On July 13, 1946, Harry Truman did something that no president had done before: he created a commission to chart the future of American higher education. Historically, college and university matters had largely been left up to the states. Even the famous Morrill Land-Grant Acts had allowed states to build universities focused on “agriculture and the mechanic arts” more or less as they pleased. But with the recently enacted GI Bill, higher education had become, for the first time, an area of strong national interest. The Truman Commission found that America needed to spend far more of its gross national product on higher education. In describing how such investments should be made, it used a phrase that was, at the time, largely unfamiliar to the general public: “community college.”
The Truman Commission’s report, Higher Education for American Democracy, came at a time when states were facing an unprecedented surge in college enrollment. Universal high school had become standard policy, and the Baby Boom was about to start. Demand for college was concentrated in the Sun Belt, where much of the nation’s mid-twentieth-century population growth would occur. These states lacked the infrastructure of private colleges enjoyed by established areas on the East Coast. They needed to move millions of students through higher education without bankrupting the public treasury.
Community colleges seemed like the ideal solution. Spurred by the influential California Master Plan for Higher Education, states set up ziggurat systems of higher learning, with expensive research universities on top, regional universities in the middle, and thrifty community colleges on the bottom. Students could take the first two years of college inexpensively and close to home before transferring to a four-year university to finish their bachelor’s degree. Or they could get a job-focused credential and go directly into the workforce. Everyone saved money and got what they needed—or so the theory went.
Today, community colleges remain a pillar of the American system of higher learning, with more than a million new freshmen—42 percent of the total—starting their college careers in a two-year institution every year. Politicians love to praise their salt-of-the-earth qualities, including President Barack Obama, who began his administration with bold promises to invest in the two-year sector.
Yet the great American community college experiment has, by any fair reckoning, fallen far short of its initial grand design. While it’s true that huge numbers of students enroll in two-year institutions, a much smaller percentage manage to succeed there. 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. The rest are still in school somewhere, or, more likely, have long since dropped out.
And as Anne Kim shows (“A Matter of Degrees”), many employers have lost confidence in the value of the job-oriented degrees that community colleges produce, to the point where they are now building whole new credentialing systems from scratch. And as Haley Sweetland Edwards recounts (“America’s Worst Community Colleges”), many of California’s community colleges—by some measures the largest single higher education system in the world—have sunk into a nightmare of bureaucratic dysfunction. As the low institutions on the higher education totem pole serving students with little political power, community colleges have been hammered by the revenue shocks of the Great Recession and its aftermath. Two-year students nationwide are having trouble transferring their credits to four-year institutions or even finding spots in basic courses that have been pared back by relentless state budgets cuts.
The dream of getting the masses through college on the cheap turned out to be just that—a fantasy that ran aground on the shoals of organizational inertia and perpetual financial shortfall. Community colleges were handed an unwieldy dual mission of job training and preparation for transfer, received pennies on the dollar granted to flagship research universities, and were expected to educate the lion’s share of students who emerged from the nation’s troubled K-12 school system without adequate college preparation. As a kind of compensatory gesture, politicians made up for their financial and academic disregard by failing to ask hard questions about community college performance, adding a culture of mediocrity and neglect to institutions that have already been dealt a difficult hand.
Some view community colleges as a lost cause. We at the Washington Monthly disagree. The Truman Commission had the big picture right: the national imperative to invest in higher education is stronger today than ever before. And with college costs and student debt at an all-time high, we need to develop models of higher learning that are more flexible and efficient than gilded four-year research universities that measure status by how many applicants they reject.
The key is to find what’s working inside the nation’s vast system of two-year institutions and give every student access to that kind of great education. That’s why we are publishing, for the third time, a ranking of America’s best community colleges.
Unlike the prestige-obsessed rankings published by the U.S. News & World Report, these rankings are based entirely on measures of best educational practices and actual student success. Of the eight measures that determine each college’s rank, five are from the respected Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). Unlike their more secretive peers in the four-year sector, most community colleges administer a regular survey focusing on the kind of education they provide—and then publish the results.
CCSSE tracks the number of books and papers students are assigned, the amount of interaction with faculty, the hours spent preparing for class, and the quality of support services. Colleges that connect with their students and challenge them to do good work get particularly high marks.
It’s also crucial to keep students on track to finish their degrees. That’s why this year’s rankings include three measures that are used by the Aspen Institute’s annual Prize for Community College Excellence: the percentage of new students who return for a second year; the percentage who graduate or transfer elsewhere within three years; and the overall ratio of credentials granted for every 100 students enrolled. This last measure accounts for the fact that many students transfer in and out of community colleges, and gives more weight to two-year degrees.
Some of the colleges among the 2013 list of America’s best community colleges have been featured in past rankings, include Saint Paul College in Minnesota, which repeats as number one, and Cascadia Community College, profiled in our first community college rankings. This shows that excellence is not an accident—the best community colleges have deeply ingrained cultures of academic achievement. Others appear here for the first time. Here are some of the things we’ve learned from them:
Exclusivity and Excellence Are Not the Same
In the upper echelons of higher learning, fame, wealth, and selectivity go together. It’s assumed that the colleges with the greatest amount of money and most restrictive admissions policies are the best. In a way, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Going to school surrounded by the best and brightest has its advantages, regardless of whether the college itself is focused on education.
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