How We Choose the Psychology Degree Programs We Consider to Be the Best

Our belief is that the best schools in psychology deserve to be weighed on more than just a numeric basis. Psychology is a science of the mind, so naturally it takes a human mind to comprehensively evaluate the degree programs that prepare students for the field.

Our editors have spent a lot of time looking at the big picture and the fine points of what goes into a degree program. When stepping into the role of program evaluator, they dive into every resource available that could offer some insight into how individual programs might set themselves apart:

  • School websites
  • Online rating sites
  • Scientific journals
  • Accreditation agency documentation
  • General news sources

We’re looking for more than just the basics of time, cost, and curriculum. Our goal is to identify colleges that can offer you a little something extra, whether it’s a unique field experience or an outstanding instructor holding high honors in the field. What separates the best from the rest can come down to a single important detail that conventional scoring and ranking systems might miss, so it takes the keen eye and intellect of a critical observer to identify those special touches… and that’s what we bring to the table.

Some of our lists have additional, specialized methodology, as explained on their own pages. Those criteria stand in addition to the ones outlined here.

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General Criteria for Degrees in Psychology

Psychology degrees offered at any level and delivered in any format still have a lot of fundamental elements in common. That’s why we consider similar core attributes for every program we evaluate, ensuring the final selections we make for lists always include the essential elements that make for an exceptional student experience and effective learning experience, whether you’re looking at an undergraduate program or a gearing up for a doctorate.

Accreditation is Essential in Establishing Fundamental Scholastic Services

Standard regional accreditation is our initial filter. Without it, no program gets a second look.

Starting our search with programs offered at schools recognized by the third-party accrediting agencies endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) ensures we work from a pool of institutions that maintain comparably high standards.

In a process that can last years, accreditors work to establish that schools are aligned with those standards, and that they have internal processes in place to maintain them, while also striving for continuous improvement. With repeated evaluations, school continually demonstrate their commitment and rigor—which is exactly what you deserve.

CHEA recognizes seven regional accreditation agencies that perform these evaluations, along with a few with a national scope that deal primarily with vocational schools and online programs. Each school here has been accredited by at least one of those agencies.

Additionally, we look for specialty accreditation from the American Psychological Association’s Commission on Accreditation. Although the APA only accredits PhD and PsyD programs (and some pre-doctoral master’s degree programs), a psychology department that has attained that status at the doctoral level is likely equally accomplished in delivering other degrees. Because not every school offers a PsyD and may not be eligible for this accreditation, we don’t require it, but it’s a plus when we see it.

For counseling programs specifically, we looked to the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Degree Programs (CACREP) to set the standard. This organization has been recognized by CHEA for years, offering the assurance of quality we wanted to see for the counseling programs we felt were worth considering for our lists.

TheMasters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC) is another specialty accreditor that has been established specifically to accredit master’s programs in counseling and psychology. With plans to submit applications for CHEA recognition in 2019, MPCAC is not yet recognized so it didn’t weigh heavily in our selection process. We are, however, keeping an eye on the application and approval process in the event things change in the coming years.

With the basics of accreditation established, we begin the process of identifying the programs that go the extra mile.

Strong, Independent, and Abundant Faculty

How well you learn will always have a lot to do with who you learn from. Motivated, experienced, accessible instructors are crucial to knowledge acquisition in psychology, and we look for programs with a focus on hiring faculty who have both academic and practical experience. Strong publishing track records don’t hurt, and excellent and innovative research is a plus. We also look for schools that maintain a student/faculty ratio that is low enough to ensure that you receive plenty of individualized attention and feedback.

A Strong Scholastic and Research Reputation

Modern psychologists stand on the shoulders of giants, scientists like B.F. Skinner, Esther Thelen, and Kenneth Spence. Psychology departments shaped by these and other luminaries earn a reputation and develop strengths in certain research and treatment approaches; strengths that we uncover and evaluate in our lists. We also consult reputable third-party ratings sites such as The Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report. Awards from organizations such as the Sloan Institute are also considered.

Department Strength and Stability Leading to Educational Opportunity

One reason we like to lean on APA-accreditation is that it tells us the department that earned it has the stability and consistency to deliver a program at any level. Regardless of whether we can use that yardstick, we look at the ability of a psychology department to deliver on its promises. Things like grants and funding, interdisciplinary programs, and fellowship and community service opportunities all help psychology departments broaden their reach, and broaden your education.

General Criteria for Bachelor’s Degrees in Psychology

You’ll have a lot of company at the bachelor’s level as you earn a degree in psychology. According to the APA in 2016, more than six percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded in the United States were granted in psychology. That’s a lot of students, and almost every college in the country has a psychology bachelor program on offer to meet that demand. We work hard to sort through that mass to find only the top programs we feel are worth your time to consider.

A Significant General Educational Foundation

A bachelor’s degree covers much more than just the subject matter of the field of psychology. A strong liberal arts background lays the groundwork for every other aspect of your studies and helps you to become the kind of well-rounded and worldly individual that understands and appreciates diversity in the human condition and relates to others. These are qualities that can’t be overlooked, especially if your eventual goal is to become a licensed psychologist.

Undergraduate Study Tracks and Degree Options

While concentrations become more important at the post-baccalaureate level, more and more psychology programs are allowing you to select specialization options earlier and earlier. We consider not only various tracks, but also the availability of both liberal arts focused BAs and more scientifically grounded BS programs in psychology to ensure you have the option available to you that best aligns with your graduate study plans and career goals.

Positive Student Outcomes and Retention Rates

No program is worth your time if you don’t finish it, so we turn to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to look at year over year retention rates—comparing how many people stick with a program after initial enrollment. If a lot of people are bailing out early, it’s usually a bad sign. Similarly, we look at overall completion rates too, seeing how well a department gets students across the finish line with a degree in hand.

This is a process reserved exclusively for compiling our undergraduate program lists since IPEDS offers mostly general info on graduate schools rather than insights on the success rates of individual programs.

General Criteria for Master’s Degrees in Psychology

At the master’s level, standards change—not just for you, but for us too when it comes to what we look for when making our selections. We look at different elements than at the baccalaureate level and generally raise the bar for even our general standards. Smaller class sizes, more individualized attention, in-depth and diverse fieldwork opportunities, a broad array of concentrations, research engagement… these are all expectations you should hold for psychology master’s degree programs:

The Right Concentrations for Your Professional Goals

Psychology is a vast field, touching on every aspect of human action and interaction. Consequently, there are hundreds of specialties, dozens of which are taught as concentrations at the master’s level. We evaluate not only how many concentrations a master’s program offers, but also ensure that they have the specialized resources and instructors to teach them competently.

Research Powering Learning and Advances in the Field

Psychology is constantly evolving, and if you aren’t keeping up with it and helping to drive that evolution in your graduate program, you’re going to be behind the curve. We look for schools with active and groundbreaking research efforts underway that actively involve graduate students, as well as the funding to make it happen.

Funding isn’t just a measure of how much a research department has to work with for current projects, it also tells the story of past research rigor and success. Research grants inevitably go to schools with track records for producing relevant findings and those able to articulate and demonstrate the viability of current and proposed research work.

Practicum and Field Experience for Real World Learning

With face-to-face interaction as the ultimate level of engagement in psychology, graduate programs have to offer training that puts you at the coal-face of treatment and study. We look for programs that not only deliver the right amount of practicum hours, but also those that offer the right variety of placements to ensure your contact hours are in line with your concentration needs.

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Online Degree Programs in Psychology

In online degree programs, our criteria shift once again. The fundamentals of a strong psychology education don’t change, but the delivery shifts radically, and the goals of students seeking online courses is also often different: you want more flexibility, more freedom in when and how you consume course content. You may even have significantly different professional goals. We look for programs to accommodate all the demands online students have in psychology degrees.

Top-flight Technology and Adept Staff and Instructors

A learning management system (LMS) that incorporates the best technology and most modern techniques to keep students and instructors connected is a must in any online program. We look for schools that use technology to not just replicate the classroom experience, but to improve on it with additional resources and options for communicating with professors and classmates. And we look for schools that have trained staff how to use and guide students in the use of those systems.

Flexibility and Easy Access for Busy Students

Online programs have a real advantage in their ability to time-shift courses away from the working hours you may be busy, allowing you to take them at more convenient times. We look for schools that make the most of that advantage, allowing you the freedom that comes with being able to choose a part time program, and to consume class content wherever and whenever it works for you.