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America's best community colleges

Here's one more sign that community colleges don't get respect. I waited two weeks after the publication of the Washington Monthly's new ranked list of these overlooked schools before I bestirred myself to write this column. For someone whose family history is entwined with community colleges, that's bad.

The Washington Monthly article and its top 50 list are the work of Kevin Carey, policy director of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector. He is the best writer on higher education in the country. His list is a model for what all college rankings should be. It is based on how professors are teaching and students are learning, not on the average SAT score of a college's freshman class or how prestigious college presidents think the school is.

Carey makes, and then proves, this outlandish statement about the top 50 community colleges: "When it comes to quality of instruction, they outperform not only their two-year peers, but many elite four-year research universities, as well." Here are the top 10 of his top 50 list, all unknown to me. (I had to blink when I saw Mayland Community College, thinking it said MARYLAND Community College and might be a local story for the Post. In reality there are no Washington area colleges on the list.)

1. Saint Paul College, Minn.
2. Hesston College, Kan.
3. Carolinas College of Health Sciences, N.C.
4. Mayland Community College, N.C.
5. Itasca Community College, Minn.
6. Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, Wis.
7. Leech Lake Tribal College, Minn.
8. Alexandria Technical College, Minn.
9. Southwestern Community College, N.C.
10. Chippewa Valley Technical College, Wis.

The monthly didn't give Carey enough space (see my first paragraph) to explain why Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin have such a lock on the top 10. But he does go deep into the methodology used to create the list.

The rankings depend heavily on data collected by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, a nonprofit based at the University of Texas-Austin that benefits from the groundbreaking work of the National Survey of Student Engagement at Indiana University. The community college survey is given to a representative sample of students at community colleges that have volunteered to participate. The questions are based on research about what kinds of learning experiences in college produce the best results.

Carey compares the community college results with top-tier research university results. There are surprises. Asked if they had ever asked questions in class or contributed to class discussions, only 52 percent of university freshmen said yes compared with 65 percent of all community college students surveyed and 70 percent of students in schools on the top-50 list. Asked if they have ever made a class presentation, the portion of yes answers were, in the same order, 23 percent, 28 percent and 33 percent.

The data disprove, Carey says, the commonly accepted view that colleges with the toughest admissions standards are the best. The top 50 list also discredits the notion that "poor graduation rates are an unavoidable -- even laudable -- consequence of maintaining high academic standards," Carey says.

"CCSSE researchers have found the opposite to be true," he says. "The higher the level of Academic Challenge -- one of the five CCSSE measures that contribute to our rankings -- the more likely students are to earn degrees, even after controlling for student preparation.

"At Hesston College in Kansas (number two on our list), 63 percent of students report having to write eleven or more papers during the school year. At the average community college, only 26 percent of students report such workloads. At Hesston, 85 percent of students report being assigned five or more textbooks during the year. Nationwide, only 55 percent of students at community colleges report such levels of assignment. Nevertheless, Hesston graduates nearly two-thirds of its students in four years, far above the national average of 28 percent.

"The best community colleges have found that when you set high expectations, students will live up to them -- even when those students face barriers to graduation. Indeed, the top fifty community colleges enroll a higher percentage of students with Pell Grants (46 percent) than the average (41 percent) for the more than 600 colleges we ranked."

Eighty-five percent of each college's ranking is based on CCSSE benchmark scores in five areas, with different weights based on how they correlate with student success. Active and collaborative learning gets 29 percent, student effort 12 percent, academic challenge 19 percent, student-faculty interaction 14 percent and support for learners 12 percent. Those don't add up to 85 percent because of rounding.

The other 15 percent of the rank depends on the percentage of students at each community college who graduate in three years.

Carey is steamed about Congress turning its back on an effort by President Obama to invest $12 billion in improving community colleges. He wanted to raise graduation and transfer rates, forge stronger ties to employers and open up more online courses, among other things.

Community colleges receive far less funding per student than four-year schools, Carey says. "This is despite the fact that they are more likely than four-year institutions to enroll students who delay entry to college, have jobs and families, receive a substandard high school education, and struggle economically. In a just world, they would be funded more generously, not less, than four-year schools to compensate for the more difficult job they do."

I come from California, where the community college movement has long been strong. My parents both attended community colleges. My brother worked for one for 20 years. There are two California schools on the top 50 list, but those are the only ones I have ever heard of.

Good things are happening at our least-known institutions of higher education. They deserve more support, now that they are educating nearly half of all the college students in the country.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | September 9, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  America's Best Community Colleges, Kevin Carey, schools ranked by best teaching practices, top-50 list community colleges excel four-year universities  
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America's best community colleges is an oxymoron. This cohort had their time to learn and/or find themselves. Instead put the money to better use by investing it, all of it, on early childhood education.

Posted by: phoss1 | September 11, 2010 6:17 AM | Report abuse

Seminole Community College near Orlando is a factory of D students sent thru a system like sausage. A cadre of lifer administrators, with six-figure incomes, presides (but is inaccessible to) the platoons of $100/week adjuncts ($1,00 per week, per course: no benefits) who staff the mobbed classrooms.
The material presented would bore a so-so eighth-grader.
The only time administrators are evident is in securing the count that allows them to bill the state. This is obsessively discussed, emailed, and so on.
Otherwise it is a free-for-all in classrooms where low-grade high school work is done, by clueless kids and veterans who are essentially being robbed.
A true theft of taxpayer money. Disgusting abuse by the clowns in charge, who would last three weeks in the real world. If that...

Posted by: FloridaChick | September 13, 2010 4:25 AM | Report abuse

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