Rating college rankings

It’s fall, and not so long ago college rankings were all the talk.

The U.S. News and World Report released its list of the 2019 best colleges. Other organizations, some more recognizable than others, came out with their rankings as well, almost exclusively for four-year institutions.

There was even an article to help navigate ranking college rankings sites. Of the 13 college ranking sites listed, the article concluded that “there’s not all that much difference in the rankings with some notable exceptions. The usual suspects are at the top of most of the lists and all the others can be shuffled around in no particular order.”

Is anyone interested in rankings of community colleges? Apparently so, if the results of a web search are any indication. On just the first couple of webpages a hodgepodge of ranking sites appear, including some states and individual colleges boasting of their rank on one or another list.

Geography matters more

Rankings are built on the fundamental tenet of college choice. The reality for most prospective students, and particularly those intending to enroll in a community college, is that geography matters more than rankings or other criteria. Community college students, who are disproportionately working adults with family responsibilities, choose to go there in part because of the proximity of the college.

It’s not much different for students who attend a four-year institution. Most go to one within a 50 mile radius of where they live.

Two-thirds of first time FAFSA filers list only one institution on the form.

Value of rankings:  caveat emptor

Rankings, at least those of four-year institutions, place more weight on reputation, resources and selectivity than student outcomes. They are criticized by some for ignoring factors such as success of underserved populations.

This may be changing. For the first time, the 2019 list of the U.S. News and World Report used social mobility as one its outcomes factor. However, social mobility counts for only 5 out of the total 100 points. The Washington Monthly ranking list, on the other hand, attaches one-third of its points on social mobility factors and another third on community and national services.

Some sites have more transparent methodologies than others, enumerating the seeming countless sources of information used to calculate the rankings. These range from U.S. Department of Education data to survey results of experts or students.

There is no method, however, no matter how many data sources or sophisticated algorithms are applied, which can measure objectively college quality or what makes one college “best” or better than another. The fact that so many criteria are used makes ranking even more difficult because what puts a college on top based on one criterion, say college affordability, may drag it down based on another, say financial resources, or student outcomes, or a myriad of other factors.

But what value are rankings of open admissions institutions like community colleges? It turns out that most of these sites do not rank community colleges per se. Some provide letter grades, others offer Yelp like posted reviews. Some are basically searchable directories requiring identification of a specific criterion, such as associate degrees in business and management.

The Washington Monthly, for example, has rankings for best and worst colleges for vocational certificate programs. The rankings, however, are based on 12 specific programs (e.g., welding, HVAC, medical assisting) and for any given program different colleges may be ranked best or worst. Several criteria related to earnings and debt are used to rank programs, including median earnings, annual debt payments, total debt, debt-to-earnings ratio and gainful employment metric result.

The better option

Having information about colleges and the programs they offer is important. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has an accountability framework specifically for community colleges that is oriented to the multifold mission of the colleges as well as the diverse student experience.

Instead of a ranking, which is problematic in all the ways described above, much more meaningful information to a prospective community college student is the information captured in AACC’s Voluntary Framework of Accountability.

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.