May 13, 2016
Leadership & Awards
The Washington Monthly’s highly anticipated selection of America’s Best Community Colleges will not be available for review until the end of August. Based on the methodology that the magazine used in 2013, we expect that the 2016 rankings will be worth the wait.
Greg Jarboe
America’s Best Community Colleges to be Identified Again in August

As part of our series rating the raters of America’s best community colleges, The Advocate of Affordable College has examined the U.S. News Short List of 10 colleges with the most new transfer students. We’ve reviewed the top community colleges eligible for the Aspen Prize for Excellence. We’ve checked out the U.S. Department of Education’s new College Scorecard, which provides national data on college cost, graduation, debt, and post-college earnings. We’ve taken close look at the recent rankings of community colleges by three personal finance websites: Bankrate, SmartAsset, and WalletHub. And we’ve even Googled the phrase, “best community colleges for transferring credits,” and analyzed the mixed bag of results that we found. But, we will need to wait until the end of August to review The Washington Monthly’s highly anticipated selection of America’s Best Community Colleges.

Now, if you Google the phrase, “America’s Best Community Colleges,” you will probably find both “America’s Best Community Colleges 2013 by Kevin Carey | The Washington Monthly” and “Community College Rankings | Washington Monthly” in the top 10 results. Why two top listings from the same source? Because Google’s search quality algorithm gives the bimonthly nonprofit magazine high marks for “expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness.”

The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 on the notion that a handful of plucky young writers and editors, armed with an honest desire to make government work and a willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, could tell the story of what really matters in our nation’s capital better than a roomful of Beltway insiders at a Georgetown dinner party. In their cluttered little downtown DC office, they’re still doing what they have done for over 46 years, and what fewer and fewer publications do today: telling fascinating, deeply reported stories about the ideas and characters that animate America’s government.

The magazine’s writers and editors don’t chase news cycles, or obsess over the endless political horse race. They care about how the government can be improved, and why it hasn’t; who’s a fraud and who isn’t; which ideas ought to be banished from the nation’s capital and which ones deserve to be championed.

And The Washington Monthly is not a subsidiary of some giant media company or a mouthpiece for ideologues. The magazine is an independent voice, listened to by insiders and willing to take on sacred cows – liberal and conservative.

Instead of cynically tearing down institutions and programs, The Washington Monthly offers innovative solutions: how to get the best people to work for the government and how to get the best government for the people; how to get teachers who can teach and social workers who can make welfare reform work. The magazine believes in the great American traditions of civic responsibility, caring for the down and out, and giving the average person a break.

Unfortunately, The Washington Monthly doesn’t rank community colleges every year the way it does national universities, liberal arts colleges, master's universities, baccalaureate colleges, and best bang for the buck schools. But, based on the methodology that the magazine used in 2013, I expect that the 2016 rankings will be well worth waiting for.

Three years ago, The Washington Monthly‘s ranking of America’s best community colleges was based on two sources of information: the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and U.S. Department of Education measures of student retention and completion. Both of these are excellent sources of data.

The CCSSE survey is managed by a nonprofit organization of the same name housed at the University of Texas at Austin. Their survey instrument is given to a representative sample of students at community colleges that choose to administer the survey. Since 2003, the CCSSE has been administered at the large majority of American community colleges. All CCSSE results are published on the organization’s Web site.

Because most community colleges do not administer the survey every year, Washington Monthly‘s 2013 rankings combined results from the three most recently available years: 2010, 2011, and 2012. For colleges that participated more than once, the magazine used the most recent year. More than two-thirds of all community colleges—roughly 700 institutions—were included in its analysis. The magazine published results for the top 50 institutions.

The CCSSE survey was comprised of more than 100 questions on a range of topics including teaching practices, student workload, interaction with faculty, and student support. The CCSSE combined the results of those questions into aggregate “benchmark” scores in five categories: “Active and Collaborative Learning,” “Student Effort,” “Academic Challenge,” “Student-Faculty Interaction,” and “Support for Learners.” The benchmark scores were standardized to range from 0 to 100 with an average score of 50.

The CCSSE benchmarks comprised five-eighths of each college’s ranking back in 2013. As with any sample-based survey, CCSSE results had statistical margins of error. So, readers of this blog should be mindful of this when interpreting the rankings in late August, particularly when differences between colleges are small.

The remaining three-eighths of each college’s ranking was based on data compiled annually by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education. The first measure was the first-year retention rate, defined as the percentage of first-time fall enrollees who are still enrolled the following fall, or earn a degree or certificate during that time. The second measure was the percentage of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students who graduate or transfer within three years of enrolling. The third measure was the ratio of all degrees awarded during a given academic year to the number of full-time equivalent students enrolled, with two-year degrees given twice the weight of one-year degrees. This measure had the advantage of including students who enroll part-time or transfer in from other colleges, and as such were not included in the graduation and retention rate statistics.

All three measures were calculated as the average of results from the three most recent years. The data sources and methods used to calculate the three U.S. Department of Education statistics were identical to those used by the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

As the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College, I have already contacted the editors of The Washington Monthly to request an interview with either Paul Glastris, the magazine’s editor in chief, or Kevin Carey, the editor of the College Guide issue, who also directs the Education Project at the New America Foundation. Please check back a couple of months from now to read what one of these plucky editors has to say about America’s best community colleges.

(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)