Most Likely to Succeed. It’s more a phrase bandied about in high school yearbooks. Getting students to a place where they can succeed is critical to community colleges’ funding and mission. And now, it’s also the focus of a new ranking tool created by the Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. The tool, “Beyond College Rankings: A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools,” was released last month.
Fellow Jonathan Rothwell, along with Research Assistant Siddharth Kulkarni, decided that students needed something other than the U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and Money rankings that come out every year and are heavily biased toward schools that do a good job of admitting students who are going to succeed anyway. If you take out that advantage, they wondered, what would the college landscape look like?
“The goal of the value-added metric,” says Rothwell, “is to put schools on a level playing field, so that a student can make that comparison and understand how the economic contributions of the schools differ.”
We wanted to know more about the rankings — and what college leaders and legislators should take from it. Here’s what he told the 21st Century Center.
Tell us about the focus of these rankings.
The idea behind this is that there are qualities of the school that are independent of the academic preparation or test scores or income levels of the incoming students. We wanted to try to get some sense of what those qualities are.
What we found is that the skills that alumni list on resumes, the curriculum value and the STEM orientation of the school all contribute to what we call value-added, as does how well the school does of keeping students on track through the retention rate, graduation rate, and how the school uses its financial resources through student aid and paying its faculty.
So how do community colleges fare in the rankings?
In general, the value-added measures tend to be higher at four-year colleges than two-year colleges. I don’t want to make too much out of that, because part of the reason could be that our metrics at the level of advantage — the socio-economic stats — for students are too rough. It probably doesn’t capture the extent of the disadvantage that community college students face going in.
It’s clear that there are people with two-year degrees or even certificates making very high salaries, usually in some kind of technical field, like health care, engineering or technology. This kind of exercise does help show the value of community colleges, or at least the ones that are doing a good job of preparing people for high-paying careers.
Can you talk about the colleges that fared well on the rankings?
There are definitely a disproportionate number of technical colleges — the New Hampshire Institute of Technology in Concord, for instance, ended up scoring No. 1 on the midcareer value-added measure. There were some others that did very well in loan repayment or occupational earnings power that were also technical schools.
The schools that often don’t have great results when you look through this career lens are the ones that focus on preparing students to transfer to a four-year college. The biggest problem is that the completion rates are low for these programs. At this point, a year of post-secondary training at a community college in English or history or ethnic studies isn’t going to translate into labor market value. Whereas, if you would have taken that same time and learned a computer software, CAD engineering software or entered some sort of nursing or lab-tech program, you’d be prepared to list that on a resume and get a job that requires those sorts of skills. There’s immediacy to the STEM orientation that doesn’t always require a full associate degree to get the skills valued by employers.
What do you think community college leaders should take from these rankings?
The lesson here is to take a hard look at how your alumni are doing and whether they’re satisfied with how their careers are playing out — and how that differs by major. I think what they’ll find will be consistent with what we’ve found, which is that the students who are getting the more technical skills are often doing the best in the labor market relative to other students. It may make sense to expand those resources, hire more faculty who can teach those subjects, and admit more students into those programs.
The other lesson is really about retention, graduation rates and keeping students on track. Those are important goals in and of themselves for most colleges, but they may not have considered the importance of these things for the economic futures of their students. What we found is that keeping students on track is hugely important. It’s a factor in students’ ability to repay loans and have successful economic outcomes.
The City University of New York and their Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program is a really fantastic, promising example. In that case, they provided financial aid to [low-income] students, so that tuition is free. It provided block scheduling, so that students who had a part-time job or childcare responsibilities could take all their classes back to back and not waste time commuting or risk getting fired, or having to deal with childcare problems. And they provided tutoring services and other kinds of student support. They were able to double their graduation rates from 25 percent to about 50 percent.
That’s something that community college leaders should be investing in. But in many cases, they’re probably not going to be able to it by themselves, considering the budget constraints many face.
It sounds like it’s also a message to legislators who set these budgets.
Exactly. In some cases, it could require pretty significant spending to have these kinds of programs with strong financial aid. The appealing thing, though, is that these studies out of CUNY have found very strong evidence that it’s a net win for tax payers. With a little bit up-front investment in keeping people on track to graduate, what they found is that the future earnings and other advantages that the alumni received translate pretty directly to higher tax revenue—not to mention other benefits, like higher consumption, since they’ll be earning more money, which will fuel the local economic development, as well as lower crime rates and all the other things that go with a healthier economy.
Making better citizens by giving them opportunities?
It very well could. There are many benefits and it’s something the state legislators should take very seriously, and think about the long-run benefits, not just the negative impact it’ll have on next year’s budget.