Best Colleges for Non-Traditional Students: Ranking Methodology

Below is an overview of the methodology behind our Best Colleges for Non-Traditional Students ranking.

We first created these rankings in 2015 to address the unique concerns of the student who falls outside the "norm" of first-time, full-time degree seekers under age 25.

In 2017, the Department of Education began collecting more detailed data on graduation rates for non-traditional students. We used this data to create new and improved rankings that were released for the first time in March 2018.

Who are these rankings for?

Non-traditional students make up most degree-seekers in the U.S. and include the following categories:

  • Students who are returning to college after dropping out or transferring
  • Part-time students
  • Working adults who need flexible options
  • Professionals who want to use life experience as college credit

The following shows a breakdown of the factors that we used to create these rankings. This methodology has been most recently updated in 2018.

Ranking Factors

Our most recent methodology breaks factors into three categories with roughly equal overall weighting:

  • Financial Factors
  • Degree Completion
  • Student Body Composition and Support

Let's go into all three of those categories in more depth.

Financial Factors

Many non-traditional learners are more cost-conscious than average as they are more involved in paying for their education directly. Therefore, we’ve included in our ranking some factors that measure the cost of an education and how much value that education has been to students.

In decreasing order of importance within this category, the factors we include are:

  • Loan Default Rate (three years after graduation)
  • Loan Repayment Rate (at seven years after graduation)
  • Post-Graduation Earning (ten years after admission)
  • Post-Graduation Unemployment Rate (ten years after admission)
  • Acceptance of Life and/or Military Credits
  • Per Credit Charge (discounted for location)

Degree Completion

Many of the benefits of attending college are negated when students fail to complete their degree. This is even more important for non-traditional students who may be putting other areas of their life on hold to complete a degree.

Just because a school is excellent at graduating traditional students does not mean they are doing a good job with non-traditional students and vice versa. In this ranking, we only measure the degree completion of returning adult and part-time undergraduates.

We weight the importance of returning adult graduation rates and part-time graduation rates based on how many there are at the school. So, if the school has more part-time learners than full time returning adults, the part-time graduation rate is weighted higher.

These factors are only measured for students who are considered active degree-seekers.

In decreasing order of importance, and weighted against the cohort populations at the given institution, the factors in this cluster are:

  • Weighted 6 Year Graduation Rate
  • Weighted 8 Year Graduation Rate
  • Weighted 8 Year Graduation Rate vs Our Expectations
    • This helps us determine how much of the graduation rate is due to the college helping students get across the finish line on time, versus how much of the graduation rate is due to student’s own caliber.
  • Weighted 8 Year Still Attending Rate

Student Body Composition and Support

How many non-traditional students are at a school and what sort of accommodations and industry certifications do they offer that is of interest to returning adults?

  • Number and Percentage of Undergraduates...
    • Classified as Non-Traditional
    • Over 24 (high)
    • Taking Courses Online (high)
    • Taking Courses Exclusively Online
    • Undergraduate Degree Programs Supporting Distance Learning
    • Undergraduates Classified as Returning Adults or Attending Part-Time
  • If the school doesn’t offer distance classes, we track whether the school offers:
    • Evening and Weekend Classes
    • On-Campus Daycare
  • Quality Matters:
    • Membership in the Quality Matters Initiative
    • The Number of Courses Certified by Quality Matters

Participation in Quality Matters has shown to be a reliable indicator of quality and success of returning adults. Learn more about Quality Matters here.


Rankings by Major for Non-Traditional Students

This ranking identifies colleges that rank highly in the chosen major, as well as rank highly for non-traditional students. To come up with this ranking we combined our Best for Returning Adults ranking with the Ranking by Major. We excluded schools that ranked too low in either category to make sure this list only includes schools that are both a good choice for non-traditional students, and a good choice for the major.