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Fine print is refreshing in Washington Monthly's community-college rankings

You know those magazine stories that rank things: Top 10 places to live; top 20 law schools and so on? My favorite part is always the editors’ note that outlines the methodology.

So often the criteria used to get to “best” seem to have been arrived at because they are easy to quantify, not because they tell us how likely we are to enjoy living in Rochester or whether our kids will flourish at the plan-Jane grade school down the street.

When Newsweek ranks high schools, one key factor is the number of students taking Advanced Placement, Cambridge or International Baccalaureate exams. It named Minneapolis’ Southwest the state’s top high school this year. It’s a great school, but so are a lot of other academically rigorous Minnesota schools that don’t invest as much in those expensive, proprietary curricula.

The University of Minnesota Law School has slipped in and out of U.S. News and World Report’s top 20 in recent years. Among the factors used to judge law schools is the number of books in their libraries.

In terms of recruiting students who need their degree to translate into employability, the ranking is a big deal. Should an enrollment-challenged dean succumb to the temptation to game the system?

St. Paul College lauded
Washington Monthly recently named St. Paul College the No. 1 community college in the nation, and ranked six other Minnesota community colleges in the top 50.

“To put that in perspective, with less than 2 percent of the nation’s population, we have 14 percent of its very best two-year colleges,” noted Dane Smith, president of Growth & Justice and the author of the op-ed piece where I learned about the rankings.

“These really are the places where most of the workforce is actually trained,” said Smith.

St. Paul College is located just west of that city’s downtown, adjacent to the cathedral. The others are all outstate: Itasca Community College (#5, in Grand Rapids); Leech Lake Tribal College (#7, on the Leech Lake reservation, and the only top-ranked school not part of the public Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system); Alexandria Technical College (#8, in Alexandria) ; Minnesota West (#30, in Pipestone); MSCTC (#37, in Fergus Falls); and Vermillion Community College (#43, in Ely).

The methodology
This time, the fine print is refreshing. To arrive at its conclusion, Washington Monthly looked at U.S. Department of Education graduation numbers and at information gathered by a nonprofit called the Community College Survey of Student Engagement,  based at the University of Texas, Austin.

For nine years, the group has canvassed hundreds of thousands of students at over two-thirds of all community colleges in America, collecting data about which “do the best job of adopting institutional practices and encouraging student habits that years of research have shown to be strongly correlated with higher levels of learning.”

Researchers rank schools according to academic challenge, but also based on the amount of student-faculty interaction, the effort students are expected to make, the support made available to them and other real-world factors.

“While all the community colleges on the list are inexpensive, have open admissions and are largely unknown outside their local communities, they stand out in teaching and helping students earn degrees,” Kevin Carey, policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Education Sector, explained in Washington Monthly.

“When it comes to quality of instruction they outperform not only their two-year peers, but many elite four-year research universities as well. At the best community colleges, teaching comes first.”

All pulling together
Why do so many Minnesota community colleges rank so highly? According to Melinda Voss, public relations director for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU), one reason is because they are all pulling in the same direction.

“Because Minnesota's 25 state colleges and seven state universities are in one system, the institutions share best practices for retaining students and helping them complete their programs, provide for easier transfer among system institutions, thus offering more consistency in the high quality of programs,” she said in an e-mailed reply to MinnPost’s query. “It's great that the Washington Monthly survey validates the good things that have been happening on our campuses.”

PR-speak? Sure. But public colleges and universities fared well on the rest of the surveys in the Washington Monthly package in part because the magazine “rates and ranks colleges ‘based on their contribution to the public good,’ and in three categories: ‘social mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students), research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs), and service (encouraging students to give something back to their country),’ ” as the Washington Post noted in a column on the feature.

Related stories:

Four Minnesota community colleges rank in Washington Monthly's top 10

Here comes another best-colleges ranking: U.S. News & World Report's

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Comments (1)

It is wonderful to see the success of Leech Lake Tribal College recognized on a larger scale.

Despite being woefully underfunded year after year - like most tribal colleges are - they are creating success stories and creating a generation of future leaders on the Leech Lake Reservation.

Kudos!