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

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.