Rankings Help Community Colleges and Their Students

Kevin Carey, who created a rating system, writes that the data are instructive and comparisons are valuable.

August 27, 2007

Last month, a woman from Seattle named Misty Wheeler told me a story of two community colleges. She went to the first college ten years ago, as a 19-year old freshman with dreams of becoming a writer. Unfortunately, it didn't give her what she wanted, or needed. The English classes were dull and rote, and Misty soon dropped out without earning a degree. Jobs, marriage and children quickly followed, and her youthful aspirations began to fade. This kind of small educational tragedy occurs far too often in American higher education, for many reasons -- poor high school preparation and inadequate financial aid among them. But one reason is rarely mentioned: a lack of community college rankings.

Rankings like those U.S. News & World Report released this month have traditionally been the province of the four-year sector, particularly the residential colleges that compete for traditional-age students, funding, and prestige. The two-year colleges that educate 45 percent of American undergraduates are nowhere to be found. It's easy to see why: the U.S. News list is based on wealth, exclusivity, and prestige, and community colleges have none of those things. Community college students, who tend to enroll in institutions close to home, are also less likely to pay $9.95 for a list of hundreds of colleges nationwide.

Given the manifest shortcomings of the U.S. News methodology, this may be a good thing. But the lack of two-year rankings has a downside: There are few mechanisms by which community colleges can be held accountable and compete, no way for students and policymakers to know which colleges are doing the best job educating students and which are not. Students like Misty can't know ahead of time if their local community college is truly prepared to help them. And if it's not, it doesn't have strong incentives to improve.

Until recently, such rankings were technically unfeasible because there was no data on which to base them. That's changed with the advent of measures like the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. More than half of all community colleges nationwide -- over 500 -- have participated in CCSSE over the last five years. The survey gauges the extent to which colleges use research-proven educational practices to help students learn and succeed. The results are clear: some two-year colleges are doing a much better job than others.

Misty Wheeler -- now a 29-year old divorced single mother of two -- decided to give community college another try, and lucky for her one of the best had recently been built nearby. According to a composite index of CCSSE results and federal graduation rates recently published in The Washington Monthly, Cascadia Community College ranks near the top nationwide, and is first in the benchmark of "Active and Collaborative Learning" that CCSSE research has shown to have a particularly strong statistical relationship with students' likelihood of getting good grades and earning a degree.

For Misty, that translated into a far different college experience than she got the first time around. She's shooting for a graduate degree in English so she can teach college herself someday, and her English professor, Todd Lundberg, gave her everything her first college didn't -- challenging, engaging, innovative teaching that pushed her limits as a student. And unlike many colleges, great teaching at Cascadia is far more the rule than the exception. The college's teaching culture is highly focused on promoting student collaboration and creating opportunities for active learning connected to the surrounding community -- exactly what decades of research say students need.

In one multicultural communications course, Misty's student group researched 21st century slavery. Her professor put the group in contact with a local representative of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum who works to combat the substantial human trafficking problem in Seattle's huge international port. After interviewing community leaders, reading accounts of the issue from local national print and electronic media, reviewing the academic literature, and gathering first-hand data from local activists, the group made a series of presentations to the class focusing on both the detailed facts on the ground and the way different communication modes influence the public debate. The final products look more like a project from a graduate seminar than what one might expect from first-year students at a local community college.

But this kind of experience is atypical, and without the pressure and public scrutiny of community college rankings, there's no particular reason to think that will change. Right now, it's hard to distinguish between community colleges, so students naturally tend to enroll in whichever is closest.

Rankings would give students in the position Misty was in 10 years ago a reason to travel the extra distance to the college in the best position to help them succeed. Rankings would also give community colleges with the most room to improve a better sense of where they stand relative to their peers nationwide -- and identify the peers from which they can learn. Plus, the public nature of rankings would add outside pressure from policymakers and local community leaders to find new ways to better serve students. Higher education institutions are notoriously change resistant (Cascadia had the advantage of starting from scratch when it was built in the late 1990s), and rankings would provide the competitive push community colleges lack today.

The administrators of CCSSE oppose using the survey for rankings, stating that "Each community college’s performance should be considered in terms of its mission, institutional focus, and student characteristics. Because of differences in these areas -- and variations in college resources -- comparing survey results between individual institutions serves little constructive purpose and likely will be misleading."

But this position is belied by the universality of the research-proven educational principles on which CCSSE is based. There's no good reason why any college -- regardless of size, location, or institutional mission -- can't challenge students academically, provide frequent student-faculty interaction, and promote student collaboration. The way those principles are applied should rightly vary by student, professor, and individual college -- but that's exactly why the survey was designed in a way that allows it to be used in different settings. CCSSE itself has constructed a "retention index" (indices and rankings are exactly the same thing) to identify a pool of top colleges which were then reviewed by experts and winnowed down to a group of "best practice colleges." Not surprisingly, a number of them -- including Cascadia -- appear on the Washington Monthly list.

The stakes here are high. Community college students are often first-generation, lower-income students who got a substandard high school education and who struggle to balance work, family, and career. Many stand at the precipice of social and economic opportunity. For them, the difference between a good two-year education and bad one can be the difference between one life and another.

Community college rankings, incorporating surveys like CCSSE along with graduation and transfer rates, employment outcomes, and other measures, would help those students most of all. They'd be able to make better choices -- perhaps looking beyond the nearest college to an institution more likely to help them succeed. Rankings would reward innovators and identify best practices for others to follow, providing strong external motivation for every college to stretch and improve. Given the importance of community colleges to the nation's higher education system and long-term economic prosperity, the sooner we can create that kind of transparency and accountability, the better.


Kevin Carey is research and policy manager at Education Sector.


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