A Note on Methodology

Our methodology was designed to identify community colleges that excel in using teaching methods that researchers have linked to increased student achievement. We also wanted to identify colleges that are successful in helping students earn degrees. To that end, we relied on two sources: the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), and graduation rate statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.

CCSSE administrators compile raw survey data into five composite benchmarks that gauge success in Active and Collaborative Learning, Student Effort, Academic Challenge, Student-Faculty Interaction, and Support for Learners. The benchmark scores are standardized so that the average is fifty and one standard deviation (among individual student responses, not institutional averages) is twenty-five. All five benchmarks have been found to have a positive impact on student success. Some, however, were more strongly and consistently predictive than others. Accordingly, we gave more weight to the benchmarks with the strongest link to student learning and attainmentActive and Collaborative Learning received the strongest weight, followed by Academic Challenge. Eighty-five percent of each colleges rating is based on the unequally weighted benchmarks. Because many colleges dont administer the CCSSE every year, we combined results from the 2004, 2005, and 2006 survey years. If a college administered the survey more than once during that time, we used the most recent year.

The remaining 15 percent of the rating is based on federal graduation rates, which were also standardized so that no colleges rate could exceed the average by more than two standard deviations. This measure tracks the percentage of students who earn a degree or credential within 150 percent of the expected timethree years for a two-year degree, for example. It understates the overall success of community colleges, since some students take longer than 150 percent of the expected time to graduate, while others transfer to four-year institutions without earning a community college degree. It also excludes part-time students. However, a recent study from the Community College Research Center, which is housed at the Columbia University Teachers College, found that while accounting for part-time students, extended time frames, and so on, substantially increases the absolute graduation rate for community colleges, it doesnt substantially change the position of institutions relative to one another.

This methodology is by no means definitive. Like all survey results, CCSSE measures have statistical margins of error. The list would be more accurate if it included factors not covered by the CCSSE, like how much student learning increases between enrollment and graduation at individual colleges, and how successful graduates are in the workforce and further education. But unlike the lists in the myriad guidebooks to four-year colleges that choke the shelves of newsstands and bookstores every year, this list is entirely based on measures with a research-proven link to student successor, in the case of graduation rates, a measure of success itself.

Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at New America.