New Rankings Controversy -- Over Community Colleges

Washington Monthly, known for ratings that tweak U.S. News, devises formula to pick top two-year colleges -- and methodology is promptly attacked.
August 20, 2007

The annual rankings frenzy each fall features rankings of top colleges, party schools and everything in between. But the sector of higher education where more than 40 percent of freshmen start -- community colleges -- has been notably absent.

But a brand new ranking system unveiled by The Washington Monthly attempts to identify the top 30 community colleges in the country.

The magazine ranked colleges using data in different categories of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (worth a total of 85 percent) and graduation rates (15 percent). While community college leaders frequently complain that reporters ignore their sector, many are not at all pleased with the new attention from Washington Monthly -- even though the magazine is full of praise for two-year institutions and features a cover line that says "Community colleges that beat your alma mater."

That's because the two sources of the new rankings are both problematic to many experts on community colleges. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement turned down the Monthly's request for the data set because the researchers behind the project believe their data are not suitable for rankings, forcing the magazine to re-enter data. "I explained in as many ways as I knew how that it was a really dumb idea to use CCSSE data or any other data to rank community colleges," said Kay M. McClenney, director of the project, which is based at the University of Texas at Austin.

The magazine cites only pro-community college reasons for its rankings. "Prestige simply isn't synonymous with good teaching," writes Paul Glastris, editor of the magazine, in an explanation of the project. "Some unknown community colleges offer more challenging educations than do certain well-regarded four-year universities."

Other reasons the magazine cites for doing rankings of two-year colleges include their growing enrollments, their role in "the toughest job" in higher education in teaching low-income students, and the importance of teaching at these institutions.

The primary tool the magazine has adopted, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, involves surveys of students about certain characteristics of their educations that are designed to show whether learning is active, the extent of faculty-student interaction, and other qualities. One of the principles behind the survey (unlike that of its four-year counterpart) is that all data are public. But another one of its principles, outlined in a statement on "responsible use" of data, is that they shouldn't be used for rankings.

"CCSSE does not support the use of student engagement survey results for the purpose of ranking community and technical colleges. Such uses would obscure complex dimensions of institutional performance and student behavior," the statement says. "Because of differences in institutional focus, student characteristics, and resources, comparisons of survey results from two single institutions serve little constructive purpose and may in fact be wholly inappropriate."

Many measures of student engagement tend to favor small colleges, where it is easier to provide close personal attention. Of the top 30 community colleges identified by Washington Monthly, 8 have enrollments under 1,000 and another 11 have enrollments of 1,000-1,999. Size matters for all kinds of reasons in comparing community colleges. Just this month, the Education Department released an analysis of two-year colleges that found that the smaller institutions among them are more likely to enroll traditional college-age students and full-time students -- the students most likely to graduate quickly.

McClenney said that making the information public is intended to allow people to find out more about a community college in their area and -- most important -- to enable community colleges to compare themselves to similar institutions and figure out which practices are effective. So a group of large, urban community colleges might notice that one among them had higher ratings on faculty-student interaction and then look for the policies or practices responsible. Community colleges are so different in their student bodies, academic programs, and goals that McClenney said it was "silly" to use her survey's data for a ranking.

Others object to the use of graduation rates. The analysis is based on the federal definition, which is the percentage of students who graduate within 150 percent of the standard times, or three years for an associate degree.

George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said that while it was "good that people are paying attention to community colleges," he did not see the need for rankings and questioned the use of graduation rates for comparisons.

Small community colleges are more likely to focus on preparing students to earn an associate degree and transfer, while many larger urban institutions have a much broader mission, helping students who only want to take a few courses or to learn English. The data also exclude part-time students, a majority at many large urban institutions, Boggs said.

Before he came to AACC, Boggs was president of Palomar College, a two-year California institution. Students there routinely took six years to graduate, he said, for both educational and financial reasons. Boggs noted that many students enroll needing remedial work, and then can take only a limited number of courses at a time due to family and work obligations. If a community college student takes longer, but really learns, that's a success, and measures that ignore such success have limited value, he said.

"Our population is not as homogeneous and it takes our students longer to get their degrees," he said.

The Washington Monthly rankings were compiled by Kevin Carey, research and policy manager at Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank that has been critical of many college rankings. Carey wrote an Education Sector report last year that criticized most rankings for emphasizing factors that correlate with wealth instead of learning. Rankings based on student learning and graduation rates, he wrote, would be better and could include community colleges.

Carey is out of town and could not be reached for comment about the criticisms of his methodology. The editor of Washington Monthly also could not be reached.

In a note on methodology published with the rankings, Carey acknowledged that CCSSE and graduation rates are imperfect measures, but defended their use. He writes that "unlike the lists in the myriad guidebooks to four-year colleges that choke the shelves of newsstands and bookstores each year, this list is entirely based on measures with a research-proven link to student success -- or, in the case of graduation rates, a measure of success itself."

Using that system, the top 10 community colleges according to Washington Monthly are: 1. Atlanta Technical College, 2. Cascadia Community College (Washington State), 3. Southern University at Shreveport, 4. Southwestern Community College (North Carolina), 5. Hazard Community and Technical College (Kentucky), 6. North Florida Community College, 7. Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, 8. Southeast Kentucky Technical and Community College, 9. Zane State College (Ohio), and 10. Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (Georgia).

Robert Morse, who directs the U.S. News rankings, said that his magazine has been trying to put more information about community colleges on its Web site, but has been held back because there are not as many reliable data sources, and much of the demand for the magazine's rankings comes from high school students and their families who are looking many colleges, not the more "place bound" students who enroll at two-year institutions that are close to home, without doing a national search.

While those issues remain, Morse said, "that doesn't mean they will hold us back in the future," adding that the magazine was "studying ways to assess them and measure which ones are doing a good job or not quite as good."

Morse, who has not seen the Washington Monthly rankings, said he found some of the criticism they are receiving ironic. "How many times is U.S. News told to look at student engagement and what really goes on in the classroom," he said. When another magazine does so, Morse noted, it is not being praised, but criticized.

The Four-Year Alternative Rankings

Beyond releasing the first community college rankings, Washington Monthly also released -- for the third time -- its rankings of four-year colleges. The magazine uses a formula that favors colleges that promote social mobility (as measured, for example, by percentage of Pell Grant recipients), support for the research enterprise (research grants awarded and also percentage of undergraduate alumni who go on to earn Ph.D.'s) and national service (through such measures as ROTC participation and percentage of alumni who enter the Peace Corps).

Applying such a system yields a very different picture from the U.S. News rankings. The top 30 lists for national universities and liberal arts colleges in Washington Monthly feature three historically black colleges (South Carolina State University at No. 10 university; Spelman College at No. 10 liberal arts college and Morehouse College at No. 20). The U.S. News rankings don't feature any historically black colleges in the equivalent top 30s. The top liberal arts colleges in Washington Monthly is Presbyterian College, which ranks 106th in U.S. News.

Washington Monthly is known as a liberal-leaning magazine, so the No. 1 national university, Texas A&M University, may surprise some. But the magazine has a long history pushing for national service by college students. The magazine's use of ROTC in its formula was a big part of Texas A&M's top rating (and also helped Virginia Military Institute gain the No. 5 slot among liberal arts colleges).

In the national universities category, the U.S. News rankings yield a largely private group at the top and Washington Monthly tilts public. Among privates, the Washington Monthly priorities also tend to upset standard hierarchies. Here for example is the Monthly's take on the Ivies: "Harvard, Yale, and Princeton may make up the top three finishers on this year's U.S. News list, but by our measures they don't perform nearly as well. The alma maters of John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Brooke Shields come in at, respectively, 27th, 38th, and (yikes!) 78th place. Our top Ivy? Humble Cornell, which places seventh, thanks to the large number of its graduates who earn Ph.D.'s or join the Peace Corps."

Here is the Washington Monthly's top 10 national universities, with their U.S. News scores as well.

Monthly Rank University U.S. News Rank
1 Texas A&M 62
2 UCLA 25
3 Berkeley 21
4 UC San Diego 38
5 Penn State 48
6 U of Michigan 25
7 Cornell 12
8 UC Davis 42
9 Stanford 4
10 South Carolina State n/a


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