Why A New College Ranking System Matters

By Joe Deal

Over the past decade, a few major players have come to dominate the college rankings landscape. Most families are now aware of annual reports issued by publications such as U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, and the Daily Beast.

Unfortunately, when it comes to affordability, these rankings tell us less than the whole story. By ignoring important factors that contribute to the real-world cost of college (e.g. loan default rates), popular sites are skewing the picture for low-income students.

 In response, our team at College Affordability Guide (CAG) decided to create a new rankings formula for affordability – one that would include previously hidden factors. Can students earn credits outside of class? Do they graduate? Can they pay back their loans? These “opportunity” costs, we realized, may be just as important as financial payments.

 Eligibility Metrics

 We began our project by narrowing the field. Schools had to meet 4 key criteria to be considered for inclusion in a state or degree subject area:


  1. Average Net Price: An average net price, per year, of $15,000 (or less) for students receiving financial aid and whose annual family income is no more than $48,000.
  2. Credit Flexibility: The level of flexibility offered for earning credits (e.g. credit for prior learning, weekends/evenings, MOOCs, etc.).
  3. Loan Default Rate: A Cohort Default Rate of 13.7% or less.
  4. Success Rates: A combined graduation rate + transfer-out rate of 50% or more.


We reasoned these factors were critical in determining whether a college should be classified as affordable. By capping the annual family income for the average net price, we also avoided schools that use a significant portion of their financial aid to win over higher income students applying to competing institutions.


Data Analysis


Initially, we analyzed 10,000,000+ data points from 5,000+ degree-granting U.S. colleges and universities. Data were drawn from:


  • Sources operated by the federal government (e.g. IPEDS database, the Office of Postsecondary Education, etc.)
  • Competency-based education sources such as the College Board and prometric.com – i.e. sources that told us which means of earning college credits outside of class, such as CLEP and DSST, schools accepted
  • Information on university and college websites, as well as conversations over the phone


Less than 10% of the 5000+ schools we inspected made it into our final rankings.


Ranking Calculations


Once we had determined which group of schools to consider for a state or degree subject area, each individual college or university was scored and ranked:


  • First, we calculated which percentile a school fell into, out of all the Title IV-eligible colleges and universities in the country, for each of our metrics (e.g. average net price).
  • Then we combined those percentile scores and translated them into two grades, “Getting In” and “Getting Out”, plus an overall net score.
  • Finally, we trimmed our lists to only show U.S. schools that our algorithm placed in the top 25% of all schools for affordability.

On the site, we display our rankings by both state and subject area (e.g. Engineering, Nursing, etc.)

 “So what?” we’ve heard some people ask. “Will a new ranking algorithm really make that much of a difference?” For those with a comfortable income, the answer is no. But if you’re returning to school or a student in a family that’s just scraping by, the answer is most definitely yes.

Conventional rankings hide the true costs of attending university. As college becomes more and more expensive, we owe it to low-income students to ensure they get into an affordable school and get out with a quality degree. The College Affordability Guide is intended to do just that.

Joe Deal, Founder, Degree Prospects / CollegeAffordabilityGuide.org.

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