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Posted at 12:13 PM ET, 12/23/2010

Ranking community colleges

By Daniel de Vise

Washington Monthly published a list of the 50 top community colleges earlier this year.

Like most collegiate rankings, this one was done with publicly available data but not necessarily with the blessing of those who produced the data. Colleges generally do not like being ranked. Rankings encourage unfair comparisons and ill-informed choices by the college-bound and spawn all manner of negative incentives for college administrators -- such as accepting fewer disadvantaged students for fear their sub-par performance might hurt their ranking. Rankings are also immensely popular, even addictive.

Only one Virginia institution, Patrick Henry Community College, appears in Washington Monthly's Top 50, which lists no Maryland or Washington school. That's intriguing, because some Washington area schools -- particularly Northern Virginia Community College and Montgomery College -- have strong national reputations.

And just how do you rank a community college?

Washington Monthly's ranking is based on two sources, completion rates (generally low for community colleges) and data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

The annual survey, a cousin to the National Survey of Student Engagement in four-year colleges, attempts to measure whether students are engaged -- challenged, supported, taught in effective ways, and so forth -- as measured by students themselves, who fill out detailed surveys.

St. Paul College in Minnesota, number one in the nation by Washington Monthly's calculus (and probably one of the few to actively publicize the ranking), scores well above the national average on each of the five "benchmarks" measured by the national survey: active and collaborative learning, student effort, academic challenge, student-faculty interaction and support for learners. The school's scores are in the 70s and 80s on a 1-to-100 scale.

Once you get past the top 10, though, many of the schools on the Washington Monthly list perform barely above the national average on most of the survey metrics. Those schools appear to have been ranked high mostly by dint of high graduation rates well above the national average, which is put at anywhere from about 25 to 40 percent. (Anything over 50 percent is very high for a community college, because their students face many distractions and complications.)

What about local schools?

I looked at CCSSE results for several Maryland schools, and all of them perform around or slightly above the national average on the five benchmarks. You are not permitted, of course, to compare or rank them. But if you did, you'd find that Prince George's Community College may be the "best" two-year college in the area, at least based on this survey.

Only a couple Virginia colleges have taken the (voluntary) survey in the last two years. The last time NVCC participated, in 2008, its scores fell just below national averages on four of five benchmarks.

Here are some actual scores from the 2010 CCSSE. Remember, 50 is average.

If anyone from the local community college . . . community . . . is around this week, I'd love to hear (in the comments section) what they make of these numbers.

Anne Arundel Community College
Active and Collaborative Learning: 47
Student Effort: 47
Academic Challenge: 51
Student-Faculty Interaction: 52
Support for Learners: 50

College of Southern Maryland
Active and Collaborative Learning: 50
Student Effort: 50
Academic Challenge: 51
Student-Faculty Interaction: 51
Support for Learners: 47

Howard Community College
Active and Collaborative Learning: 53
Student Effort: 54
Academic Challenge: 53
Student-Faculty Interaction: 54
Support for Learners: 55

Montgomery College
Active and Collaborative Learning: 51
Student Effort: 52
Academic Challenge: 53
Student-Faculty Interaction: 54
Support for Learners: 51

Northern Virginia Community College
(2008 results)
Active and Collaborative Learning: 47
Student Effort: 47
Academic Challenge: 49
Student-Faculty Interaction: 50
Support for Learners: 48

Prince George's Community College
Active and Collaborative Learning: 55
Student Effort: 57
Academic Challenge: 56
Student-Faculty Interaction: 52
Support for Learners: 52

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By Daniel de Vise  | December 23, 2010; 12:13 PM ET
Categories:  Attainment, Community Colleges, Rankings, Students  | Tags:  Maryland Virginia community colleges, Washington Monthly rankings, community college rankings, community colleges  
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Just glancing at this, the variables mean absolutely nothing to me - useless in fact. Would a perspective student even make an effort to determine what they mean? I did not find any definitions readily available. It would seem to me that if I were looking into a CC (same holds for a 4 yr)the most important thing to me - do they offer what I am searching for? In addition, a school could be ranked low on these aggregate ratings, yet be very good on a specific program or area. More important, even if it is ranked lower than another school - would it even be worth it to go to that higher ranked school due to the increase in cost? But this is moot, as again this seems to be a really dumb/pointless exercise with a bunch of meaningless criteria.

Posted by: notamullethead | December 23, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

There is a reason that "Prestigious Community Colleges" is not a Jeopardy! category. Before anyone gets caught up in the rankings, ask yourself how many have guaranteed admissions programs to UVA, Virginia Tech, William and Mary, or James Madison?

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | December 23, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

To hofbrauhausde: Northern Virginia Community College has guaranteed admissions to UVA and every other public college and university in Virginia. There are similar agreements with several area private universities too.

NOVA graduates go to the Ivy League, state schools, and colleges and universities all over America. Internal research at Geoge Mason and UVA indicate that NOVA transfer students do better in the second two years than students who started at those universities as freshmen.

Posted by: drl97 | December 23, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

Some pretty senseless stuff here ...

Posted by: clitteigh | December 23, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

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