As noted earlier, WaMo’s College Guide this year again features a ranking of the best 50 community colleges. These rankings are based on data of teaching practices and outcomes that in some respects are more thorough than those available for four-year colleges:

The Washington Monthly ranking of America’s best community colleges is 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.

The CCSSE survey is managed by a nonprofit organization of the same name housed at the University of Texas at Austin. The 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, we combined results from the three most recent available years: 2010, 2011, and 2012. For colleges that participated more than once, we used the most recent year. More than two-thirds of all community colleges—roughly 700 institutions—were included in our analysis. We publish results for the top fifty institutions.

But the most interesting thing about the schools that are near the top of these rankings is that in some respects they outperform not just four-year college but even national research universities in core educational performance, as the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey explains in his article from the September-October issue of the Monthly on the best community colleges:

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….

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.

Carey goes on to suggest a national effort to raise the performance of the community colleges that don’t make our national rankings, beginning with a put-your-money-where-your-mouths-is challenge to public officials to champion better public funding for these schools, which are already affordable for students but need more institutional support.

If influential Americans spent less time worrying about burnishing the gaudy crown jewels of the higher education system and more time taking seriously the promise of universal access in which community colleges play a central role, we’d be better off educationally, economically, and morally as well.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.