To see the 2013 Community Colleges Rankings, click here.

On July 13, 1946, Harry Truman did something that no president had done before: he created a commission to chart the future of American higher education. Historically, college and university matters had largely been left up to the states. Even the famous Morrill Land-Grant Acts had allowed states to build universities focused on “agriculture and the mechanic arts” more or less as they pleased. But with the recently enacted GI Bill, higher education had become, for the first time, an area of strong national interest. The Truman Commission found that America needed to spend far more of its gross national product on higher education. In describing how such investments should be made, it used a phrase that was, at the time, largely unfamiliar to the general public: “community college.”

The Truman Commission’s report, Higher Education for American Democracy, came at a time when states were facing an unprecedented surge in college enrollment. Universal high school had become standard policy, and the Baby Boom was about to start. Demand for college was concentrated in the Sun Belt, where much of the nation’s mid-twentieth-century population growth would occur. These states lacked the infrastructure of private colleges enjoyed by established areas on the East Coast. They needed to move millions of students through higher education without bankrupting the public treasury.

Community colleges seemed like the ideal solution. Spurred by the influential California Master Plan for Higher Education, states set up ziggurat systems of higher learning, with expensive research universities on top, regional universities in the middle, and thrifty community colleges on the bottom. Students could take the first two years of college inexpensively and close to home before transferring to a four-year university to finish their bachelor’s degree. Or they could get a job-focused credential and go directly into the workforce. Everyone saved money and got what they needed—or so the theory went.

Today, community colleges remain a pillar of the American system of higher learning, with more than a million new freshmen—42 percent of the total—starting their college careers in a two-year institution every year. Politicians love to praise their salt-of-the-earth qualities, including President Barack Obama, who began his administration with bold promises to invest in the two-year sector.

Yet the great American community college experiment has, by any fair reckoning, fallen far short of its initial grand design. While it’s true that huge numbers of students enroll in two-year institutions, a much smaller percentage manage to succeed there. Only 11.6 percent of students who start their higher education at a public community college earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Another 23 percent get an associate’s degree or a certificate. The rest are still in school somewhere, or, more likely, have long since dropped out.

And as Anne Kim shows (“A Matter of Degrees”), many employers have lost confidence in the value of the job-oriented degrees that community colleges produce, to the point where they are now building whole new credentialing systems from scratch. And as Haley Sweetland Edwards recounts (“America’s Worst Community Colleges”), many of California’s community colleges—by some measures the largest single higher education system in the world—have sunk into a nightmare of bureaucratic dysfunction. As the low institutions on the higher education totem pole serving students with little political power, community colleges have been hammered by the revenue shocks of the Great Recession and its aftermath. Two-year students nationwide are having trouble transferring their credits to four-year institutions or even finding spots in basic courses that have been pared back by relentless state budgets cuts.

The dream of getting the masses through college on the cheap turned out to be just that—a fantasy that ran aground on the shoals of organizational inertia and perpetual financial shortfall. Community colleges were handed an unwieldy dual mission of job training and preparation for transfer, received pennies on the dollar granted to flagship research universities, and were expected to educate the lion’s share of students who emerged from the nation’s troubled K-12 school system without adequate college preparation. As a kind of compensatory gesture, politicians made up for their financial and academic disregard by failing to ask hard questions about community college performance, adding a culture of mediocrity and neglect to institutions that have already been dealt a difficult hand.

Some view community colleges as a lost cause. We at the Washington Monthly disagree. The Truman Commission had the big picture right: the national imperative to invest in higher education is stronger today than ever before. And with college costs and student debt at an all-time high, we need to develop models of higher learning that are more flexible and efficient than gilded four-year research universities that measure status by how many applicants they reject.

The key is to find what’s working inside the nation’s vast system of two-year institutions and give every student access to that kind of great education. That’s why we are publishing, for the third time, a ranking of America’s best community colleges.

Unlike the prestige-obsessed rankings published by the U.S. News & World Report, these rankings are based entirely on measures of best educational practices and actual student success. Of the eight measures that determine each college’s rank, five are from the respected Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). Unlike their more secretive peers in the four-year sector, most community colleges administer a regular survey focusing on the kind of education they provide—and then publish the results.

CCSSE tracks the number of books and papers students are assigned, the amount of interaction with faculty, the hours spent preparing for class, and the quality of support services. Colleges that connect with their students and challenge them to do good work get particularly high marks.

It’s also crucial to keep students on track to finish their degrees. That’s why this year’s rankings include three measures that are used by the Aspen Institute’s annual Prize for Community College Excellence: the percentage of new students who return for a second year; the percentage who graduate or transfer elsewhere within three years; and the overall ratio of credentials granted for every 100 students enrolled. This last measure accounts for the fact that many students transfer in and out of community colleges, and gives more weight to two-year degrees.

Some of the colleges among the 2013 list of America’s best community colleges have been featured in past rankings, include Saint Paul College in Minnesota, which repeats as number one, and Cascadia Community College, profiled in our first community college rankings. This shows that excellence is not an accident—the best community colleges have deeply ingrained cultures of academic achievement. Others appear here for the first time. Here are some of the things we’ve learned from them:

Exclusivity and Excellence Are Not the Same

In the upper echelons of higher learning, fame, wealth, and selectivity go together. It’s assumed that the colleges with the greatest amount of money and most restrictive admissions policies are the best. In a way, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Going to school surrounded by the best and brightest has its advantages, regardless of whether the college itself is focused on education.

But this mind-set has no relevance to community colleges, which are nonselective by design. Indeed, the underlying psychology of national community college neglect is driven in large part by the sense that nonselective institutions are inherently third-rate, and thus less deserving of public support. For whole classes of striving upper- and middle-class families, community college is synonymous with failure, a long fall from dreams of the Ivy League. These are the kinds of people who influence the national dialogue on higher education—and thus contribute to the toxic equilibrium of meager support for two-year institutions and expectations to match. By this way of thinking, the very idea of community college excellence is impossible by definition.

The institutions among America’s best community colleges show that these biases are profoundly wrong. By CCSSE measures, which reflect research-proven educational practices, the best community colleges are often more educationally sound than the elite research universities to which striving students aspire.

At Saint Paul College (number one), 60 percent of students reported working in class with other students on projects “Often” or “Very Often.” At selective four-year research universities that warehouse freshmen in large lecture classes while tenured professors spend their time on research, only 42 percent of students say the same. At North Florida Community College (number two), 75 percent of students frequently ask questions in class or contribute to class discussions, the kind of active learning that educational experts say students need. At the typical big research university, only 52 percent of students are so engaged.

Good community colleges give students the opportunity to work directly with professors and teachers. At North Dakota State College of Science (number three), 72 percent of students discuss ideas from readings or classes with their professors outside of class. At four-year research universities, nearly half of students—42 percent—never do. At Capital Area Technical College (number eight) in Baton Rouge, 78 percent of students receive prompt written or oral feedback from faculty on their academic performance “Often” or “Very Often.” At the large expensive research universities, barely half of students say the same.

Community College Can Be a Better Bet for Graduation

Under the reigning academic hierarchy, every four-year institution is more prestigious than every two-year institution. But as Jamaal Abdul-Alim writes in “Dropouts Tell No Tales,” some universities, complete with Division I athletics and scores of academic departments and PhD programs, do a terrible job helping students earn degrees. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduates less than 20 percent of its African American students on time. Western Wyoming Community College (number seven) has a 76 percent graduation and transfer rate. Snow College (number nine) in Utah gets 74 percent of students through. Itasca Community College (number twenty-one) in Minnesota has a 62 percent graduation and transfer rate. These numbers aren’t just better than the typical community college—they’re better than the average at all four-year institutions nationwide.

The rhetoric around college graduation often implies that colleges have no agency, as if the odds of a student graduating were wholly a function of what they bring to the institution. Indeed, some people see student dropouts as evidence of high academic standards—those who couldn’t cut it are let loose. But CCSSE research and our list of America’s best community colleges suggest that the opposite is true: good educational practices and successful education outcomes go hand in hand. Students often drop out of college because they’re frustrated by bad teaching and can’t see a clear path toward a degree. The best community colleges put students in an enriching educational environment and stick with them all the way to the graduation stage.

We Can Have Much Better Community Colleges Than We Do Today

America’s best community colleges aren’t just a little better than other community colleges in the country. When it comes to providing a high-quality educational experience and helping students graduate, they’re much better. They include transfer-focused institutions and technical schools, urban and rural colleges, big institutions and small ones. Some have student bodies that number in the hundreds, while one (Miami Dade College, at number twenty-eight) has over 100,000. Excellence is not inherently confined to any sector or region of the country. It can happen anywhere. The challenge is making it happen everywhere.

To get there, states and the federal government will have to create a new partnership built around a few clear principles. First, community college finances must be fixed. The federal government has poured tens of billions of new dollars into the higher education system in recent years in the form of new grant and loan programs, in response to growing anxiety over college prices. But these programs disproportionately benefit the expensive four-year institutions and ravenous for-profit college corporations that charge students a lot of money. Community colleges are purposefully inexpensive. They need institutional aid more than student aid. California’s community colleges, for example, are the cheapest for students in the country. Some of them are also the worst in the country. That’s a bad bargain for students. The government needs to make a major new investment in public open-access institutions, one that has arguably been overdue since the moment of their creation.

The second principle revolves around quality and accountability. The measures used in our community college rankings provide a good foundation of information about teaching practices and student graduation. What they don’t include, however, is information about what happens to students after they graduate or transfer. These kinds of outcomes are crucial for holding community college leaders fairly responsible for the quality of their work. And that kind of oversight must be accompanied by new public investments. Money without accountability is a recipe for waste and abuse; accountability without money breeds resentment and dysfunction.

Fortunately, the information needed for such accountability is there for the taking. The “gainful employment” regulations recently imposed on for-profit colleges by the U.S. Department of Education also apply to many community college programs. By combining student records with earnings data compiled by the Social Security Administration, the department was able to calculate, for the first time, how much money graduates of discrete programs within colleges earn. Students who get a one-year certificate in ironworking from Saint Paul College, for example, started at an average annual salary of $37,693. People with a nursing certificate from Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (number thirteen) earned $45,312. At Miami Dade College (number twenty-eight), the criminal justice certificate yielded $59,770, while emergency medical technician certificate graduates made an average of $54,419.

The gainful employment regulations are such that earnings are only calculated for community college certificate programs that prepare students for specific jobs. Because those programs often represent only a minority of students, we couldn’t include the earnings data in our rankings. But there is no technical reason that the U.S. Department of Education and Social Security Administration data match couldn’t be performed for all community college programs, and programs at four-year institutions. The cost to the taxpayer would be trivial, and the information yielded for policy makers and students choosing colleges would be enormous.

Similarly, states have developed government information systems to the point where it’s a simple matter to track students who transfer from community colleges into four-year universities and see if they ultimately succeed there. A bipartisan bill recently sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio would help coordinate these state data systems to provide a fuller picture of what happens to students as they move among institutions.

In combination, this information could provide a full picture of community college success and thus a rational basis for dramatically increasing the national investment in community colleges along with our expectations for their success. America has yet to fully act on the Truman Commission’s prescience. Now we finally have the tools to do so.

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Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.