recent College Choice and Admissions Survey.

First, by only qualifying schools with a certain number of online programs in our rankings of online colleges, we help ensure that the schools on our rankings lists are flexible and accessible for students seeking online and hybrid program options.

Now, for the categories in our ranking methodology:

Affordability

Our affordability score considers the average net price of a school. Net price refers to the price students pay after free financial aid, such as scholarships or grants. Additionally, we assess a school's federal student loan default rate — the percentage of students who default on their federal student loans within two years of entering repayment.

Over half of the students we surveyed said affordability was among the most important factors in their college choice. Our goal is to reward schools that offer competitive tuition and financial aid packages and avoid saddling students with debt.

Student Outcomes

Students also told us that outcomes, such as likelihood to graduate, were top of mind in their school choice. Graduation rate helps us measure how many full-time, first-time students complete their degree program.

We also automatically rule out schools that don't meet our graduation threshold, which is currently 56%. Why that percentage? Because the top third of online colleges we analyzed had a graduation rate of 56% or higher. So, we can say the schools on our rankings lists have a graduation rate in the top third of all reporting schools.

In our school rankings for specific subject areas, we also factor in the subject completions, or the number of students who have graduated for that particular major within the reported academic year. This demonstrates a school's commitment to a given program and the resources that program may receive.

In addition, we assess each school's full-time retention rate — the rate at which full-time students return after their first year — to rank a school's effectiveness at keeping students enrolled.

Finally, we ask if students can get into the school of their choice in the first place. In our survey, 22% of students said ease of admissions was a top factor in their college decision. So, we consider the likelihood of getting accepted, or the acceptance rate, rewarding schools with higher acceptance rates.

Reputation

Rankings and reputation matter to many students. We want to know about a school's reputation in the workforce. That is, how much do graduates end up earning? We factor in graduates' average earnings six years after entering college as part of this category.

As another indicator of reputation, we look at the rate of accepted students who enroll, also called the admission yield. This tells us how many students who get offer letters end up attending that school.

Diversity and Social Mobility

While total graduation rates are important, it's crucial that schools support students of all backgrounds equitably. To account for this, we consider four-year completion rates for low- and middle-income students and graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients.

Per College Scorecard's definition, low-income students have family incomes of under $30,000 a year. Middle-income students have family incomes from $30,000-$75,000.

Pell Grants are awarded to students who qualify for need-based aid. As such, Pell Grant status is sometimes used as a proxy indicator for having a low- or middle-income.

We also aim to align our college rankings with our commitment to supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, and access in higher education — and our belief that people of all identities and backgrounds deserve to learn in a safe environment.

Beginning in 2024, we automatically exclude schools that support or promote anti-LGBTQ+ policies, groups, practices, and/or initiatives from new college rankings. We turned to national LGBTQ+ college benchmarking organization Campus Pride's list of most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ+ youth to determine ineligible schools.

Best Online Colleges in a Region, State, or City

Minimum Requirements: Each School Must…

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    Be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution
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    Be located in the given region, state, or city
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    Submit an annual report to NCES
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    Offer at least five online bachelor's degree programs and three online master's degree programs
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    Have a graduation rate in the top third of all reporting schools
Ranking Factors
Category Subcategories
Affordability
30% of total score
  • Net Price — 75% of category
  • Federal Student Loan Default Rate — 25% of category
Student Outcomes
30% of total score
  • Graduation Rate — 60% of category
  • Full-Time Retention Rate After First Year — 25% of category
  • Likelihood of Getting Accepted — 15% of category
Reputation
20% of total score
  • Average Earnings Six Years After Entering College — 75% of category
  • Rate of Accepted Students Who Enroll — 25% of category
Diversity and Social Mobility
20% of total score
  • Pell Grant Graduation Rate — 50% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Low-Income Students — 25% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Middle-Income Students — 25% of category

Best Online Bachelor's Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements: Each School Must…

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    Be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution
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    Submit an annual report to NCES
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    Be a four-year college offering an online bachelor's degree in the given program area
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    Have a graduation rate in the top third of all reporting schools
Ranking Factors
Category Subcategories
Affordability
30% of total score
  • Net Price — 75% of category
  • Federal Student Loan Default Rate — 25% of category
Student Outcomes
30% of total score
  • Graduation Rate — 35% of category
  • Subject Completions — 25% of category
  • Full-Time Retention Rate After First Year — 25% of category
  • Likelihood of Getting Accepted — 15% of category
Reputation
20% of total score
  • Average Earnings Six Years After Entering College — 75% of category
  • Rate of Accepted Students Who Enroll — 25% of category
Diversity and Social Mobility
20% of total score
  • Pell Grant Graduation Rate — 50% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Low-Income Students — 25% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Middle-Income Students — 25% of category

Best Online Master's Degree Programs

Minimum Requirements: Each School Must…

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    Be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution
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    Submit an annual report to NCES
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    Offer an online master's degree in the given program area
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    Have a graduation rate in the top third of all reporting schools
Ranking Factors
Category Subcategories
Affordability
30% of total score
  • In-State Graduate Tuition — 75% of category
  • Federal Student Loan Default Rate — 25% of category
Student Outcomes
30% of total score
  • Master's Completion Rate — 50% of category
  • Graduation Rate — 35% of category
  • Likelihood of Getting Accepted — 15% of category
Reputation
20% of total score
  • Average Earnings Six Years After Entering College — 75% of category
  • Rate of Accepted Students Who Enroll — 25% of category
Diversity and Social Mobility
20% of total score
  • Pell Grant Graduation Rate — 50% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Low-Income Students — 25% of category
  • Four-Year Completion Rate for Middle-Income Students — 25% of category

More BestColleges Rankings and Methodologies

Below, find descriptions of other BestColleges rankings methodologies, as well as rankings methodologies from years past.

Best Online Associate Degree Programs

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online associate degree program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

Academics -- 50% of total score

  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate + Transfer Rate
  • Number of Associate Degree Graduates in the Given Subject

Affordability -- 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming -- 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Associate Degree Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Associate Level
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online Bachelor's Degree Programs (Prior to 2024)

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online bachelor's degree program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

Academics -- 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Bachelor's Degree Graduates in the Given Subject

Affordability -- 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming -- 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Bachelor's Degree Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Bachelor's Level
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online Undergraduate Certificate Programs

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online undergraduate certificate program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

Academics -- 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Undergraduate Certificate Completions in the Given Subject

Affordability -- 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming -- 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Bachelor's Degree Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Bachelor's Level
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online Master's Degree Programs (Prior to 2024)

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online master's degree program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

Academics -- 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Master's Degree Graduates in the Given Subject

Affordability -- 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming -- 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Students Enrolled at the Master's Level
  • Percentage of Master's Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Master's Level

Best Online Graduate Certificate Programs

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online postgraduate certificate program in the given subject.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

Academics -- 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate
  • Number of Postgraduate Certificate Completions in the Given Subject

Affordability -- 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming -- 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Students Enrolled at the Master's Level
  • Percentage of Master's Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Programs Offered at the Master's Level

Best Online Community Colleges

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer at least five online programs.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

Academics -- 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate

Affordability -- 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming -- 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Best Online 4-Year Colleges in a Region, State, or City (Prior to 2024)

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer at least one online bachelor's degree program.
  • Must be located in the given region, state, or city.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

Academics -- 50% of total score

  • Admissions Rate
  • Enrollment Rate
  • Full-Time Retention Rate
  • Graduation Rate

Affordability -- 25% of total score

  • Average Net Price
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans
  • Average Loan Default Rate

Online Programming -- 25% of total score

  • Percentage of Programs Offered Online
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Online Courses

Most Affordable Online Degrees

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Minimum Requirements

  • Each school must be an accredited public or private, nonprofit institution.
  • Must offer an online degree program in the given subject at the given level.
  • Must submit an annual report to NCES.

Ranking Factors

  • Average Net Price -- 25% of total score
  • Average Loan Payment as a Proportion of Salary -- 25% of total score
  • Average Loan Default Rate -- 20% of total score
  • Percentage of Enrolled Students Taking Federal Loans -- 15% of total score
  • Graduation Rate -- 15% of total score

Our Rankings Team consists of members from our data analytics and editorial teams. Contributors from our editorial team wrote and edited the content of this methodology guide.

Contributors: Reece Johnson, Andrew Rice, Ph.D., Stephanie Snider, and Lyss Welding