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

America’s 50 best community colleges are listed as part of Washington Monthly’s College Guide. What makes these colleges better than the rest?

America’s 50 best community colleges are listed as part of Washington Monthly’s College Guide. St. Paul College tops the list, and three other Minnesota community colleges also place in the top 10: Itaska Community College (No. 5), Leech Lake Tribal College (No. 7), and Alexandria Technical College (No. 8).

Also on the list: Minnesota West, Pipestone (No. 30); MSCTC, Fergus Falls (No. 37); Vermilion Community College (No. 43).

What makes these 50 colleges better than the rest? The magazine uses the Community College Survey of Student Engagement and Department of Education graduation rates to rank more than 600 colleges, writes Kevin Carey. CCSSE “has surveyed hundreds of thousands of students at over two-thirds of all community colleges in America about practices including the number of books and papers assigned, the frequency of group assignments, the amount of student interaction with faculty, hours spent preparing for class, and the quality of support services.” All these correlate with student learning.

Excellence doesn’t require selectivity, Carey writes.

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While all the schools on it are inexpensive, have open admissions, and are largely unknown outside their local communities, they stand out in teaching and helping students earn degrees. When it comes to quality of instruction they outperform not only their two-year peers, but many elite four-year research universities as well. … students at the top community colleges are more likely than their research university peers to get prompt feedback from instructors, work with other students on projects in class, make class presentations, and contribute to class discussions. Research universities too often subordinate teaching to research. At the best community colleges, teaching comes first.

Community colleges on the top 50 list spend $12,903 per student on average, a bit more than the $11,405 average for all community colleges in the rankings. However, nine of the top community colleges spend less than $10,000 per student.

The right leadership, organizational culture, and approach to teaching can make a big and immediate difference, even when colleges and students lack all the resources they need.

Colleges that are the most academically challenging have the highest graduation rates,  CCSSE data show.

At Hesston College in Kansas (number two on our list), 63 percent of students report having to write eleven or more papers during the school year. At the average community college, only 26 percent of students report such workloads. At Hesston, 85 percent of students report being assigned five or more textbooks during the year. Nationwide, only 55 percent of students at community colleges report such levels of assignment. Nevertheless, Hesston graduates nearly two-thirds of its students in four years, far above the national average of 28 percent.

The top colleges succeed even while enrolling a higher percentage of low-income Pell Grant recipients (46 percent) than the average (41 percent).

Community colleges have the toughest job in higher education, teaching academically and financially challenged students with a fraction of the resources given to four-year institutions. That makes it essential to spotlight the schools that have surmounted these challenges and served their students well.

The rankings don’t include information on how community college graduates do in the workforce or at four-year schools, Carey writes.

The Monthly’s college rankings, which include six categories of higher-education institutions,  ask “not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country,” the magazine says. “Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the affluent? Are they improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive — and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs?”

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The Monthly’s package includes a grim story on college dropout factories, public and nonprofit four-year institutions with very low graduation rates.