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 graduate programs in our cohort are those that we found to excel in what they do best with the understanding that every 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 graduate 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 grad school experience. And while they are easy-to-remember factors for students to keep in mind during their own grad school 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 programs 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 master’s and doctoral program options in a diverse range of fields, paying attention to whether they have been offering online courses and degrees throughout the last decade.
Large populations or high percentages of online-only, hybrid, and part-time students signal to us that a school is committed to flexible education. Track record is important as well; the longer a school has been offering online options, the more experience they have in those delivery methods.
Our recognized schools commit to making their degrees affordable. We look at the tuition costs (including out-of-state tuition for public schools) and fees for graduates as well as the per-credit hour charge for part-time students. We also review the percentage of students receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill Benefits and Defense Tuition Assistance Program Benefits.
The other side of the affordability coin is debt repayment. We factor in debt repayment data for graduate students one, two, and five years after graduation.
Schools must be leaders in accelerating their students’ time to completion in order to earn their place in our cohort. We want schools that offer graduate students a direct path to their degree in the most timely and cost-effective way. First, we look at whether they offer night and weekend courses, giving extra credit for how long they have offered these flexible options. Second, we factor in the percentage of the student body who are enrolled part time.
Finally, we reward schools that are members of The Online Learning Consortium (OLC), a collaborative community of educators dedicated to improving online and blended learning effectiveness. Membership in such industry groups can tell us the commitment the schools have made toward these groups’ best practices.
Graduate students spend a lot of time with their professors, and thus the quality of their experience is influenced greatly by their student-professor relationships. Mentorship in higher education is a huge driver of success, so we measure the percentage of faculty that are full-time and the percentage of faculty that are tenured or on tenure track.
Again, we use an industry group membership as a positive indicator of a school’s commitment to graduate education. Here we look at membership in the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). CGS has developed best practices and benchmarks to help member institutions innovate and improve their graduate programs.
And because research is a large and critical part of the graduate student experience for many, we reward each school’s total research funding as well as their per-grad-student funding level.
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, the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard, and The Center for Measuring University Performance.
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 a weighting system that assigned scores to each variable.
Top Grad Programs 2021
We narrow down our selection by picking the top 15% 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 representative 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.
What Isn’t Included
There are a number of reasons that an institution might not qualify for Abound: Grad School. 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 graduate degree. This means that we require our institutions to offer primarily master’s 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 21-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 graduate school 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.