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On July 14, 2009, President Obama stood on an outdoor stage at Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit. In the crowd below local dignitaries mingled with students and former autoworkers. Obama had campaigned at Macomb during the presidential election and was returning to announce the signature higher education effort of his administration: the American Graduation Initiative.
The goal, Obama said, was for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, a lead it had long held before falling behind other Western industrialized countries in recent years. To accomplish this, he promised to invest an unprecedented $12 billion to rebuild crumbling community college facilities, increase the number of two-year students who graduate and transfer to four-year schools, improve remedial education, forge stronger ties between colleges and employers, and create inexpensive, open-source courses for students to take online. It would be, he said, the most historic effort on behalf of community colleges since President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill.
A year later, the American Graduation Initiative is in ruins. While the administration convinced Congress this past March to take tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies away from the for-profit student loan industry and use the money to increase Pell Grants for low-income students, last-minute wrangling with conservative Democrats in the Senate gutted the graduation initiative, removing most of the programs and funding that might have helped more students earn degrees. Community colleges were left with a $2 billion Department of Labor career training program and a White House summit as consolation prizes. Further funding is unlikely.
Nevertheless, in the course of his Macomb speech, Obama made a key statement that should continue to guide his administration: we must “measure what works and what doesn’t” in community colleges. “All too often,” the president said, “we don’t know what happens when somebody walks out of a classroom and onto the factory floor or into the laboratory or the office. And that means businesses often can’t be sure what a degree is really worth. And schools themselves don’t have the facts to make informed choices about which programs achieve results and which programs don’t.”
Obama was right to call for more research about what works. But there’s a lot we already know. Since 2001, a nonprofit organization called the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, based at the University of Texas, Austin, has been gathering information about which community colleges 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. 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. Unlike similar surveys conducted for four-year colleges and universities, all CCSSE results are published on a Web site (www.ccsse.org) for anyone to see.
In 2007, Washington Monthly combined CCSSE results with graduation rates published by the U.S. Department of Education to create the first-ever list of America’s best community colleges. This year, we have updated the list with all-new CCSSE data (see “A Note on Methodology,”), ranking more than 650 community colleges nationwide in order to identify the fifty best community colleges of 2010. As usual, they’re all over the map: there’s a small, science-oriented tribal college in New Mexico (at number thirty-five), a job-focused technical institute in rural Hazard County, Kentucky (number eighteen), a midsized suburban college in Washington State that prepares students to transfer to four-year universities (number seventeen), and a college built on the rainy side of an island paradise (number twenty-four). Many of the 2007 colleges reappear on this year’s list, underscoring the reliability of the CCSSE survey. Others stand out for the first time. ...