America's Best Community Colleges: Why They're Better Than Some of the "Best" Four-Year Universities

Article excerpt

In the higher education family, community colleges are typically regarded as the poor cousins. Big college guides like U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review devote few, if any, of their glossy pages to community colleges, while reporters and pundits for elite publications have little to say about them as well.

Part of this is pure snobbery. Many of those who create and cover the mainstream college guides attended prestigious four-year schools--which helps to explain the annual preoccupation with whether Harvard or Princeton made the top of the list.

Part of it is also economics. The commercial guides don't have a market incentive to delve into the differences between hundreds of community colleges, because most students don't shop for a community college--they simply attend the one nearest their home. Similarly, there's not a lot of demand for articles about how best to play the applications game for such schools, because nearly any high school graduate can get into one.

Still, while there may not be a profit motive to scrutinize community colleges closely, there are several profound public reasons to do so. For one, community colleges now represent a huge slice of the higher education pie: 43 percent of college freshmen begin their education at two-year institutions.

Secondly, community colleges have taken on the toughest job in higher education: teaching lower-income students. In 1980, just 38 percent of recipients of a Pell Grant (the main federal need-based financial aid program) attended community colleges or other non-four-year institutions. By 2004, that percentage had leapt to 54 percent.

Thirdly, for a student of modest means hobbled by an inadequate high school education, or with a family to care for and a job to keep, the difference between good teaching and bad teaching can mean almost everything. Research shows that the brightest kids succeed regardless of whether they're taught poorly or well (one reason that many elite four-year schools succeed by doing little more than staying out of their students' way). Students with the lowest levels of academic preparation, however, are most sensitive to the quality of the learning environment. Unfortunately, the learning environment at these colleges is far from the best it could be. Only 18 percent of community college freshmen earn a degree or certificate within three years.

The fourth reason to keep a close eye on community colleges is that our economic future depends on how well they serve their students. Twenty years ago, community colleges were places for less academically inclined students to gain the credentials they needed for a decent job, or for workers driven out of manufacturing positions to retrain for emerging sectors like IT. Today, many of those sectors are experiencing brutal competition from abroad. For these workers to get ahead, and to be useful to American companies, merely training them in new skills is no longer enough. They need to be able to learn continuously, to think critically, to adapt to a changing economy. In other words, we now need community colleges to impart the same kinds of sophisticated learning and thinking skills that have traditionally been the province of four-year colleges.

The final reason that it makes sense to rate community colleges is that it's possible to do so honestly. Guides to four-year schools like the one published by U.S. News rely on measures that are only glancingly related to actual learning, such as the percentage of alumni who donate money or the reputation a school has among administrators of other colleges. In part, U.S. News relies on such dubious criteria because four-year institutions refuse to release data on the quality of teaching at their schools.

Community colleges aren't so squeamish. They allow the publication of the results of a survey called the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, or CCSSE (available at www. …