For Community Colleges, a Time to Shine

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

December 11, 2011

What is the best community college in America? Ask a similar question about universities and you'll prompt a vigorous debate. Caltech and MIT would duke it out for engineering supremacy while Harvard and Princeton compete for maximum selectivity and prestige. Amherst is near the top of everyone's liberal-arts-college list, with Swarthmore close behind.

There will never be unanimous agreement about who's No. 1. But the fact that the question makes sense at all shows something important: In the four-year higher-education sector, we embrace the idea of excellence.

In the two-year sector, by contrast, the notion of "best" is largely absent from the public mind. That's because the dimensions we commonly use to distinguish four-year institutions, like admissions selectivity, endowment size, and research productivity, don't apply to two-year institutions, which are generally open-admissions, resource-poor, and focused on teaching. Since there's no national market for community-college admissions, commercial publishers haven't created rankings to feed consumer demand.

The absence of excellence in the common understanding of community colleges has a subtle but powerful effect on the sector. If people can't see greatness, they won't invest in it, which is one reason that many two-year institutions struggle to get by with pennies on the dollar given to well-known flagship research institutions. Community colleges and the students within them are the forgotten half of American higher education.

This week something important is happening to start changing all of that. The Aspen Institute is awarding the first annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, with the winner and up to three runners-up sharing in the $1-million prize fund. Selected by a group of experts from an initial pool of more than 1,200 colleges that was winnowed to 120 semifinalists on the basis of graduation, retention, and equity measures, the 10 finalists range from a 1,400-student technical college in the rural Great Plains to an enormous metropolitan institution in South Florida.

These colleges are so different that the idea of using common measures of excellence to judge them might seem strange. But as Aspen's evaluators conducted site visits and dug through reams of data on employment outcomes, teaching practices, and student learning, they noticed interesting similarities.

The best community colleges, they found, were unusually focused and intentional when it came to structuring the learning experience. Large or small, the top two-years didn't just offer courses and wait for students to sign up. Lake Area Technical Institute, in South Dakota, for example, has 27 technical programs, each with a defined curriculum. Sixty-six percent of its students graduate within three years, far above the sector norm.

Florida's Valencia College has, like most community colleges, struggled with freshman retention. So it overhauled its advising and orientation systems, and prohibited students from registering for classes after the beginning of the semester—the college's data showed that such students were highly likely to fail. Valencia also has strong ties to private industry and the four-year sector. Its laser technicians are snapped up by Northrop Grumman, and nearly a quarter of its students transfer to the selective University of Central Florida.

Transfer rates are particularly important for a sector that serves as a gateway to the baccalaureate degree for many first-generation college students. Simple graduation-rate measures give an incomplete picture of this success. Santa Barbara City College, in California, another finalist, graduates less than 40 percent of its students, but more than a quarter transfer. In a state that forces the majority of new public-college students to start in the two-year sector, this is crucial.

Fortunately, a number of efforts are under way to improve community-college performance data and thus our ability to recognize excellence. The Congressionally mandated Committee on Measures of Student Success, on which I served, recently approved recommendations to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calling for improved measures of graduation rates, to include part-time students, transfers, and students enrolled in remedial education. This month the American Association of Community Colleges created a national accountability framework that will allow two-year institutions to publicly report information about their success.

These developments will soon be followed by the U.S. Department of Education's new gainful-employment regulations, which will calculate how much the graduates of thousands of community-college programs are earning in the job market. The nation is clearly moving into an era of greater information about community-college success.

And, inevitably, failure. There is no booby prize for community-college incompetence in the offing, but just as the best two-year institutions have been unfairly hidden from view, the worst have been shielded from competition and scrutiny by public subsidies, captive markets, and a lack of accountability.

A recent report written by Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of the government's National Center for Education Statistics, found that from 2005 to 2009, state and local governments gave nearly $3-billion to community colleges for the education of students who subsequently dropped out. The Aspen Prize finalist colleges are among the best at helping students graduate and transfer. Students and the public deserve to know which are the worst, too. Responsibility for excellence and failure go hand in hand.

Advancing the idea of community-college excellence will, one hopes, begin to scrub out the condescension that too often creeps into discussions of higher learning. When Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University, recently made the case for its lofty status with respect to accreditation, she offered by way of comparison a local two-year institution: "I have nothing in common with Mercer Community College," she declared. At the same time she acknowledged that Mercer "serves the student population it serves exceedingly well." When the chief lobbyist for the American Council on Education objected to common measures of student learning, he explained that no standard could equally apply to "Holyoke Community College, MIT, and the Sorbonne."

You can't miss the downward glance in these comparisons between the most and least well-known institutions—ha ha, seriously, who's even heard of Fill-in-the-Blank Community College? Perhaps it comes from insecurity born of the knowledge that even the most well-known universities have more in common with their local community colleges than they would like to admit—and wouldn't look good in a fair comparison.

After all, the measures of excellence that commonly drive comparisons among elite four-year institutions have little or nothing to do with the quality of education in the undergraduate classroom. That is precisely what the best community colleges are focused on every day. When it comes to taking all kinds of students from where they are when they enroll and moving them forward, comfortably famous universities might not measure up to the local community college—what's it called again?—down the road.

In that sense, the Aspen Prize is simply a first step toward a time when community colleges are fully included in the discussion of not just the best two-year colleges, but the best colleges overall.

Kevin Carey is policy director at Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.