4 Minnesota community colleges make Aspen best-colleges list

Four Minnesota community colleges have been named among the top 10 percent in the country by the Aspen Institute, and are in the running (along with 116 others in the country) for the $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence:

  • Alexandria Technical College
  • Central Lakes College-Brainerd
  • Minnesota State Community and Technical College
  • Minnesota West Community and Technical College

The prize, apparently prompted in part by President Obama’s recent focus on community colleges, is for those that do the best in providing both academic- workforce success for its students.

Judges consider three areas:

  • student success in persistence and completion,
  • consistent improvement in outcomes over time, and
  • equity in outcomes for students of all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

They look at factors such as graduation rates, retention rates, and the total number of degrees/certificates awarded relative to total enrollment, and take into account both part-time and full-time students.

This fall, Aspen will name up to 10 finalists, who will than undergo campus visits, and the winner(s) will be announced in December.

The prize has its critics, though, who say the data used is inadequate for a ranking — I think St. Paul College might agree — and that colleges need more all-around funding, not just another one-shot contest.

USA Today reports:

Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, voiced some of his concerns during the question-and-answer period at the event. Though Schneider expressed misgivings about the use of IPEDS to measure completions — given its shortcomings in tracking successful transfers in and out of community colleges, for example — he was willing to concede that it is the best data source currently available by which to compare institutions. Still, he took issue with how the prize was judging institutions on their “learning outcomes” and “labor market outcomes.”

The newspaper also reports the response by Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training administration at the U.S. Department of Labor:

Oates …  defended the process from Schneider’s critique, arguing that community colleges can submit information like employer survey and coursework portfolios to meet these measures.

“The nice part about the metrics of this prize, and former NCES commissioners may not agree with this, but there’s validity in measures that show real results,” Oates said. “If a local hospital is hiring your RN graduates over someone else’s graduates from a different sector, that says something, and that should be a data validator that we look at as we move forward, because most of the kids who go to college anywhere need a job — those without trust funds. But definitely we know those who go to a community college … go forward to get that education to get a better job and get themselves more opportunity. We need to be open to what indicators … may be different in Kentucky and Massachusetts and New Jersey and California, and we should be open to that.”

  • Anonymous

    There’s really no question about the data being inadequate for this type of thing. The four schools listed in this article are all fine schools. I’m very familiar with many of the people at each of those schools and know that they impact students’ lives in a positive manner. Ditto that for St. Paul College.

    However, all of these ratings and contests are absolutely asinine at all levels of education. All of the data is subject to interpretation and different measurement methods, and just an overall lack of consistency from one school or system to the next.

    Even “completion” is suspect. Many colleges have created laddered degree programs (this is not all bad). For example, the student earns a series of certificates along the way before earning the associate degree at the end of the program. Reach one certificate level (maybe 12-15 credits) and you are considered a “graduate” or a “successful completer.” That makes your school look better in the data than the next school that doesn’t play the certificate game the same way.

    I could go on and on about the measurement problems with all of these data. To base million dollar awards on them or to rank a CC as #1 in the nation based on this stuff is idiotic. They’re absolutely making this stuff up – but then the P.R. machines crank up and give them the appearance of legitimacy.

    All five of the mentioned MnSCU schools are good institutions and have much to be proud of. However, the same can be said for many schools across the country and to try to rank one of them as “better” than the next is not productive in any way. Of course I could be wrong.