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The Best Colleges for Adults

Washington Monthly ranked 4- and 2-year colleges for adult learners


The new U.S. News college rankings are out (Princeton University and Williams College were the top national university and national liberal arts college, respectively), and that’s fine. But there’s another fascinating, new college ranking you probably don’t know about and should. It’s Washington Monthly’s second annual list of America’s Best Colleges for Adult Learners. If you’re thinking about going back to school, full-time or part-time, you’ll want to check it out.

The Washington Monthly list is so needed. As the magazine notes, roughly 45 percent of college students are adults (defined as age 25+) and adult learners have very different needs and priorities than younger ones.

What Adult Students Crave

For instance, older students often need evening, weekend or online classes because of their work and family responsibilities. Some have the kind of work or life experience that ought to translate into college credits, making their enrollment faster and less expensive, but few schools use the “competency-based education” model allowing this.

In a 2015 Encore.org survey of college-educated people age 50 to 70 who were interested in encore careers to serve the greater good, 79 percent said they prefer classes spread over a month or a semester, week-long programs or one-day workshops — short, part-time programs, rather than drawn out, expensive ones.

“Most colleges haven’t adapted to the new reality,” said Washington Monthly Editor in Chief Paul Glastris at a New America panel discussion/webinar about the rankings. (You can watch it here.) “They still offer most classes around midday, which is exactly the wrong time if you’re a working adult balancing job and family.” When it comes to adult students, the magazine says, traditional universities are “slow learners.”

As Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact at the adult-education focused Lumina Foundation, said during the panel discussion: “Today’s students are not all 18-year-olds walking into a brick building every day, with mom and dad sending checks.”

Washington Monthly’s Methodology

Washington Monthly looked at 1,133 four-year colleges and 1,292 two-year colleges. (U.S. News doesn’t rank two-year schools.) The number-crunchers, Glastris writes, gathered data on seven general measures of “colleges’ openness and responsiveness to adult students and to how well those students fared once they left.” These included things like: the percentage of students age 25+; mean earnings of adults 10 years after entering college; ease of transfer/enrollment; flexibility of programs (allowing credits for life experience and having weekend or evening classes, for instance); services for adult students and loan repayment rates of adult students five years after entering repayment.

A few things about Washington Monthly’s Top 10 lists may surprise you. No Ivy League university or elite private school made the cut; Glastris says their percentage of students who are adults is generally strikingly low. Three of the top-ranked schools are in Utah and many are ones you may not have heard of.

“The best colleges for adults tend to be regional public universities, private schools that are unheralded by the usual media gatekeepers and community colleges U.S. News doesn’t even rank,” said Glastris.

Meet the Winners

Washington Monthly’s No. 1 four-year college for adult learners, Golden Gate University-San Francisco, had the highest mean earnings of adult students 10 years after college entry: $74,332. The school calls itself “adult-focused” (89 percent are over 25) and offers programs in business, management, accounting, taxation and law, with evening and weekend classes and fully online programs.

Bellevue University — No. 6 on Washington Monthly’s four-year college list and where 82 percent of students are adults — is unranked by U.S. News. It scored well on this list for a number of reasons, including how much students earn annually 10 years after entering college: $61,406. In-state tuition and fees: $7,050, the lowest in the Top 10.

Foothill College, which is No. 3 on Washington Monthly’s two-year college list, charges just $1,551 for in-state tuition and fees. Its mean earnings for adult students 10 years after college: $64,448.

The complete lists of the Top 10 Colleges for Adult Learners:

The Top 10 Four-Year Schools for Adult Learners

  • Golden Gate University-San Francisco (Calif.)
  • University of Utah (Utah)
  • Concordia University-St. Paul (Minn.)
  • Park University (Mo.)
  • George Mason University (Va.)
  • Bellevue University (Neb.)
  • Indiana Wesleyan University (Ind.)
  • University of Oklahoma-Norman (Okla.)
  • Marylhurst University (Ore.)
  • University of North Dakota (N.D.)

The Top 10 Two-Year Schools for Adult Learners

  • Weber State University (Utah)
  • Utah Valley University (Utah)
  • Foothill College (Calif.)
  • Central Texas College (Texas)
  • Raritan Valley Community College (N.J.)
  • Columbia College (Mo.)
  • Howard Community College (Md.)
  • Renton Technical College (Wash.)
  • Montgomery College (Md.)
  • Capital Community College (Conn.)

Trying to Make Colleges Better for Adults

A few other groups are also working to make colleges better places for adults to learn.

For instance, the Lumina Foundation’s Goal 2025 aims to increase the proportion of Americans with postsecondary credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Most in its target group are “adults who had to stop education or never touched higher education but need to find a pathway,” said Brown at the panel.

Encore.org has been trying to get more colleges to assist people who are in their 50s and 60s and hoping to transition into encore careers. Already, schools like the University of Connecticut, the University of Minnesota and Pace University teach encore career programs. Stanford University and Harvard University offer selective ones for mid-career professionals.

“The environment for higher ed programs that have a focus on older adults seeking purposeful engagement is still evolving as universities try to find the business model that works for them,” said Marci Alboher, vice president, strategic communications, at Encore.org.

Here’s hoping many other colleges and universities soon find the business model to make their schools work better for adult learners.

Richard Eisenberg
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch.@richeis315

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