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Washington Monthly Community College Rankings: Helping the American Graduation Initiative?

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President Barack Obama announced the American Graduation Initiative during a speech given at Michigan’s Macomb Community College in July 2009. A “historic effort” compared to the passage of the GI Bill, the goal of Obama’s Initiative is for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world—a status it once held yet lost in recent years.

American Graduation Initiative

A main aspect of the Initiative is to increase the number of community college graduates who then transfer to four-year schools, but critics feel that the Initiative has done little if anything since its inception. Congress agreed that tens of billions in government subsidies should be taken away from student loan programs for for-profit colleges and put to use increasing Pell Grants for low-income students, but the Senate caused a change in plans at the last minute. Most of the programs and funding that might have helped more students earn degrees were removed.

A key point of Obama’s speech was that America needs to figure out what works and what doesn’t in the country’s community colleges. A non-profit organization based at the University of Texas at Austin, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (or CCSSE) has been gathering data since 2001. The organization has surveyed hundreds of thousands of college students at over two-thirds of America’s community colleges about a wide variety of issues including hours spent preparing for class, the number of books and papers assigned, even the quality of student support services.

Ranking the Country’s Best Community Colleges

In 2007, the non-profit Washington, DC-based magazine Washington Monthly combined CCSSE findings with U.S. Department of Education information on four-year graduation rates to create a list of America’s Best Community Colleges.

The list was updated with the latest CCSSE data this week and the magazine ranked more than 650 community colleges in order to identify the 50 Best Community Colleges of 2010. The full list is available at the Washington Monthly’s website.

Kevin Carey, the author of the magazine’s community college rankings, claims that “Community colleges are often under recognized,” but felt that it was a good time to “see what good community colleges look like” due in part to Obama’s Graduation Initiative.

CCSSE Criticizes the Rankings

A USA Today article reported that Kay McClenney, CCSSE director, has criticized Washington Monthly’s use of CCSSE data in creating a ranking of community colleges. Calling it both “inappropriate” and "unauthorized,” she noted that she turned down the publication’s request for a more user-friendly version of the open-source CCSSE data sets, adding that it likely pulled the data in what must have been a very tedious process from CCSSE’s website.

McClenney explained that CCSSE results, which made up about 85% of the Washington Monthly ranking system, were meant to be reviewed internally at each particular school and not used to compare one community college to another due to the significant differences in missions, socioeconomic status of students, budgets and other factors which may affect results at each particular college. She feels that ranking the schools oversimplifies things and doesn’t take those major variables into consideration.

It seems like Washington Monthly’s idea of a college ranking system is just as controversial as all the others out there. In my opinion, it’s doubtful that someone would move to another city or state to attend one community college because it outranked another. People seem to attend community colleges in their own communities.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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