By Kim Clark
April 12, 2016

The staffs of Essence and MONEY interviewed researchers, students, and professors and analyzed newly available data on more than 1,500 public and private four-year colleges to find the schools that offer the best combination of opportunity, educational value, affordability, and advantage in the job market.

We downloaded the latest available data about each college from the U.S. Department of Education as of January 2016. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce performed value-added analyses on newly available data on student debt repayment rates and post-college earnings. Mark Schneider of College Measures served as our consultant and statistical adviser. But the final decisions on data and weighting were made by Essence and MONEY staff. Here are the factors and weightings we used:

Educational quality: 50%. We gauged educational quality by three sub-factors:

  • Opportunity: 50%. The percentage that African Americans made up of the school’s student body is the single most important factor in this ranking because we believe that opportunity is the necessary first step. After all, you can’t graduate from a school that doesn’t enroll you.
  • Graduation rate of African Americans: 40%. Graduation rates are generally recognized to be one of the most important indicators of educational quality, since students who are not satisfied with their experiences will drop out or transfer. A few colleges with comparatively low graduation rates made our list because they were highly affordable and scored well on other indicators.
  • Number of African Americans who earned a bachelor’s degree in STEM: 10%. We counted the number of African-Americans who earned bachelor’s in science, engineering, technology, or mathematics in the latest year for which data were available.

Affordability: 35%. We used seven sub-factors to estimate each college’s affordability:

  • Estimated average net price of a degree: 20%. We estimated the annual net price each college charges (in other words the sticker price of attendance minus only the average grants or scholarships awarded by the college) and multiplied that by the average length of time it typically takes students to graduate from that college (which, in many cases, is more than four years). We also added a small inflation factor.
  • Net price for low-income students: 20%. We graded schools by the net prices they reported charging students from families earning annual incomes of $0 to $30,000 and $30,000 to $48,000.
  • Student debt: 20%. We used the student debt totals for each college as reported on the federal College Scorecard.
  • Parent borrowing: 10%. We dropped the rankings slightly for any school for which the average annual federal parent PLUS borrowing exceeded $2,500.
  • Financial problems: 10%. We slightly lowered the rankings for colleges that have been flagged as having severe financial difficulties by the U.S. Department of Education or by bond rating agencies such as Moody’s.
  • Student loan repayment: 10%. We graded colleges by the latest available percent of former students who managed to pay at least $1 in principal off of their student loans within three years of leaving school, as reported in the federal College Scorecard.
  • Value-added student loan repayment; 10%. Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce adjusted the federal student loan repayment data to account for the racial, academic, and socio-economic backgrounds of each college’s student body. We graded the colleges on how much above or below their student loan repayment rates were from what would be expected given the kinds of students they enroll.

Outcomes: 15%. Georgetown’s Center for Education and the Workforce analyzed data on the earnings of freshmen who started college in 2001 (as reported in the federal College Scorecard) to provide us with two sub-factors

  • Earnings after accounting for race: 50%. Georgetown used regression analyses to estimate the impact of the share of African Americans in a school on its average reported post-school earnings. We graded each school on whether its earnings were higher or lower than would be expected given the racial makeup of its student body.
  • Earnings after accounting for socioeconomic and academic background: 50%. Georgetown used regression analysis to estimate the impact of the school’s number of low-income students (as judged by their eligibility for Pell Grants), their SAT scores, and other demographic factors. We graded each school on whether its earnings were higher or lower than would be expected given the academic and economic makeup of its student body.

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