How Schools are Selected: Our Methodology

Every year, we refine our cohort to ensure that we have accessible, high-quality schools that remain up to date with how they meet students’ needs.

Through Abound’s search module and advice to students, we encourage future students to look at how schools meet what we call the Four As: Accessibility, Affordability, Acceleration, and Advancement. These categories encompass the qualities that students will want in order to have an efficient, worthwhile experience. And while they are easy-to-remember factors for students to keep in mind during their own college search, they also inform the more technical grading system that we used to select our cohort. Here is a breakdown of our method as it corresponds with the Four As:


We select schools that offer courses in the evening, weekends, and/or online so that students may fit their education around other commitments, such as family and work. We look for schools that have many online program options in a diverse range of fields, paying attention to whether they have been offering online courses and degrees throughout the last decade. We also reward schools that offer on-campus childcare to accommodate the parents among their adult students.
Large populations of online-only and part-time students signal to us that a school is committed to non-traditional education; persistence among adult students indicates that these populations are satisfied with the breadth of resources available to them.


Through financial aid, reduced tuition, scholarships, or grants, our recognized schools commit to making their degrees affordable. We look at the average net price for full-time undergraduates as well as the per-credit hour charge for part-time students.
We also review the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants or any other form of federal aid, be they grants and loans. From there, we factor in the graduation rate of Pell Grant recipients to see how effectively the school graduates students from lower socioeconomic populations. Each school’s five-year student loan debt repayment rate is also factored in.


Schools must be leaders in accelerating its students’ time to completion in order to earn its place in our cohort. We want schools that offer adult students a direct path to their degree in the most timely and cost-effective way. Programs that exemplify this dedication include course credit for military training, course credit for prior life experience, and comprehensive academic and career counseling. Here, too, is where we grade the retention rates.

Industry groups advocating for adult education are stellar sources of information for institutions aiming to adapt to students’ needs. We honor schools that partner with and learn from any of the following:

    • The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) is dedicated to helping organizations support adult learners. CAEL puts a strong focus on prior learning credit and other ways to accelerate an adult student’s timeline to completion.
    • The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) is a collaborative community of educators dedicated to improving online and blended learning effectiveness.
    • Quality Matters (QM) improves quality assurance of online learning through the promotion of standards, evaluation tools, organizational processes, professional development, and more.
    • The University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) – advances leadership in adult education by enhancing quality, publishing scholarship and studies, and extending networking opportunities.


Beyond the standard career services offered during students’ enrollment, schools earn their place in our cohort when they exhibit an active interest in students’ long-term success. We note whether a school offers career services and then factor in graduation rates for part-time students, Pell Grant recipients, and transfer students. We also look at the percentage of graduated students that earn over 150% of the poverty level.

We score schools on the proportion of teaching faculty that are full-time, the average faculty salary, and instructional expenditures per full-time student; these core statistics tell us a good amount about the overall quality of a school’s faculty as well as that of the education more broadly.

Building Our Award Lists

Using our data points, scored relative to the rest of the country, we then created four weighting systems:

Best Online Colleges | Best Colleges for Adults | Best Affordable Online Colleges | Best Colleges for Military and Veterans

The final results of the systems were used as a guide, rather than the final word, to determine the awarded institution lists. The team also considered schools with smaller online or adult programs that have long track records of excellence. From that point, schools were scanned and removed from consideration for reported quality issues, low affordability marks, and less-than-stellar outcomes indicators for adult students (e.g. part-time student graduation rates).

Each list has an even balance of schools that vary by location, size, religious affiliation, public or private status, and prestige. Different students thrive in different environments, so the diversity of cultures, available resources, and teaching styles give everyone something to choose from. Schools are not ranked from top to bottom, but are rather presented as a whole to celebrate the merit of their unique set of programs, class format options, and resources.

Our data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics and the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard. Our team collected membership rosters of the aforementioned industry groups from their public-facing websites.

Best Online Colleges

For our Best Online Colleges cohort, we weighed more heavily the factors specific to online degrees, including the number and diversity of online program offerings, the length of time in which online programs have been offered, and size of the online student population. Our Best Online Colleges awards have two cohorts: The Best 100 Online Colleges and regional Best Online Colleges (North, South, Midwest, West).

We used the following data points and relative weights for the Best Online Colleges system. Many of the categories also account for the length of time a school has offered a given feature (such as the number of years for career services, online degrees, employment services, counseling, and credit for life experiences/military):

  • Accessibility: 30% of total score
    • Number and diversity of online degree options: 36%
    • Size of online/adult student body: 24%
    • Record of providing online/flexible learning options: 40%
  • Affordability: 30% of total score
    • Net price: 30%
    • Per credit hour charge: 20%
    • Employment services for students: 7%
    • Number of loans and aid: 8%
    • 5 year repayment rate on federal student loans: 20%
    • 10 year repayment rate on federal student loans: 15%
  • Acceleration: 10% of total score
    • Credit for life experiences: 25%
    • Services and support for military students: 2%
    • Academic and career counseling services: 20%
    • Retention rates: 48%
    • Industry memberships: 5%
  • Advancement: 30% of total score
    • Adult student graduation rates: 54%
    • Pell Grant student graduation rate: 18%
    • Career services: 10%
    • Full-time faculty percentage: 18%

Our goal was to find the Best 100 Online Colleges in the country and outstanding Online Colleges in each region. While we believe in the value of our model, we acknowledge that all statistical models have blind spots. We dug into each school and made decisions based on individual factors related to our Four As. If a school had a high overall score, but did not measure well in individual areas like Affordability or Advancement, we left them off the lists.

Furthermore, we took into consideration the schools that fell outside the top scores (i.e., those with smaller relative online student bodies and/or breadth of offerings) yet nevertheless had outstanding scores in Affordability or Advancement. We also balanced the list for a variety of factors, including geography, size, and mission. Our Best 100 Online list awards schools that have national appeal and very strong underlying metrics. Similarly, our Best Regional awards are given to schools that stand head and shoulders above their peers in the region. These schools are amazing options for students both in the area or nationally!

Best Colleges for Adults

Flexible learning options for adults existed well before the introduction of the online classroom. The handful of rankings lists that do consider adult-specific factors, however, often consider nothing more than schools’ online options while ignoring the equally valuable hybrid and flexible on-campus adult education courses. For many students, an in-person experience is superior to the online version, so we make a point to award these more traditional, non-traditional adult programs.

Here is our weighting and scoring system for the Best Colleges for Adults:

  • Accessibility: 10% of total score
    • Number of years offering online courses/degrees: 50%
    • On-campus day care: 10%
    • Number of years offering weekend/night courses: 40%
  • Affordability: 30% of total score
    • Net price: 30%
    • Per credit hour charge: 20%
    • Employment services for students: 7%
    • Number of loans and aid: 8%
    • 5 year repayment rate on federal student loans: 20%
    • 10 year repayment rate on federal student loans: 15%
  • Acceleration: 30% of total score
    • Credit for life experiences: 30%
    • Services and support for military students: 5%
    • Academic and career counseling services: 10%
    • Retention rates: 50%
    • Industry memberships: 5%
  • Advancement: 30% of total score
    • Adult student graduation rates: 60%
    • Pell Grant student graduation rate: 20%
    • Career services: 10%
    • Full-time faculty percentage: 10%

With the results of this system in hand, we then looked closely at the top 15% of schools, eliminating those with holes in their overall résumé. And, as with our other lists, we took the time to balance the cohort by including schools from underrepresented types and locations.

Best Affordable Online Colleges

Only programs that made our Best Online Colleges list were considered for this award. We’ve scored and weighed colleges on 9 different data points that accurately speak to each one’s affordability. These factors include: net price, per-credit hour charge, graduation rates for different students, and rates of student loan usage and repayment.

  • Affordability Metric
    • In state, on campus net price: 30%
    • Per credit hour charge: 20%
    • 5 year repayment rate on federal student loans: 17%
    • 10 year repayment rate on federal student loans: 13%
    • Percentage of students awarded any grant aid: 5%
    • 6 year graduation rate for part-time, first time students: 3.75%
    • 6 year graduation rate for part-time, transfer students: 3.75%
    • 6 year graduation rate for full-time transfer students: 3.75%
    • 6 year graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients: 3.75%

Using the affordability metric as outlined above, we looked for great deals in each state and again balanced the list for school size, mission, and other key factors. Because ‘affordable’ can mean different things in different states, we kept an eye out for how each school scored in relation to their local peers.

Best Colleges for Military and Veterans

Only programs that have also made our Best Online Colleges or Best Colleges for Adults lists were considered for this award. We’ve scored and weighed colleges on 14 different data points that altogether indicate a college’s commitment to military and veteran students. These factors include whether the college has: dedicated support staff, significant military student body, student veteran organization, course credit for military experience, and more. All schools listed must provide credit for military experience.

  • Military Friendly Metric
    • Number/percent of students receiving DODTA benefits: 10% / 10%
    • Number/percent of students receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits: 10% / 10%
    • Credit for military training (2018-2021): 9%
    • Credit for military training (2022): 9%
    • Dedicated support contact (2018-2021): 6%
    • Dedicated support contact (2022): 6%
    • Member of Department of Defense Voluntary Educational Partnership Memorandum of Understanding (2018-2021): 5%
    • Member of Department of Defense Voluntary Educational Partnership Memorandum of Understanding (2022): 5%
    • Recognized student veteran organization (2018-2021): 5%
    • Recognized student veteran organization (2022): 5%
    • Yellow Ribbon Program member (2018-2021): 5%
    • Yellow Ribbon Program member (2022): 5%

With our military-friendly metric as a guide, we went through the top results and hand-picked the schools that had significant military student populations (both in overall size and relative to their student body) that also have an across-the-board great history of working with military and veteran students. We took care to have a representative list across geography, missions, and size. The final result is a list of schools that really take care to help active servicemembers, veterans, and their families succeed and finish college!

What Isn’t Included

There are a number of reasons that an institution might not qualify for Abound: Finish College. We take precautions to keep students safe in their college search, wary of for-profit institutions as well as those that are at risk of underdelivering a quality education.

Accreditation is a non-negotiable priority for us at Abound. We must find a current and valid regional accreditation in order to consider an institution for our cohort, ensuring that they are approved by accreditors authorized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of Higher Education Accreditation. National and career college accreditation is less regulated and often less widely accepted as valid. This also helps us avoid fake degrees from diploma mills that specifically target adults pursuing continuing education as well as those that report financial improprieties, which often results as a conflict of interest that does not keep students’ best interests in mind.

Other red flags are related to institutional finances, stability, or investigation into recruiting practices. Those undergoing heightened cash monitoring are at risk of federal compliance issues and therefore at risk of harming students’ ability to graduate with an accredited degree. The closing of a school can have dramatic effects on its current students and recent grads, so great scrutiny was given to schools with “very high” financial risk levels.

Beyond these issues, we are also selective in order to offer a cohort of schools with the full potential for an accessible bachelor’s degree. This means that we require our institutions to offer primarily full four-year degrees, as well as at least some distance education options for students to have flexible scheduling opportunities. Schools with narrow educational scopes or faith related special focus missions were also excluded from evaluation.

Additional Nominations

We recognize that statistical models for things as complex as higher education can leave out institutions that deserve to be celebrated, regardless of how thoroughly we conduct our search. That’s why we invite nominations from administrators, faculty, and counselors to review schools to add to our cohort. Based on the nomination and vetting process that we’ve used throughout Colleges of Distinction’s 22-year operation, we’ve found that this greatly benefits our cohort at Abound.

Schools that fall outside of our assigned parameters can choose to go through a selection process that includes a team review, survey request and, when appropriate, an interview with the administration. Our team looks over the schools adult and online website sections to look at the size of staff, resources available to students, and the transparency of the information provided.

Our application and interview consist of a variety of questions that return back to the principles of our Four As. Questions cover the breadth of online programming and how long it has been in place, when and in what format classes are offered, and how students are supported efficiently and effectively through their education.