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September/ October 2013 America’s Best Community Colleges 2013

By Kevin Carey

But this mind-set has no relevance to community colleges, which are nonselective by design. Indeed, the underlying psychology of national community college neglect is driven in large part by the sense that nonselective institutions are inherently third-rate, and thus less deserving of public support. For whole classes of striving upper- and middle-class families, community college is synonymous with failure, a long fall from dreams of the Ivy League. These are the kinds of people who influence the national dialogue on higher education—and thus contribute to the toxic equilibrium of meager support for two-year institutions and expectations to match. By this way of thinking, the very idea of community college excellence is impossible by definition.

The institutions among America’s best community colleges show that these biases are profoundly wrong. By CCSSE measures, which reflect research-proven educational practices, the best community colleges are often more educationally sound than the elite research universities to which striving students aspire.

At Saint Paul College (number one), 60 percent of students reported working in class with other students on projects “Often” or “Very Often.” At selective four-year research universities that warehouse freshmen in large lecture classes while tenured professors spend their time on research, only 42 percent of students say the same. At North Florida Community College (number two), 75 percent of students frequently ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions, the kind of active learning that educational experts say students need. At the typical big research university, only 52 percent of students are so engaged.

Good community colleges give students the opportunity to work directly with professors and teachers. At North Dakota State College of Science (number three), 72 percent of students discuss ideas from readings or classes with their professors outside of class. At four-year research universities, nearly half of students—42 percent—never do. At Capital Area Technical College (number eight) in Baton Rouge, 78 percent of students receive prompt written or oral feedback from faculty on their academic performance “Often” or “Very Often.” At the large expensive research universities, barely half of students say the same.

Community College Can Be a Better Bet for Graduation

Under the reigning academic hierarchy, every four-year institution is more prestigious than every two-year institution. But as Jamaal Abdul-Alim writes in “Dropouts Tell No Tales,” some universities, complete with Division I athletics and scores of academic departments and PhD programs, do a terrible job helping students earn degrees. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduates less than 20 percent of its African American students on time. Western Wyoming Community College (number seven) has a 76 percent graduation and transfer rate. Snow College (number nine) in Utah gets 74 percent of students through. Itasca Community College (number twenty-one) in Minnesota has a 62 percent graduation and transfer rate. These numbers aren’t just better than the typical community college—they’re better than the average at all four-year institutions nationwide.

The rhetoric around college graduation often implies that colleges have no agency, as if the odds of a student graduating were wholly a function of what they bring to the institution. Indeed, some people see student dropouts as evidence of high academic standards—those who couldn’t cut it are let loose. But CCSSE research and our list of America’s best community colleges suggest that the opposite is true: good educational practices and successful education outcomes go hand in hand. Students often drop out of college because they’re frustrated by bad teaching and can’t see a clear path toward a degree. The best community colleges put students in an enriching educational environment and stick with them all the way to the graduation stage.

We Can Have Much Better Community Colleges Than We Do Today

America’s best community colleges aren’t just a little better than other community colleges in the country. When it comes to providing a high-quality educational experience and helping students graduate, they’re much better. They include transfer-focused institutions and technical schools, urban and rural colleges, big institutions and small ones. Some have student bodies that number in the hundreds, while one (Miami Dade College, at number twenty-eight) has over 100,000. Excellence is not inherently confined to any sector or region of the country. It can happen anywhere. The challenge is making it happen everywhere.

To get there, states and the federal government will have to create a new partnership built around a few clear principles. First, community college finances must be fixed. The federal government has poured tens of billions of new dollars into the higher education system in recent years in the form of new grant and loan programs, in response to growing anxiety over college prices. But these programs disproportionately benefit the expensive four-year institutions and ravenous for-profit college corporations that charge students a lot of money. Community colleges are purposefully inexpensive. They need institutional aid more than student aid. California’s community colleges, for example, are the cheapest for students in the country. Some of them are also the worst in the country. That’s a bad bargain for students. The government needs to make a major new investment in public open-access institutions, one that has arguably been overdue since the moment of their creation.

The second principle revolves around quality and accountability. The measures used in our community college rankings provide a good foundation of information about teaching practices and student graduation. What they don’t include, however, is information about what happens to students after they graduate or transfer. These kinds of outcomes are crucial for holding community college leaders fairly responsible for the quality of their work. And that kind of oversight must be accompanied by new public investments. Money without accountability is a recipe for waste and abuse; accountability without money breeds resentment and dysfunction.

Fortunately, the information needed for such accountability is there for the taking. The “gainful employment” regulations recently imposed on for-profit colleges by the U.S. Department of Education also apply to many community college programs. By combining student records with earnings data compiled by the Social Security Administration, the department was able to calculate, for the first time, how much money graduates of discrete programs within colleges earn. Students who get a one-year certificate in ironworking from Saint Paul College, for example, started at an average annual salary of $37,693. People with a nursing certificate from Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (number thirteen) earned $45,312. At Miami Dade College (number twenty-eight), the criminal justice certificate yielded $59,770, while emergency medical technician certificate graduates made an average of $54,419.

The gainful employment regulations are such that earnings are only calculated for community college certificate programs that prepare students for specific jobs. Because those programs often represent only a minority of students, we couldn’t include the earnings data in our rankings. But there is no technical reason that the U.S. Department of Education and Social Security Administration data match couldn’t be performed for all community college programs, and programs at four-year institutions. The cost to the taxpayer would be trivial, and the information yielded for policy makers and students choosing colleges would be enormous.

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.

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