Best Colleges for Returning Adults: Ranking Methodology

This gives an overview of the methodology behind our Best Colleges for Returning Adults ranking. This is the first of our rankings to specifically address the unique concerns of the student who falls outside the "norm" of first-time, full-time degree seekers under age 24. Non-traditional students actually make up the majority of degree-seekers and include the following categories:

  • Students who are returning to college after dropping out or transferring
  • Working adults who need flexible options
  • Students who want to take advantage of distance learning opportunities
  • Professionals who want to use life experience as college credit

The following shows a breakdown of the factors that we take into account to produce these rankings:

High Importance Factors


Colleges who are regionally accredited are weighted highly in this ranking. National accreditation has low importance in the ranking, as regional accreditation is typically preferred.

Early-Career Salary Boost

How the salaries of graduates from this institution fare in comparison to other institutions. (Five years experience or less)

Medium Importance Factors

Percentage of Students Over 24: Often, the returning or older student feels out of place in an institution that serves primarily younger students. A healthy percentage of older students at an institution provides more peers for the returning and older student to interact with. It also may indicate a school that does a better job supporting older students.

Percentage of Students Enrolled Only in Distance Learning Courses: This measures flexibility of their degree options, and whether it is possible for a student to achieve their degree completely online.

Mid-Career Salary Boost: How the salaries of graduates from this institution fare in comparison to other institutions. (Greater than 5 years of experience)

Percent of Students Not in Default: A high student loan default could be a signal of a college that is not setting up students for success. The lower the better.

"Back To Student" Spending: This is a measure of the amount of money an institution spends on students in proportion to it's revenue. Schools with a higher "Back to Student" spending score will invest a higher percentage of its tuition revenue into educating students, rather than spending that money on marketing or giving it to shareholders.

Low Importance Factors

Average Faculty Salary: Institutions that can afford to pay their teaching faculty more are able to attract better professors. This is adjusted by the surrounding area's cost of living.

Student/Faculty Ratio: Students in an institution with a lower student to faculty ratio usually have a greater opportunity to get individualized attention from their professors. Online classes allow professors to reach a greater number of students, but we still believe there is a limit to each professors capacity to interact with students.

Life Credits: Whether the college offers college credit for certain life experiences like work experience, learning through the military or government, licensure or certifications, or through a portfolio demonstration. This is especially important for returning adults who have plenty of relevant experience in their career and life.

Quality Matters Subscription: Whether an institution subscribes to the online course auditing process of Quality Matters.

The Number of Quality Matters Approved Courses: Courses that are approved by Quality Matters have been audited for quality assurance.

Percentage of Students Enrolled in Any Distance Learning Courses: This measures the proportion of the students that have taken advantage of online courses. Colleges that have a lot of students enrolled in distance learning will spend more time and effort making those classes great.

Total Number of Courses Offered By Distance: The greater number of courses available online, the greater the opportunities of the at-home degree seeker.

Percentage of Courses Offered By Distance: The higher percentage of courses that are offered by distance learning, the greater the chance that a student has the option of taking a course off campus.

Why doesn't college "x" appear on the ranking?

This ranking is limited to schools with regional accreditation. To learn more about accreditation, see this resource: National vs. Regional Accreditation

Why does college "y" rank so low?

A large component of these rankings are based on salary outcomes; if we are missing salary data for an institution, it is hard for that institution to rank very high.

Additionally, we view most colleges with branches in different locations as distinct entries in the rankings. While we think doing this is most beneficial to the student trying to get information on a specific branch, it does, as a consequence, occasionally mean that we have less information about each multiple-campus entry (including salary).