Here’s where you’ll find rankings on our site:
- State rankings pages. These pages, like affordable colleges in Texas, show all the schools in that state that meet our ranking cutoffs (described below). The schools are sorted in descending order by our proprietary score (highest scores at the top).
- Top online colleges by state. These pages, like top online colleges in Texas, contain profiles of the top 25% not-for-profit colleges and universities based on the number of their students who are enrolled in fully-online degree programs. They include schools that are also ranked in the most affordable lists, but also include others.
- Subject rankings pages. These pages, like affordable nursing schools, show a maximum of 50 schools, drawn from our select group of affordable schools, that offer degree programs in the subject area. To be eligible for the subjects page rankings, the schools have to have offered programs in the subject for at least 5 years (because we are relying on the number of grads they report for each degree program – so the program has to have been around long enough for students to graduate from it).
NOTE: our state pages have been updated for 2016 to reflect the most recent data. Our subject pages are in the process of being updated, and still display the 2015 rankings.
Here’s what makes our rankings different from the rest:
- Our definition of affordability. Our analysis is designed to find schools that are affordable not only for the average student, but for lower-income students as well.
- Our high standards. There’s a strict cutoff (score-wise) for schools to be displayed at all. We want to focus attention on the very best options from an affordability standpoint – not just sort a list of 1,000 schools by price and call them all “affordable.” Many of our lists (broken down by state and subject area) are short. Some states have no ranked schools at all.
- Our data. We focus not only on the financial cost of colleges, but on the opportunity cost: we look at what happens to students once they’re enrolled. Do they graduate? Can they pay back their loans? In addition, we did extensive research to determine the level of flexibility each school gives you as far as earning credits (credit for prior learning, weekends/evenings, online education, etc.). We shed light on emerging new models like Competency-Based Education that may help you reduce the cost of your degree.
A Word About Rankings
One thing to keep in mind about rankings in general is that they’re only one piece of the puzzle.
The problem for you, the prospective student, is that there are over 7,500 institutions of higher learning in the US that are eligible for federal Title IV student loans. Of those, over 5,000 offer degrees, and over 3,200 offer Bachelor’s or higher-level degrees. So where do you begin?
The most you should expect from rankings like ours (or from any other source, like the somewhat-better-known-than-ours US News rankings) is that they can help you start building the list of schools to apply to. They’re not a substitute for doing your own research.
The data behind a rankings list might turn out to be out-of-date, or just plain wrong. We do our best to make sure that our data is neither of those, but there are a lot of schools out there to keep track of, and sometimes things change without us being aware. Or, you might be one of the outliers who gets a great financial aid package from a school that doesn’t give them to everyone. Or, you might decide that you’re looking for something really, really specific (a college where you can study Ancient Greek, learn fencing, and be in a small town in the Midwest).
The point is – while you should USE rankings, don’t RELY on them to make your decisions for you. The best way to learn what you want to know about specific schools is to contact the schools, and ask them a lot of questions.
Our Data Sources
The core of our database is drawn from sources operated by the federal government (the IPEDS database, the Office of Postsecondary Education, and others). However, we also go beyond that by incorporating information about competency-based education (which of the primary means of earning college credits outside of class – such as CLEP and DSST – the schools accept), as well as other information about the schools, gathered both from their websites and over the phone.
Now… Here’s How Our Rankings Work
In a nutshell: we take the giant list of colleges in the US and apply a number of filters to narrow it down to the much shorter list (about 500) of colleges that, in our judgment, provide the best “bang for the buck” for lower and middle-income students. Below are the criteria we use. Lastly, we assign a score to each school based on how they rank against each other on the criteria below.
Reasonable costs. The schools have to have an average net price per year, for students receiving financial aid, and whose family income is no more than $48,000 per year, of $15,000 or less. This is the amount you and your family would (on average) be responsible for after taking into account loans, scholarships, and other financial aid. Also, the Average Net Price has to increase as the students’ family income category increases – that is, students whose families make more money pay more to attend, which suggests that the school’s financial aid dollars are being used to help students who really need it, not being used to provide incentives for wealthier students to pick the school over its competitors.
Promising outcomes.The schools have to have a student loan repayment rate (3 years post-graduation) of at least 50%. This refers to the percentage of graduates who are making progress paying down the balance of their student loans within 3 years of their graduation. The schools also have to have a combined graduation rate + transfer-out rate of 50% or more. This is intended to show what percent of the school’s students are able to take the next step – either moving on to another school, or graduating – rather than dropping out, left with loan payments, but no degree.
Suitability for lower-income students. To be included in our rankings, schools have to have some solid fundamentals: not-for-profit status (no for-profits here), offer at least an Associate degree, and offer at least one non-standard way for students to earn college credits, such as AP Credit, CLEP or DSST credit, or ROTC. Finally, the schools have to have Pell Grant recipients (who are typically from lower-income backgrounds) make up at least 20% of their full-time undergraduates.
To learn more about our organization or to contact us, please visit the About Us page.