50 Best Alternative Grad Schools Methodology

This is the methodology page for the rankings of the 50 best alternative graduate schools in the Eastern/Western United States.

In developing our "alternative" methodology, we gathered a list of all of the graduate degree-granting, public and private not-for-profit postsecondary institutions in the United States…and then we eliminated all of the schools with acceptance rates less than 50%. Right off the bat, we took all the most selective schools out of the running. That means you won't find a single Ivy League university, nor their newer counterparts (like Stanford and MIT) in this ranking. So how did we rate the grad schools that were left standing? Based on their performance on six different academic indicators, described below:

Acceptance Rate: (Weighted 10%) OK, we just finished explaining how we got rid of all the most selective schools. But for those in the bottom 50th percentile, selectivity can still make a statement about academic quality. Consider, for instance, the difference between a school that accepts 60% of applicants and one that accepts 100%.

Carnegie Research Classification: (Weighted 15%) Research is one of the most important aspects of any grad student's experience (with the exception of some professional programs, like business and law). The Carnegie Foundation divides U.S. universities into a number of different categories based on the activity of their research programs, the top three of which are "moderate research activity," "high research activity," and "highest research activity." However, the distinctions between the top three categories are somewhat subtle, and we didn't want to penalize schools with developing research programs – as long as they are making the investment to help their programs grow. Thus, we gave the same points and only points to any grad schools with one of these top three designations.

Type & Size of Graduate Programs: (Weighted 25%) There are a lot of different types of grad programs out there, and certainly not all are created equal. Although less publicized, the Carnegie Foundation has also developed other classifications for universities that extend beyond research. One of these addresses size and scope, labelling colleges as "extensive" doctoral (50 or more PhDs available across at least 15 disciplines), "intensive" doctoral (at least 10 doctoral programs across at least three disciplines, or 20 PhD options in total), and "Master's I" (40 or more master's degrees available across three or more disciplines), among others. Another one of Carnegie's rankings focuses on the type of graduate instruction, e.x. comprehensive doctoral with medical/veterinary programs, STEM dominant, comprehensive post-baccalaureate, etc. Taking these two classification systems together, we awarded points to schools based on the breadth, depth, and strength of their graduate programs.

Total Number of Students: (Weighted 5%) Using data available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we calculated the total number of graduate degrees awarded at the master's and PhD levels in 2014 for each school. Although we thought this was an important factor in ascertaining the ability of a university to successfully graduate a significant number of grad students, we didn't want to give too much of an advantage to large schools, which is why we gave this category such a low weight in the final score.

Number of Subjects Earning Top Rankings: (Weighted 20%) One of the most difficult parts of developing a ranking of top graduate schools is that the most important considerations are highly program-specific. A university might have the world's best business school but have little to offer someone studying Philosophy or Sociology. To better capture the universities' academic quality and scope, we scored them according to the number of times they appear on a U.S. News subject-specific ranking of top grad schools.

Average Subject Ranking: (Weighted 20%) In addition to the above indicator, we also calculated the average rank the school earned across all of its top-ranked grad programs. In this way, we were able to identify the top colleges that not only have numerous nationally-ranked degrees, but more degrees with high rankings. For example, if two universities both had 5 top-ranked programs, but one school's programs were rated 5th, 9th, 6th, 20th, and 15th nationally while the other one's were rated 40th, 50th, 3rd, 17th, and 25th, they would earn average rank scores of 11 and 27, respectively. Schools with lower averages earned more points.

We gave each university a normalized final score out of 200 total points, with the top school earning a full 200. You might notice that we opted not to include tuition as a factor in this particular ranking. Interestingly, we found that we didn't have to consider affordability! With a few exceptions, all of the top alternative grad schools offer reasonable tuition rates and low fees – and in fact, most of the best universities for grad students are public universities with plenty of external funding and strong research programs.