A nationwide report ranking Grays Harbor College as the top community college in the state and 15th in the nation is a reflection of efforts over the past few years, statewide and by the college, to increase student performance and bring educational opportunity to a broad segment of the population, said GHC President Ed Brewster.
The rankings by Washington, D.C.-based Washington Monthly magazine assess colleges based on student responses to a survey concerning quality of teaching, and on data measuring whether students stay in school and graduate or complete certificate programs. This is the eighth year the national nonprofit magazine has surveyed colleges nationwide in its September-October edition. The magazine also ranked four-year schools, using measurements designed to determine which institutions give students the “biggest bang for their buck” and improve “social mobility.” The University of Washington ranked 13th in the nation among four-year schools.
For community colleges, the magazine used eight categories. Five were based on the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. The survey “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,” the magazine wrote. Survey results for 2010, 2011 and 2012 were used.
The remaining measurements are based on retention and completion data compiled annually by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s also crucial to keep students on track to finish their degrees,” according to the magazine. “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.”
GHC’s 2012 program completion rates, meaning completion of a degree or certificate program, show them with a total completion rate of 50 percent, in comparison to 48 percent nationwide. These are the combined percentages of the completion/graduation rate (38 percent) and the transfer out rate (12 percent) based on an average enrollment time of three years.
“It’s partially the result of a strong state system and (GHC’s) focus on student success,” Brewster said. The increase in highly rated community colleges throughout the state is likely due to efforts to measure student performance, progression and completion over the past few years, according to Brewster, who said state funding is tied to performance.
For example, in 2009 the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges launched a four-year effort — with millions in aid largely from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — to increase completion rates at community colleges.
Four other state community colleges were ranked in the top 50 nationally — Cascadia Community College (No. 22), Green River Community College (No. 44), Tacoma Community College (No. 46) and Highline Community College (No. 47). Some 700 community colleges were surveyed nationwide.
Brewster said it’s hard to say exactly why it is that GHC came to be ranked highest in the state. The last time the magazine released a rating for community colleges in 2010, the school wasn’t in the top 50 nationwide, although three other state schools were.
“We’ve been working hard on retention and graduation rates, but as to why we’re number one in the state, I don’t know about that. We’ve been working hard in those issues and with quality of teaching.”
Modesty aside, Brewster said there have been several efforts — especially over the past couple of years — in regard to student success.
Two years ago, the college instituted a national nonprofit program called Achieving the Dream, Inc., which is focused on retention and completion, especially for low-income students and students of color. It also initiated a number of new programs that have focused on increasing retention rates and helping students progress more quickly through pre-college courses like reading, English and math. One such program, called Fast Forward, helps prepare students prior to the start of classes.
“(We have) a targeted kind of advising for students who are struggling and an early alert system for students who are in trouble in their classes,” Brewster said.
The high national rating could be beneficial to the college financially, as well. It comes in the wake of the recent announcement of a plan by President Barack Obama to bring costs of college education down, including rating colleges on certain criteria such as affordability and how well schools prepare students for life after their education, linking the ratings with financial aid.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” said Brewster.