How We Rank Accounting Programs

Written by Staff Writers

Those who plan to study accounting understand the importance of data. Data provides quantitative information that can offer insight into a particular field. This list considers several data points measuring various aspects of education value; we use this data to rank the best accounting programs in the country.

Our ranking methodology is unique to this website. We consider four main factors: academics, affordability, reputation, and program availability. Within each of those factors, we account for several subfactors that break down into data points; these include student retention rate, net price of tuition, and student loan default rate. We selected these factors to deliver a ranking that focuses on high educational standards, also considering the breadth of what makes a program valuable.

We pull data from statistics made public by the U.S. Department of Education — specifically the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Our rankings rely entirely on this data. Our rankings are free of outside influence, meaning schools and other stakeholders cannot pay for inclusion or higher rankings on our lists.

This page explores how we assembled our accounting program rankings. Here, we outline the specific data points we considered, why they hold significance, and how we weighed this data in the overall ranking. You can read more about our sources below; all offer unbiased statistics.

About the Data We Use

Our rankings of accounting degrees rely exclusively on data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a comprehensive resource on postsecondary education within NCES. IPEDS includes information from all postsecondary institutions that participate in — or have applied for participation in — the government's federal financial aid programs, such as Pell grants and federal student loans. Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 made it mandatory for these institutions to report to NCES.

All colleges, universities, and professional schools with a reporting mandate provide data on eight survey components over three annual cycles (fall, winter, and spring): school characteristics, school costs, admissions, enrollment, degrees and certificates conferred, student success, financial aid, and institutional resources.

The federal reporting requirement has helped make IPEDS the most reliable, publicly available resource on postsecondary education in the United States. Government agencies, private organizations, journalists, schools, and prospective students all depend on IPEDS data. Students can access the data through the college search website College Navigator or the IPEDS Data Center.

Our 2021 rankings of accounting degrees reflect the latest data from IPEDS. While older rankings may still exist, we do not simply rebrand old rankings for a new year. We repeat the entire ranking process based on 2021 IPEDS data. As part of that process, our quality assurance team reviews the data from each school to ensure that the information is accurate. The team furthermore excludes any school lacking sufficient data for comparison.

We update our rankings of accounting degrees as soon as NCES releases significant new data from the country's postsecondary institutions. Generally our team revises and publishes new rankings annually, although updates may occur more frequently for more popular evaluations and less frequently for smaller ranking niches. Students can thus consider our rankings of accounting degrees current.

As of Nov. 3, 2020, the NCES has released only a portion of its updated school data for 2021. Our rankings on this site use the most current data available at the time of publication.

A Breakdown of Our Rankings Methodology

Choosing the right ranking methodology for accounting schools is pivotal to the value of rankings of accounting degrees. Our rankings reflect four measures of educational excellence: academics, affordability, reputation, and program availability. We chose these four factors to ensure that our evaluations reflect several important dimensions of success.

As shown in the pie charts below, we weigh the four factors differently when ranking accounting degrees of different kinds. For example, in our rankings of accounting master's degrees, academics accounts for 25% of a program's ranking, affordability accounts for 40%, reputation for 15%, and program availability for 20%. Below, we provide further insight into these factors and their significance.

About Our Ranking Factors

Each of the four measures we use in our methodology consists of 2-4 subfactors. To ensure that our rankings reflect the most relevant program characteristics in each case, we also weigh the subfactors differently when ranking accounting degrees of different kinds.

Subfactors for Academics

Retention Rate The retention rate used in our rankings of accounting degrees measures the percentage of full-time, first-time undergraduate students who returned to the same institution in 2018. NCES reports a 2018 average retention rate of 81% at all colleges, 97% at the most selective colleges, and 63-65% at the least selective colleges. A school's retention rate is a crucial subfactor in our rankings, because this data point conveys the likelihood of students continuing their degrees rather than dropping out from one year to the next.
Graduation Rate The graduation rate measures the percentage of undergraduate students who completed their program at the school where they started by 2018, within 150% of the normal study period. NCES reports a 2018 average graduation rate of 62% at all colleges, 90% at the most selective colleges, and 34% at the least selective colleges. A higher graduation rate at a given school indicates a greater chance of succeeding at that school.
Robust Faculty This subfactor measures the ratio of full-time faculty to the total full-time instructional staff, and the proportion of full-time students to the total full-time instructional staff. As of fall 2018, 54% of faculty at postsecondary institutions nationwide worked full time, whereas the student-to-faculty ratio was 14-to-1. We include this data point in our rankings of accounting degrees because students are more likely to receive individualized attention from professors at schools with a more robust faculty profile.

Subfactors for Affordability

Price for Students With Grants or Scholarships This metric measures the average net price for students who were awarded grants or scholarships in the 2017-18 academic year. Our team compared what learners receiving these types of financial aid paid for school during this fiscal year to the cost for enrollees receiving other forms of financial aid or no aid. The price of attending an institution includes tuition and fees, room and board, and course materials. We include this subfactor in our rankings because the cost of attending a school directly determines the school's affordability.
Students Getting Financial Aid For this subfactor, our evaluators pulled IPEDS data on the percentage of full-time, first-time undergraduates receiving any kind of financial aid in the 2017-18 fiscal year. Our team also factored in the average amount of grant and scholarship aid awarded per student during this time period. Both factors matter to our rankings of accounting degrees, since they directly determine the actual cost of attending a program at the relevant institution.
Students Getting Federal Loans This data point incorporates IPEDS data on the percentage of undergraduate students who received federal student loans in the 2017-18 fiscal year, along with the average amount of federal student loans awarded to undergraduate students during this time frame. We include this metric because a higher average amount of student loans awarded reflects greater affordability.
Post-Graduation Student Debt For this subfactor, our team pulled IPEDS data on the average student loan default rates for the relevant school for 2016. We compared this data with the median debt for 2018 graduates who completed their programs at that school within six years of enrolling. A higher amount of post-graduation student debt can indicate a lower return on investment on degrees from the relevant institution.

Subfactors for Reputation

Percent of Applicants Admitted This metric considers the admission rates for 2018. The admission rate refers to the ratio of the number of students admitted to an institution to the total number of applicants. Schools with lower admission rates tend to enjoy a better reputation than institutions that do not uphold the same degree of selectivity. Greater selectivity also indicates that a school can provide students with the resources required for them to stay on track for graduation. Indeed, NCES reports that higher admission standards positively impact graduation rates.
Admissions Yield For this subfactor, our team pulled IPEDS data on enrollment rates for 2018. The admissions yield measures the ratio of the number of applicants admitted to an institution to the number of students who actually enrolled. A small admissions yield can indicate that many applicants chose competing institutions, which can reflect negatively on a school's reputation.
Return on Investment To evaluate schools on this metric, our team considered IPEDS data on the 2018 average earnings of students working six years after enrolling in the program. A higher return on investment shows that graduates tend to secure better paying jobs after graduation. Programs with better return on investment typically reflect better preparation for the job market, and indicate stronger employer regard for the school's reputation.

Subfactors for Program Availability and Online Flexibility

Percent of Online Students Enrolled For this data point, our team pulled IPEDS data on the percentage of students enrolled in distance learning programs for the degree level specified in the rankings. We also considered IPEDS data on the percentage of students enrolled in online degree programs overall. A higher percentage of online enrollment at the specified degree level indicates that a school devotes more resources to distance learning at that degree level. A higher percentage of remote students enrolled overall reflects a greater overall quality of the institution's online degrees. We only include this metric in our online-specific rankings.
Percent of Relevant Degree Level Offered This metric compares the number of programs the institution offers at the degree level specified in the rankings to the total number of programs offered at all degree levels. The total includes certificate-diploma, associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs. For example, in rankings of master's programs in accounting, this subfactor measures the proportion of master's programs offered compared to programs at all levels. Greater presence of a degree level at an institution can indicate that the institution allocates more resources to this degree level.