By definition, community colleges are hyper-local institutions that aim to serve and support their local workforce. Some community colleges do that by training more welders and machinists; others produce more healthcare assistants, like dental hygienists; and still others mainly serve to funnel students to nearby four-year universities.
Given the diversity among missions, should these two-year, often open-access institutions be ranked against each other?
College Measures makes an attempt in their latest project, which ranks community colleges based on their “success rating,” or the percentage of full-time, first-time students that graduated or transferred within three years. While graduation rates are a helpful indicator in determining a community college’s performance, they certainly shouldn’t be a defining one—particularly given that more than half (59 percent) of community college students are part-time and thus, not included. And while making lists such as these based on one indicator is easy and digestible for readers (who doesn’t love a list?), ranking community colleges should be multi-faceted—just as is each institution’s mission.
Can graduates get a job after they graduate? Do low-income or minority students perform at the same levels as their peers? Job attainment and equitable outcomes are some of the indicators considered for the Aspen Prize in Community College Excellence, which seeks to highlight stellar two-year institutions that are outpacing their counterparts across the nation.
But how, then, to appropriately identify poor-performing programs? The American Association of Community Colleges has taken a step toward this by instituting a Voluntary Framework of Accountability, which asks colleges to publicly report student progress and outcomes measures. So far, 72 community colleges have signed on, but that’s just 6 percent of the nation’s total. This accountability framework should be something required, not recommended, if we’re to be confident in the abilities of our country’s community colleges to answer the labor demands at the core of many middle-class towns.
Community colleges are the crux of higher education service. They serve their communities by providing training for careers that are in high demand locally, and those demands sometimes differ from region to region and state to state. Students don’t go to community college necessarily because it’s highly regarded or was ranked at the top of a list; they go because they need to and they go because it’s nearby. They’ve been laid off; they need to renew a work credential; or they simply need a cheaper, more flexible education that will allow them to balance family and work life.
Community colleges don’t compete for students like state flagships or other four-year universities; as such, rankings like these do little more than provide fodder for list-lovers.