Optimal Choice Colleges Methodology

The intent behind Optimal Choice is to highlight colleges that offer a combination of relatively low cost with strong salary outcomes for graduates. To do this, we analyzed the tuition and alumni salary information for nearly 1,800 eligible schools to find those that offer the best financial return. Read on to find how we determined schools' eligibility and the sources and limitations of our data.


We established thresholds to help limit the initial pool of colleges. To be considered for the GradReports Optimal Choice list, a school needed:

  • A Salary Score in the 60th percentile or higher
  • Tuition below the average amount based on undergraduate tuition compared to U.S. schools with IPEDs data for overall undergraduate tuition
  • 10 or more bachelor's degree programs featuring earnings data for graduates

About the Data

Salary Score

GradReports' Salary Score indicates how well alumni salaries for one program at one school compare to those from the same program at other schools. These scores draw from College Scorecard data on alumni salaries for bachelor's degree programs.

To calculate a school's overall Salary Score for the bachelor's level, we first calculated z-scores for the median earnings one year after completion for each individual program with the same CIP code and level in the College Scorecard data set. In this way, we evaluated a degree program at one school against the same degree program across all colleges. Next, we calculated an average of the z-scores of all the bachelor's programs at a school, weighted by the number of students in each program. We then converted this average z-score into a percentile, represented by the Salary Score.


We collected tuition amounts from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. For public colleges, we used the in-state tuition rate. To establish the threshold, we calculated the average nationwide undergraduate tuition rate based on undergraduate tuition at all colleges with bachelor's tuition data in IPEDS. All IPEDS numbers are from the fall of 2019, the latest term for which data is available.

CIP count

To ensure a diversity of data points for Salary Score and degree variety, we only considered schools with alumni earnings data for at least 10 different bachelor's degrees. This data is based on the number of Classification of Instructional Programs codes detailed in a school's College Scorecard profile.

Data Limitations

As with any data set, the data used for our rankings has limitations. We've listed some potential shortcomings below.

The earnings data used in our Salary Score is for alumni in the first year after completing a degree. This does not take into account the levels of growth income alumni can experience in the years after graduation and does not make predictions about future income. The data is based on the earnings of students who received federal financial aid because that is the sample for which the Department of Education has data. This excludes students who did not receive federal financial aid.

To protect student privacy, College Scorecard suppresses student count and earnings data that could be personally identifiable. This decreases the data coverage for some programs. In addition, College Scorecard adds noise to earnings data to further protect student privacy, so the data is less precise than it would be without privacy protection methods. More information can be found in College Scorecard's data documentation.

We collected tuition rates from the latest IPEDS numbers, which describe tuition as of the fall of 2019. We only used the in-state tuition rates in our calculations — if you choose to attend a public school but are not eligible for in-state tuition, you will pay more.