How Schools are Selected
The Rankings Problem
Having dominated the entire college search landscape, college rankings contribute to the false narrative that schools can be stacked up against each other and equally considered the “best” or “worst” for everyone in the same way. Numerical ranks create the illusion of certainty, even though every school has its own set of programs, class format options, and resources that specifically cater to different students’ needs. Instead, they are largely measured by arbitrary quantitative data and perceived prestige that can be manipulated by schools in order to climb to the top.
Ultimately, the most popular rankings are especially misleading for adult students who have unique needs that aren’t even considered by traditional rankings systems. Adult-specific metrics are often more qualitative in nature and, therefore, difficult to track (not to mention the fact that they aren’t usually considered in rankings algorithms in the first place). Even more limiting, the rankings fail to acknowledge the fact that adult students with work and personal commitments can’t pack up and move across the country to attend an in-person program outside of their region. All of this means that the leading rankings systems don’t even take into account the non-traditional offerings that are most important for busy adults to have a successful experience.
Abound does not rank our schools; rather, we measure them based on a rigorous review of their qualities as individual institutions. The schools in our cohort are those that we found to excel in what they do best with the understanding that every non-traditional student will have different needs. It’s not about finding the “best” school—it’s about finding the best fit, the one that will help them achieve their personal goals.
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 signals to us that a school is committed to non-traditional education; persistence among adult students indicates that this population is 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 tuition cost 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. Just as important is the five-year debt repayment rate as well as the median debt of adult students.
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 remedial services, course credit for military training, course credit for prior life experience, and comprehensive academic and career counseling for non-traditional learners. Here, too, is where we grade the retention and persistence rate for part-time students.
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 for non-traditional students and then factor in the six-year graduation rates for part-time students, part-time Pell Grant recipients, and independent students (those who file their own taxes and are thus more likely to be adults). We also look at the average earnings of independent students ten years after they were initially admitted.
We give a small bonus to schools that score well on traditional full-time student metrics—full-time retention rates, graduation rates, and admissions rates; these core statistics tell us a good amount about the overall quality and brand value of a school’s education.
For our initial vetting process, we first reviewed the institutions on the membership rosters of the aforementioned industry groups. For everything else, we used the nationally corroborated data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
Each data point was given a z-score to help us determine how well a school performs in relation to the average institution in its region. This helped us make a fair comparison between schools while respecting how they naturally differ from those in other areas of the country. We then created two weighting system models: one for Top Online Programs and one for Top Onsite Programs for Adults.
Top Online Programs
For our Top Online Programs 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 offerece, and size of the online student population.
We narrow down our selection by picking the top 10% of institutions according to our holistic grading criteria. To further combat the statistical bias that tends only to put a certain type of institution at the top of rankings lists, we make sure to adjust our cohort to have a more equitable distribution of school locations, school sizes, religious affiliations, public schools, private schools, and HBCUs. The cultures, available resources, and teaching styles all cater to specific students, so we ensure that all students have an equal variety to choose from.
Top Onsite Programs for Adults
Online learning is the newcomer to the adult student space, but there have always been great flexible on-campus adult education options before the Internet. 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. Especially in light of COVID-19, schools that offer continuing adult education have nevertheless added 100% online options, but we also make a point to include the various course delivery options available.
Avoiding exclusive bias toward fully online programs, we give noted attention to the values that create and reflect a great flexible program: night and weekend access, childcare opportunities, part-time student retention and graduation rates, and more. For this set of weights, we then selected the top 10% of schools by our scoring. And, as with our online list, we balanced that initial list out by including schools from underrepresented types and locations.
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.
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 20-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.