In all the hubbub over this, that, or the other ranking of four-year colleges, the 45 percent of American undergraduates who attend a community college are left out. Those students are lower-class citizens in the higher ed world, the wide bottom layer of the status pyramid that ascends to the peaks of the Ivy League. The unquestioned assumption–both for students and faculty–is that every four-year school is better than every two-year school. Resources and attention follow accordingly.
Which is too bad, both as a matter of policy and fact. As policy because in higher education–just as in K-12–it’s pretty clear that sensitivity to education quality is inversely proportional to preparation. The rocket-fueled high achievers who attend the richest and most exclusive schools will do well anywhere, so their colleges mostly just have to stay out of their way–which not coincidentally, is often about all they do. It’s the first-generation students, the lower-income students who got a bad high school education, the students with jobs and families–the community college students, in other words–for whom quality education matters most. Yet their schools get what’s left over after the research university with the Div. I football team is paid for.
As fact because some community colleges are much better than four-year schools, despite the lack of money. This is the gist of two articles I’ve written for the newest issue of the Washington Monthly. The first, America’s Best Community Colleges, uses publicly-available data from the Communitiy College Survey of Student Engagement to identify 30 community colleges that are outperforming not only other two-year schools but also many four-years in the educational practices research says students need most.
The second, Built to Teach: What Your Alma Mater Could Learn from Cascadia Community College explains how one of those top schools, which didn’t even exist ten years ago, was designed from the ground up to give students what they need to do well in college–and how sadly unusual that approach really is.
The idea of ranking community colleges is controversial–the CCSSE people themselves don’t like it. Their objections are registered in this InsideHigherEd article, followed by an opinion piece on the same topic from yrs. truly in this morning’s edition. But regardless of your stance on rankings, community colleges deserve more attention then they’ve been getting.