ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Applying to College / New Rankings List the Best Colleges in 5 Categories

New Rankings List the Best Colleges in 5 Categories

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 9, 2020
New Rankings List the Best Colleges in 5 Categories

Long Truong/Unsplash

Believe it or not, there are things happening in the world of education other than COVID-19. It may not seem like it, since K-12 schools and colleges and universities are all focused on back-to-school plans and policies for Fall 2020. If you have been wondering what's been happening with that, consider diving into the (currently) 507-page, 10,100-post thread School in the Fall and Coronavirus on the College Confidential discussion forum. There are few stones left unturned there.

If you're currently searching for information about other education-related areas outside of areas affected by the pandemic, you may be interested in one or more of the five new ranking sets recently released by Optimal, an online resource that states, "We use data to empower people to make better decisions about careers and education." Data-driven rankings are more objective than those that use subjective criteria such as reputation, which can be difficult to quantify.

The Five Ranking Categories Are:

- Best Colleges for Earning Potential

- Best Online Community College Rankings

- Best Online Colleges and Degrees

- Most Affordable Online Colleges and Degrees

- Best Technology Bootcamps

I wrote about colleges and earning potential in a previous article. Today I want to do a brief review of these five rankings so you know that their information is available as a research resource. First, some background:

Optimal publishes college rankings, reviews and datasets aimed at helping prospective students determine the outcome of specific college, degree and career tracks, based on detailed research data. This can help students avoid unnecessary debt, produce accurate cost-benefit analyses among colleges and degree programs, and find the best approach for their needs. As you can see from the list above, their rankings cover four-year colleges, online colleges, technology "bootcamps" and graduate programs.

I think this information is important, in light of the unprecedented circumstances students have faced since mid-March this year. Due to these events, some students might now be considering community or online schools instead of traditional four-year colleges. They may also want to know what major at which specific school offers the best salary immediately after graduation.

The vocational route is becoming more pertinent for those who either can't afford or don't care to pursue the four-year undergraduate degree option. This is where the so-called tech bootcamps come in. As Optimal notes, they can deliver a more recession-proof career path in a shorter time frame. The long-term economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are impossible to predict at this point. However, some economists and medical experts feel that this "new normal" is going to be with us for some time.

Thus, having some objective tools available, such as these data-driven rankings, can be a significant help for high schoolers, college students and other adults looking to select a career path (or change paths) or overcome job losses due to an economic downturn.

Check the Top 3 Schools in Each Category

Here, then, is a quick look at the five 2020 rankings with some qualifying text from Optimal. Each ranking set provides helpful search functions and methodology rationale. I've noted the top-three ranked schools in each category.

Best Colleges for Earning Potential

Based on over 100,000 college degree programs and the starting salary data of over 5 million graduates, our rankings represent the most comprehensive collection of data-driven college rankings available to date. Covering over 70 majors at the bachelor's and master's levels, as well as the 20 most popular online degree programs, our rankings help prospective students answer the question, "What can I expect to make if I graduate from a particular school with a particular major?"

Here are the top-three ranked schools for the majors of Business and Computer Science:


1. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor: $76,900 salary

2. Carnegie Mellon University: $76,800 salary

3. University of California-Berkeley: $76,600 salary

Computer Science:

1. Brown University: $141,100 salary

2. Carnegie Mellon University: $138,900 salary

3. Harvard University: $128,900 salary

Best Online Community Colleges

These are the country's best online community colleges for 2020, ranked by retention rate, number of online associate degrees offered, and online enrollment percentage. Retention rate was weighted most heavily so that these rankings highlight the schools that serve students best. Learn more about our ranked schools or search for a list of the best online community colleges in your state. All 2019-2020 tuition numbers were manually collected and verified.

1. Foothill College (Los Altos Hills, Calif.), $3,555 annual tuition

2. Sussex County Community College (Newton, N.J.), $5,200 annual tuition

3. Bismarck State (Bismarck, N.D.), $5,499 annual tuition

Best Online Colleges and Degrees

These 2019-2020 best online colleges are the first rankings of their kind to use alumni salary data and manually researched tuition rates to provide a list of the schools offering the best value to students. We researched 1,943 schools and have published over 250 program rankings, all using subject- and level-specific data. These schools offer fully online degrees for as low as $7,000 per year, and their alumni have a median mid-career salary of $80,000-$121,000.


1. George Washington University: $18,450 tuition, $103,000 average mid-career salary

2. University of Virginia: $13,260 tuition, $104,000 average mid-career salary

3. UMass-Lowell: $33,004 tuition, $100,000 average mid-career salary

Graduate School:

1. George Washington University: $17,640 tuition, $121,000 average mid-career salary

2. University of Virginia: $8,115 tuition, $113,000 average mid-career salary

3. UMass-Lowell: $21,975 tuition, $117,000 average mid-career salary

Most Affordable Online Colleges

Each year, we publish our Most Affordable Online College Rankings, which represent the most affordable online degrees in the country across a variety of popular subjects. Every degree is from an accredited school, and annual tuitions start below $4,000.

1. Tennessee State University: $4,200 undergrad tuition, $3,842 grad school tuition

2. California Coast University: $4,725 undergrad tuition, $4,485 grad school tuition

3. Georgia Southwestern State University: $5,970 undergrad tuition, $3,855 grad school tuition

Best Coding Bootcamp Rankings

To help you find the perfect bootcamp, SwitchUp has published rankings based on over 15,000 verified student reviews. Check out the full list, or view our rankings of the best data science, cyber security, web design, and online bootcamps.

Name Rating Reviews

1. Le Wagon: 4.99/5 rating, 1,654 reviews

2. App Academy 4.7/5 rating, 913 reviews

3. Ironhack 4.9/5 rating, 926 reviews

Speaking of online colleges, I wonder if we should include Harvard University and the California State System schools (and some other famous names) on that list this year. They have already announced that their 2020-2021 academic years will be fully online. I'm joking about listing them here, of course, but these august institutions of higher learning, by focusing their academic prowess exclusively on online instruction this year, will no doubt add luster to the appeal of less well-known online degree programs, such as those at Elmhurst College, University of Bridgeport and Golden Gate University.

This year has been one of the most challenging in numerous ways. If you have been challenged on an academic or career level, then take a look at one or more of these five rankings. The potential to meet your needs lies within.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

More on Applying to College

See all

College Interview Prep Tips: Brainstorm, Research, Analyze, Generalize

I recently visited Washington University in Saint Louis and was lucky enough to set up an interview. By speaking with peers of mi…

campus gates

Academic Index Scores: Why They Matter and How They're Calculated

Note: Click here for 10 Summer Programs You Can Still Apply For or keep reading to learn more about academic index scores.

8 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

7 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

Podcasts can offer a wealth of information to busy students, particularly when it comes to the college admissions process. We…


Avoid College Application Regrets: Tips For Getting It Right the First Time

Decision Day occurs each year on May 1st and is the deadline for students to inform the college of their choice of their intent t…


Navigating the College Application Process in 2023-24

For the third year in a row, the number of college applications submitted to top colleges was up, indicating that the application…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!