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By Paul Bradley  /  
2013 September 30 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: List-Lovers Delight

Photo courtesy North Dakota State College of Science

Culinary arts programs are growing fast at community colleges around the country. Pictured here is a student and instructor at the North Dakota State College of Science.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

List-Lovers Delight
But College Leaders Question Utility of Rankings
By Paul Bradley

Tiny North Florida Community College barely registers as a blip on the vast map of the country’s 1,200 community colleges. It’s located in rural Madison County, Fla. (population 18,862), just south of the Georgia border, 55 miles east of Tallahassee, 112 miles west of Jacksonville.

Among Florida’s 28 community colleges, NFCC is annually either the smallest or the second-smallest in terms of enrollment, swapping spots with Florida Keys Community College, depending on which year it is. Its annual enrollment is 1,300 students, give or take; its service area covers some 600 square miles.

In a state which includes Miami Dade College, a behemoth with more than 150,000 students, and Valencia College, winner of the first Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in 2012, it’s difficult for a Lilliputian like NFCC to be heard above the din of its big-city brethren.

So when Washington Monthly magazine released its annual (and controversial) rankings of the nation’s best community college, and rated NFCC as the nation’s second-best community college, President John Grosskopf gladly accepted the praise, despite misgivings about the usefulness of ranking community colleges at all.

“Universities have been ranked for years,” Grosskopf said. “But ranking community colleges is incredibly difficult. We’re so diverse, and there are so many different dynamics.

“But at the same time, with the accountability movement, it’s a good thing to take a look at common metrics we are all aiming at and measuring us. So I’m pleased. For us, the takeaway should be that we’re doing a good job helping our students transfer to universities, and we’re doing a good job of helping people compete in the workforce.”

The college’s ranking, and a link to the Washington Monthly article, is prominently featured on the college’s website.

Community colleges ranking near the top of Washington Monthly’s listings can be forgiven, of course, for accepting the magazine’s praise. But rating community colleges is a difficult task. Some observers question whether such rankings are just fodder for media list-lovers.

Washington Monthly’s rankings are unlike the better-known four-year college rankings published by U.S. News & World Report. Their top schools are mostly homogeneous, elite schools with shared characteristics: They all graduate the vast majority of their students, have fine academic reputations and are well-regarded by employers.

Community colleges, by contrast, are intensely local institutions designed to serve their local workforces. Some community colleges train welders, machinists or diesel mechanics; others train healthcare workers or computer technicians or prepare students for transfer to a four-year university.

Most students who enroll in a community college don’t do so because the school is highly-regarded or ranked at the top of some list. Their reasons are much more organic. Students enroll because the college is located nearby. They sign up because they’ve lost their job and need to burnish their skills. They need a cheaper, more flexible education alternative. They couldn’t get in to a four-year school.

But such realities have done little to dissuade some in our list-happy media, such as Washington Monthly, from ranking community colleges. Even the Obama administration now seems poised to join the movement, saying that it wants to create a college rating system which ultimately would serve as the basis for federal aid to colleges and their students.

To come up with its rankings, Washington Monthly used eight measures: three from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and five from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE).

It’s no small irony that the Community College Center for Student Engagement, which administers the survey, is among the sternest critics of the magazine’s rankings.

“As has occurred in the past, the Washington Monthly created the magazine’s rankings in large part through misuse of data drawn from the CCSSE website and then manipulated in ways not transparent to the reader,” the center said in a statement. “The ranking method is based on an undisclosed calculation combining CCSSE results and IPEDS data. There are so many things about this approach that are statistically wrong that is it impossible to overstate how spurious the results really are.”

On its website, the center says emphatically that it opposes using its data to rank colleges.

“Each community college’s performance should be considered in terms of its mission, institutional focus and student characteristics,” the website statement says. “Because of differences in these areas — and variations in colleges’ resources — comparing survey results between individual institutions serves little constructive purpose and likely will be misleading.”

Indeed, the college ranking as Washington Monthly’s third-best community college in the country — the North Dakota State College of Science — has little in common with NFCC, or with other community colleges, for that matter.

Founded in 1903, the college is among the nation’s oldest. It’s enmeshed in the state’s history. The college, in fact, was established by the state constitution and is classified as a state agency, said college President John Richman. That means the local community has no obligation to fund the school; it gets appropriations directly from the state. It’s a statewide school with a statewide mission. Other community colleges can only wish the same was true.

NDSCS, in fact, has more in common with four-year schools than other community colleges. Its campus, in Wahpeton, N.D., sits on 128 acres and includes 39 buildings. It includes six residence halls and four apartment buildings capable of accommodating 1,300 students. Nearly 60 percent of students attend full-time. The college fields five interscholastic sports teams.

While he shares questions about the utility of community college rankings, Richman, like Grosskopf, is happy to accept Washington Monthly’s praise.

“We take a lot of pride in trying to
do the best thing on a day-to-day basis,” Richman said. “But to have an outside agency come in and take a look and rank us where they did is very gratifying.”

“There are so many criteria that have to be addressed in ranking community colleges. I put some stock in (the rankings), but not a lot. There is a place for them. But if I were a student, would I base my decision on rankings? I wouldn’t.”

RassoulDastmozd is president of Saint Paul College, the only public two-year comprehensive community and technical college in St. Paul, Minn. More than 100 years old, the college has evolved from an all-white boys vocational school holding classes in the basement of a high school to becoming a comprehensive community and technical college with more than 40,000 graduates in its history.

He takes it as a point of pride that the college has topped Washington Monthly’s community college rankings for two straight years. But he also questions their value.

“If we are doing the right thing, by putting students in the center of what we do every day, the recognition will follow,” he wrote in an email. “We did not request recognition or rankings. Our Eurocentric model of education and free market economy always seeks to find winners and losers. As an administrator at a state-supported, public institution, I do not mind rankings. In fact, I think rankings draw attention to the importance of accountability for public institutions/agencies; we must be held accountable to many entities.”

“At the same time, I definitely think that there are some factors that have to be taken into consideration when developing the criteria for ranking,” he added. “There are distinctive differences between rural colleges, suburban colleges, and urban colleges. There are also significant differences in the mission and vision of comprehensive community colleges, community and technical colleges, and technical colleges. If the criteria used for a determining a ranking fail to take these important elements into consideration, the comparisons will have less value. To me, rankings are meaningless if the metric for rating criteria is not consistent. It is fortuitous that the discussions surrounding community college rankings may serve to ignite a conversation about these criteria and what they mean for each institution.”

IT'S YOUR TURN: CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: Do you think community college rankings serve a useful purpose?
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