Thursday, August 23, 2007


Ranking CC's

An alert reader sent me a link to the Washington Monthly's rating of the top 30 community colleges in America.

Ranking schemes like this invariably lead to a two-track response; I know they're flawed, but I want to do well on them, anyway. Every year I check the U.S. News rankings, just to make sure that my alma mater still outranks its hated rival (which it does). The folks who do rankings like these are banking on exactly that kind of response, in much the same way that the folks who make a living tracking, say, Lindsay Lohan's every move know that we think less of ourselves for caring, but care we do, despite ourselves.

(Aside: do regular people ever 'suffer from exhaustion'? What does that even mean? Is it like neurasthenia? The vapors? Angst? Or is it just a euphemism for 'detox'?)

In this case, part of the point of the enterprise seems to be a sort of 'shaming.' In an explanatory essay, the author uses the relative successes of the higher ranking cc's to argue that four-year schools should accomplish much more than they do, given how much more money they typically have.

Although the magazine doesn't disclose its algorithm, it apparently uses inputs taken from a national survey of student engagement; the folks who developed the survey explicitly reject its use in a comparative context. And it looks like they're right – a quick glance at the table shows that every single one of the top 20 cc's nationally, by this chart, has an enrollment below 3000, and most are below 2000. So we're left with the shocking – shocking, I say – finding that smaller settings are often more close-knit.

Well, yes. And bears crap in the woods. This is a completely useless finding if your cc happens to be bigger than that.

I'm a little alarmed that the number 3 cc – Southern University at Shreveport – lists a graduation rate of 17 percent. (And since when do cc's get to be universities, anyway?) By the magazine's methodology, it outranks Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, which lists a graduation rate of 54 percent. (The highest ranking large cc, South Texas College, checks in at number 21 with a graduation rate of 10 percent. 10 percent! Valencia cc comes in lower, despite a graduation rate three and a half times higher. But then, it is bigger.)

It's also hard not to notice a certain regional skew – only one of the top thirty is in the Northeast, with heavy representation of Texas and Florida. Given the clear preference for smaller schools, that may just reflect Northeastern population density.. It may also reflect higher Northeastern tuitions, to the extent that 'bang for the buck' was being measured. It's hard to say, given the undisclosed algorithm.

Any national ranking of local institutions will be suspect. In some states, community colleges are largely self-governing, and their service areas consist of one or two counties. Some states have statewide systems. Some states have parallel statewide systems – 'community' colleges on one side (focusing largely on transfer), and 'technical' colleges on the other (focusing largely on employment). Some cc's try to be 'comprehensive,' meaning doing both the transfer and the technical functions.

To my mind, a good cc is well-suited to its service area. In some areas, that will mean a heavier transfer focus; in others, a clear career orientation. It will produce a high number of successful student outcomes, whether that's defined as graduation, early transfer, employment in a relevant field, or certification. A measure like “GPA at subsequent college” would tell me a lot more than would any of the measures used here. If the facts on the ground show that our grads do well at their destination schools, and we don't do it by having a five percent graduation rate, then I say we're doing pretty well. If our grads crash and burn at their destination schools, then we have serious work to do. I wouldn't use “Active and Collaborative Learning” as a measure, since that's a method (or an input, if you prefer). (And I wouldn't use student self-reported scores of “Student Effort” for anything.) I'd look at outcomes. Did the cc foster a whole lot of successful outcomes, or not?

That would be astonishingly hard to do across a national sample, but it would actually lead to useful information. Telling me that teeny-tiny schools foster more close interaction doesn't give me anything I can use. (There's no way in hell the local taxpayers would pony up to break us up into several smaller campuses across the same service area. Would. Not. Happen.) Isolating the schools that tend to foster the most successful outcomes, and then looking for common denominators among them, might actually reveal something useful.

More likely, the comparisons would have to be among demographically-similar areas. Telling me that a rural Texas cc with a largely homogeneous population of 400 students has higher levels of student engagement than mine really doesn't help me. That's a different world. But are there colleges in locations relatively comparable to mine that are doing a better job of helping their students succeed? If so, I want to know how they're doing it.

I concede upfront that my cc has areas for improvement, and that there are almost certainly some better ideas floating around out there that we could usefully steal. But this survey gives me nothing I can use. It might be fun for starting barfights at a League for Innovation conference, but there's nothing in it that helps me improve my college. It doesn't even have the 'guilty pleasure' appeal of yet another article about a Pop Tart on the rocks. Thanks, but no thanks.

This is a stupid question, and one I ask not having attended a CC and not having worked at one. Do all students who do the first two years but then transfer to a university to get a 4-year degree technically "graduate," like with a degree? If not, perhaps it's the terminology here that's the problem?

As for "exhaustion" as a diagnosis, I have considered this at length, and my theory is that when regular people suffer from it they spend the weekend lying around at home on the couch rather than being checked into hospitals :)
Several corrections: They tabulated the cost but did not include it in the rankings. They did give the algorithm (in a sidebar, also reported by IHE), which was 85% CCSSE and 15% grad rate. Finally, I don't think any CC in the NE is as big as the biggest one in FL, but I could be wrong. Certainly I would not consider 18,000 students at Valencia to be "small". How does it compare to yours? To mine?

I know someone at one of the small Top30 CCs. He tells me that his school is very homogeneous. It is fed by decent (but hardly great) schools. He has some classes that have 5 or 6 students, others can be as big as 20 or more, teaching science. This clearly will increase engagement, if you make the effort.

However, the weakest link in the process is asking students about academic challenge. That should be asked of the grads about one year after they leave, about their job-related training or whether they were ready for a 4-year school. However, no one does that sort of study, not even CCSSEE or, afaik, NSSEE.

However, one thing you asked about does exist in states with longitudinal tracking systems. You can find out the post-transfer GPA for some of those CCs.
Not a stupid question, Dr. Crazy. Most students graduate with an AA before transferring to a 4-year school, but they don't have to. In this state, they can transfer after 52 hours. They can also transfer to another CC, and I have no idea how the federal grad rates take that into account. However, "graduate" also includes a Certificate, which might be a one semester or one year program, as well as 60 hour AA and AS degrees.
Even with supposedely "comprehensive" community colleges (like mine) the CCSSE measurement of 'active learning' will skew to the smaller, more technical programs -- i.e. the ones in which you practice the activity.

In terms of graduation rate, what is probably reflected is the fact that there ARE no local transfer opportunities. The three CCs in my state are far from any 4-year schools, thus their focus is graduation. Our CC is in the metro area, so graduating isn't the focus -- transfer is... A decent number of students graduate because of the impact it has on their individual transfer situation, but most focus on completing the transfer curriculum, not the AA diploma.
Not to be too contrary to CCPhysicist, but the vast majority of students do not graduate before transferring. I know from first hand experience at more than one CC that this is the case. It's been my position to be the person that does the final check for graduation. Anything over ten percent would be inflated, considering the number of enrollees vs. the number of completers with any sort of degree, be it certificate or associate's.

About ten years ago my state put in place a longitudinal tracking system to follow students from CC to U. As a part of that program the Gen Ed "basics" were lumped into an "unofficial," yet state-reportable certificate. Students don't receive a piece of paper for accomplishing this "certificate." Even though the CC can report these students as "completers," we still lose many before they finish the full program because they will have not attempted one or two courses before they leave.

New Mexico State University-Grants (ranked # 30) is not even a community college: it is a satelite branch of a state university (NMSU is down very far south in Las Cruces while Grants is in the far NW corner of the state).
The three MN schools are all part of a CC district in NE Minnesota, and part of their high grad rate is that a large number of their students are in specialized technical programs that culminate in a degree and are distinctive (e.g. Natural Resource Law Enforcement, Mining Technology, etc.)

Teaching at a CC which has placed a high importance on improving the "nationally normed" ratings in the CCSSE, I'd say that a great deal of the supposedly objective rating scale is based on the program mix, number of students, and mission of the college. While we accept as a matter of course that apples to apples comparisons of all 4 year colleges aren't fair (distinguishing them based on Carnegie classification, etc.), we persist with the notion that all 2-year colleges are basically the same. This is at the peril of good public policy, IMO.
That is some interesting information regarding ccs. I never would have guessed the graduation level was so low. Is there a reason behind this?

teeth whiteners
I have no problem with you being contrary, C1, because I forgot to qualify my statement with "in my state". The one area where States Rights are most manifest is in how they structure their CC system (which may or may not be a system) vis-a-vis the state's university system (which may or may not be a system).

I grew up in a state where the local CC tied its gen ed curriculum to the nearest university. That set of classes might not get you into a different university in the same state.

In my current state, you can't transfer the gen ed core without an AA. If you transfer without an AA, you have to satisfy whatever specific oddball requirement the university has. If we had a way to "certify" completion of the core, our grad rate would be lower. A simple administrative detail like that will bias the Washington Monthly data against you and towards us.
Dr. C -- we encourage students to finish their degrees before transferring, since degree credits are accepted 'in toto,' but credits short of a degree can be (and are) cherry-picked. But we've found that some students are told by their parents that they have to do a year at the local cc, and if their grades are okay, the parents will agree to send them to a four-year school after that. It's frustrating, but there it is.
In my state anyone can enroll in a CC.

technical programs
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