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
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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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