How We Choose the Best Grad Schools and Programs

How We Choose the Best Grad Schools and Programs

When choosing a graduate school, there are a ton of personal factors to consider. At Grad School Hub, we rank schools and programs on several key factors, including academic quality, school affordability, school reputation, and program offerings. We use data from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and the universities themselves to make an objective evaluation of each school.

That data is weighted differently depending on the ranking type. For example, we’ll lend more weight to affordability and tuition costs on a page ranking the most affordable master’s degrees, but will put more emphasis on online program options for a ranking of the best online grad schools. 

We organize information about each school into five key metrics for our rankings. Each metric is informed by data from the College Scorecard and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS.)

Academic Quality
Academic quality refers to the quality of education you’d receive at this school. Qualified staff, smaller classes, and how often students transfer away can all tell us about a school’s academic quality. For grad students, it’s important to spend tuition money on a program that can increase your expertise and encourage intellectual growth. We use figures like the percentage of full time faculty, student-to-faculty ratio, student retention rate, and graduation rate to measure academic quality.
School Affordability
Grad school can be expensive, for many students affordability is the metric that can decide whether or not they pursue a graduate degree. We look at affordability holistically — cost of attendance, fees, opportunity for financial aid and scholarships, cost of living, and average debt. Specifically we use tuition rates, financial aid, and the average student debt for students who graduate to calculate this metric.
School Reputation
A university’s reputation can tell you a lot about quality of education, networking opportunities, and career outlook. A more prestigious university will attract better professors and may have a more successful alumni pool. A school’s reputation can also be a factor in employment and your career — recruiters may be more impressed by an applicant who attended a school with a good reputation. We use admission and enrollment rates to measure this metric. These data points tell us how many students are applying, admitted, and choose to attend. This can indicate the selectiveness of a school. Universities with rates that indicate it’s more difficult to get in to often have a better reputation.
Program Offerings
For some students, a variety of program options and flexibility is a priority. This factor speaks to the choices you have to customize your education and choose specialties within your degree. It may make you feel less restricted as a student and create more opportunity for unique expertise. We measure this metric by calculating the number of programs and specializations, and the opportunities to choose a hybrid program or to set your own pace.
Online Availability
When rankings online online schools, we consider the number of students utilizing this form of learning. Many grad students choose to pursue higher education while balancing a family or job. Having the option to attend online classes can help more students complete a degree. We measure this with an online enrollment score. That score is provided by IPEDS and is the portion of learners taking at least one online course. This tells us how well a school can accommodate flexible learning without compromising quality. The more students taking an online class, the more resources a university will dedicate to that service.

Where do we get our data?

Grad School Hub ranks programs primarily based on educational statistics drawn from the College Scorecard and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The U.S. Department of Education runs these objective sources.

The College Scorecard measures information including annual cost, median debt, loan recipient numbers, and graduation rate. The Scorecard offers performance data by field of study. Users can view graduation rates, monthly and median earnings, and student debt information. This financial information derives from tax data, federal financial aid data, and institutional reports. By highlighting these statistics, the College Scorecard helps students and their families access objective information, compare schools, and make educated choices.

Our ranking methodology also integrates data from IPEDS, a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tool. The NCES relies on IPEDS to collect aggregated self-reported postsecondary institution survey data. Data collected includes information about student outcomes, graduation rates, and financial aid information.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of our ranking factors.

Online Undergraduate Academics Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 30%
Affordability 10%
Reputation 30%
Program Offerings 20%
Online Enrollment Score 10%
Online Graduate Academics Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 30%
Affordability 10%
Reputation 30%
Program Offerings 20%
Online Enrollment Score 10%
On-Campus Academics Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 30%
Affordability 15%
Reputation 30%
Program Offerings 25%
Best Online Colleges Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 30%
Affordability 10%
Reputation 30%
Online Enrollment Score 30%
Best On-Campus Colleges Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 30%
Affordability 40%
Reputation 30%
Online Undergraduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 20%
Affordability 40%
Reputation 15%
Program Offerings 15%
Online Enrollment Score 10%
Online Graduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 20%
Affordability 40%
Reputation 15%
Program Offerings 15%
Online Enrollment Score 10%
On-Campus Undergraduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 25%
Affordability 45%
Reputation 15%
Program Offerings 15%
On-Campus Graduate Affordability Rankings
Metrics Weight
Academic Quality 25%
Affordability 45%
Reputation 15%
Program Offerings 15%

Subfactors for Academic Quality


  • Graduation Rate

    This significant academic quality indicator calculates the percentage of students graduating within six years of enrollment. A high graduation rate may reflect various institutional strengths. These strengths include adequate student support resources, well-prepared learners, engaging teachers and curricula, and affordability.


  • Retention Rate

    Retention rate indicates the proportion of first-year, full-time college students who remain at the same school for their sophomore year. High retention rates suggest high rates of general student satisfaction and often result from effective teaching, affordability, satisfying campus resources, and a positive school atmosphere.


  • Student-to-Faculty Ratio

    This ratio measures the average number of students per faculty member within a given institution or program. Lower ratios increase the likelihood that learners receive individualized attention from faculty. Having fewer students allows faculty to provide more mentorship and support per student. Therefore, our ranking methodology considers low student-to-faculty ratios a positive indicator.


  • Proportion of Full-Time Faculty Ratio

    Many of today’s institutions increase their profits by hiring graduate students or non-tenure-track faculty to teach lower-level courses. High-quality schools prioritize hiring full-time, tenure-track faculty. These schools often get better academic results by investing in their educational staff. These institutions also tend to support teachers better and feature smaller, more manageable class sizes.


Subfactors for Affordability


  • Average Net Price For Students Awarded Financial Aid

    This affordability subfactor measures the average tuition price that financial aid recipients pay. Many schools with higher tuition rates also offer more financial aid. This results in a lower total net cost than at lower-tuition schools disbursing less financial aid.


  • Average Loan Default Rate

    This rate measures the percentage of students who have defaulted on their tuition loans. Unemployment, underemployment, and low salary can cause learners to default on loans. A low average loan default rate may correlate with positive student outcomes. Degrees that translate into lucrative careers end up paying for themselves and make loan payments manageable. Therefore low loan default rates indicate school affordability in the long term.


  • Percent of Undergraduate Students Awarded Federal Student Loans

    This figure reflects the proportion of federal loan recipients in relation to the total undergraduate student body. High percentages can indicate a more expensive school or a nonprofit, academic institution that accommodates students needing financial aid.


  • Average Amount of Federal Student Loans Awarded to Undergraduate Students

    This figure averages the amount of financial aid the federal government grants per student at a given school. A higher average financial aid amount may indicate higher tuition rates or more generous financial aid policies.


  • Percent of Full-Time First-Time Undergraduates Awarded Any Financial Aid

    This percentage indicates the number of new enrollees who receive institutional or federal financial aid, including scholarships, grants, loans, and work study. Higher percentages often appear at academic institutions with sufficient funding or ample financial aid options.


  • Average Amount of Grant and Scholarship Aid Awarded

    This ranking factor measures the average per-student funding amount not requiring repayment. Grants and scholarships cut educational expenses in the long term and the short term. Loans require repayment and therefore only reduce immediate expenses. Higher grant and scholarship amounts often indicate a large institutional endowment that bodes well for students.


  • Median Debt for Students

    This figure measures the median amount graduates owe in student loans and bills. This important number gives our program rankers a holistic sense of a school’s affordability. However, this measure only calculates the student debt of those who graduate within six years of enrolling.


Subfactors for Reputation


  • Admission Rate

    Comparing the number of admitted students to the number of total applicants, this percentage indicates a school’s selectiveness. Lower admission rates typically correlate with more prestigious school reputations and higher post-graduation earnings. This factor significantly influences Grad School Hub’s reputation ranking methodology.


  • Enrollment Rate

    Also known as admissions yield, enrollment rate highlights the percentage of an institution’s accepted students who choose to enroll. A high enrollment rate suggests that admitted students often choose this institution over other schools that admitted them.


  • Average Earnings of Students Working

    This measure averages students’ annual income during their sixth year after enrollment. Higher salary averages indicate that an institution’s students find lucrative employment in a reasonable timeframe. This factor influences reputation significantly, since securing lucrative careers constitutes a top educational priority for many students.


Subfactors for Program Offerings


  • Percentage of Degrees Offered

    This subfactor measures the popularity and diversity of online degree offerings at a given institution. Schools offering many degrees online often provide a more well-designed and successful online education. Schools with fewer online degree programs may not excel at distance education.


  • Percent of Students Enrolled in Online (Degree Level) Programs*

    This statistic indicates what percentage of a school’s total enrollees pursue their graduate degrees online, rather than on campus. High percentages of online degree-seekers indicate well-known, popular, and robust distance learning programs and institutions.

    *We only consider this subfactor for our online program rankings; not our on-campus rankings.


  • Overall Online Enrollment*

    This statistic indicates the percentage of a school’s total learners taking at least one online course at any point during their enrollment. This number includes on-campus and commuter students. High numbers of online learners often correlate with well-established online programs at institutions boasting effective online teaching and learning.

    *We only use overall online enrollment as a subfactor in our online program rankings; not our on-campus rankings.


Danika Miller picture

Danika Miller

HIGHER EDUCATION REPORTER

Danika Miller is an education reporter at Grad School Hub who covers higher education news and trends, as well as paying for college. Her writing has also appeared in Best Value Schools, Affordable Colleges Online, and Her Campus, and her financial expertise has been featured in The Simple Dollar and CreditCards.com.

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