Grading Community Colleges

Why Americans need to care as much about how their local tech schools are performing as about where the Ivies rank.

National Journal
Amy Sullivan
Sept. 30, 2013, 10:13 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a spe­cial weeklong series on in­nov­at­ive ideas and pro­grams that are im­prov­ing U.S. edu­ca­tion.

Ever since U.S. News & World Re­port began rank­ing col­leges and uni­versit­ies in 1983, aca­dem­ic in­sti­tu­tions, pro­spect­ive stu­dents, and par­ents alike have been ob­sessed with track­ing the move­ment of schools up and down the list. The rank­ings have been con­tro­ver­sial from the start, with many crit­ics ques­tion­ing wheth­er they em­phas­ize the wrong fea­tures or provide an ac­cur­ate guide for stu­dents and fam­il­ies. In 2005, Wash­ing­ton Monthly began its own al­tern­at­ive col­lege rank­ings, fo­cus­ing not on the SAT scores of in­com­ing stu­dents but on met­rics such as gradu­ation rates, spend­ing on aca­dem­ic re­search, and the in­volve­ment of stu­dents in ROTC, com­munity ser­vice, or the Peace Corps. Earli­er this year, the White House de­veloped a col­lege score­card us­ing many of the same meas­ures.

Wash­ing­ton Monthly has re­cently ad­ded com­munity col­leges to its an­nu­al col­lege guide, mak­ing it the only na­tion­al pub­lic­a­tion to at­tempt an as­sess­ment of the two-year in­sti­tu­tions that edu­cate mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans. Na­tion­al Journ­al spoke with Paul Glastris, a vet­er­an journ­al­ist and ed­it­or of Wash­ing­ton Monthly, who first de­veloped the magazine’s in­nov­at­ive col­lege-rank­ing sys­tem nearly a dec­ade ago. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low:

Why do we need col­lege rank­ings at all? 

I like rank­ings, and most people like rank­ings, be­cause they present as­sess­ments and data in a way that’s im­me­di­ately un­der­stand­able. That’s why we have Angie’s List, Yelp, Za­g­ats — or­der­ing things in a rank­ing con­veys very quickly in­form­a­tion that is of­ten quite com­plex. The ques­tion is: How good is the rank­ing?

I think the U.S. News col­lege rank­ing isn’t any good be­cause they take meas­ures of in­puts and pre­tend that they’re meas­ur­ing out­puts. They meas­ure the qual­ity of stu­dents who at­tend a school, how much an in­sti­tu­tion spends on teach­ers. But that doesn’t tell you wheth­er the teach­ing is any good or how well a school pre­pares its gradu­ates. As one of our former Monthly ed­it­ors Nich­olas Thompson put it, it’s like grad­ing the qual­ity of res­taur­ants based on the price of their sil­ver­ware. 

We also think rank­ings are im­port­ant to hold in­sti­tu­tions ac­count­able. We don’t pre­tend that we’re com­ing up with a list of the very best col­leges for in­di­vidu­als. The main rank­ing is: What is the value to the tax­pay­er for the $150 bil­lion and count­ing we spend each year on high­er edu­ca­tion? We think we rank very soundly on that basis.

Don’t oth­er rank­ings hold in­sti­tu­tions ac­count­able as well, be­cause they all want to place highly?

The U.S. News rank­ing cre­ates hor­ribly per­verse in­cent­ives to push the high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem in­creas­ingly in a dir­ec­tion that is de­struct­ive to the na­tion. It meas­ures prestige, money, and ex­clus­ively. Fo­cus­ing on those meas­ures en­cour­ages col­leges to turn people down who want edu­ca­tions, to spend more money, and to mark their spe­cial­ness by what oth­er col­lege pres­id­ents think rather than to look at out­comes. 

They’re fo­cused more on the elite and less on the av­er­age per­son. And that’s in fact what is hap­pen­ing with high­er edu­ca­tion today. Were schools to com­pete based on our rank­ings, you’d have more cost-ef­fect­ive col­leges that fo­cused more on re­cruit­ing and gradu­at­ing kids of mod­est means and hav­ing them be­come bet­ter cit­izens. We’ve factored in an out­come meas­ure as well — the ca­pa­city of stu­dents to pay off stu­dent loans. We hope we’ve cre­ated an in­cent­ive sys­tem to pro­duce af­ford­able de­grees that mean something in the mar­ket­place.

That makes sense in terms of provid­ing an al­tern­at­ive rank­ing of col­leges and uni­versit­ies. But why add a rank­ing of com­munity col­leges? Don’t they all do ba­sic­ally the same thing?

No one in the journ­al­ism busi­ness ranked com­munity col­leges, mostly be­cause there’s no money in it. Most people go to the closest com­munity col­lege to them. And no one was hold­ing those schools ac­count­able. We thought that com­munity col­leges are damn near as im­port­ant as four-year schools. There is just as much vari­ation in com­munity col­leges as in reg­u­lar col­leges. If you look at most of them, though, they may have noble mis­sions, but their gradu­ation rates are not great. [“Only 11.6 per­cent of stu­dents who start their high­er edu­ca­tion at a pub­lic com­munity col­lege earn a bach­el­or’s de­gree with­in six years. An­oth­er 23 per­cent get an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree or a cer­ti­fic­ate.”]

It’s very hard for a work­ing per­son to get through even a two-year de­gree. So the com­munity-col­lege sec­tor needs rad­ic­al im­prove­ment. What we as a magazine have done so far is point out the com­munity col­leges that do the best job gradu­at­ing a high per­cent­age of their stu­dents in a reas­on­able amount of time.

How do you get good in­form­a­tion with which to as­sess com­munity col­leges?

We have a reas­on­ably good meas­ure of out­comes from data col­lec­ted by the Com­munity Col­lege Sur­vey of Stu­dent En­gage­ment. They sur­vey hun­dreds of com­munity col­leges each year on a vol­un­tary basis, and they track the de­gree to which col­leges fol­low good prac­tices: how of­ten do stu­dents work in groups, how many books and pa­pers are they as­signed, how of­ten do pro­fess­ors and stu­dents talk out­side of class? We know from re­search that these prac­tices are cor­rel­ated with high­er levels of learn­ing. There is an equi­val­ent data set for four-year schools, but it’s not pub­licly avail­able.

This is the third time in a row that we’ve rated the top com­munity col­leges, mostly as an in­cent­ive for oth­er schools to as­pire to and to give some no­tori­ety to those that are do­ing things right. Most com­munity col­leges nev­er make the news, which is crazy in an era when we know that most of the coun­try needs some post-high school edu­ca­tion. Most com­munity-col­lege ad­min­is­trat­ors stick around for a few years, but their goal is to move on to a four-year school. We des­per­ately need a repu­ta­tion and re­ward sys­tem that says to a com­munity-col­lege ad­min­is­trat­or: You’re tak­ing care of work­ing-class kids with mod­er­ate SAT scores, and that’s serving your coun­try.

There are some tech­nic­al reas­ons why we can’t rank all 1,200 com­munity col­leges. But we did find a way this year to write about some of the worst. The stu­dents at these schools don’t have time or money to waste.

What are some of the best com­munity col­leges do­ing?

Dif­fer­ent com­munity col­leges suc­ceed based on dif­fer­ent strategies and dif­fer­ent mis­sions. Some of the schools at the top of our list are great at provid­ing a sound edu­ca­tion for stu­dents who are go­ing to trans­fer to a four-year school. Cas­ca­dia Col­lege in Seattle is a clas­sic ex­ample of this. Our No. 1 school this year, St. Paul Col­lege in Min­nesota, has a dif­fer­ent strategy. It used to be a vo­ca­tion­al and tech­nic­al col­lege. The school in­creased its aca­dem­ic rig­or without los­ing its tech­nic­al fo­cus; that com­bin­a­tion really is the wave of the fu­ture.

We used to think of vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion as purely mech­an­ic­al — help­ing people learn how to fix a car. It also used to be a way to track minor­it­ies in­to low-paid jobs or jobs that were go­ing to be off-shored. A lot of people turned against it for those reas­ons. But the new think­ing is that if you com­bine tech­nic­al train­ing with an ap­plied aca­dem­ic cur­riculum, then you cre­ate gradu­ates with not only tech­nic­al skills but also the abil­ity to think through prob­lems, work with col­leagues — all of the skills that are re­quired by the mod­ern work­place.

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