Aspen picks the ‘best,’ annoys the rest

The 120 “best” community colleges will compete for  the $1 million Aspen Prize for community college excellence. The contest roll-out Monday was attended by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other administration officials.

But the top college list has raised hackles, reports Inside Higher Ed. “The selection process unfairly attempts to rank and compare community colleges using data systems that are inadequate to the task,” critics say.

Aspen used the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the primary federal database for colleges and universities, to assess graduation rates, student persistence, improvement and “performance with minority and low-income students.” IPEDS does not track transfers, so students who move on to a four-year institution before earning an associate degree show up as drop-outs.

To produce a top-10 list of colleges by September, the committee will analyze “completion outcomes,” “labor market outcomes” and “learning outcomes.”

“The learning outcomes is a giant enchilada, if you will; I have no idea how you measure it,” said Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research, in the question-and-answer period. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement is “just process, that has nothing to do with actual learning,” said Schneider, aid Schneider, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Measuring “labor market outcomes” also is problematic, he said.

“With the work outcomes, of course, you want to know if people are employed … but that’s a spotty process…. What are your data definitions? How are you verifying if what one college says we’ve done is the same as another college — because ultimately you are comparing different schools and the question is, are you really measuring on the same metrics?”

Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training administration at the U.S. Department of Labor, said community colleges can submit employer surveys and coursework portfolios.

Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen College Excellence Program, told Inside Higher Ed the prize will try to “bring sense and comparability to nonstandard data systems.”

“I want people to question what it means to be excellent in community colleges. What I’m not interested in or don’t think we can continue to do is to say, ‘Well, because we haven’t done X, there’s no valid way to measure these institutions.’ For too long we’ve wallowed in the diversity of community colleges and how different they are and how the non-credit side and credit side compare and the regionalism, and we’ve recognized very clear differences between community colleges and throw up our hands and say, ‘They’re not even comparable, so don’t even try.’ I think that’s really damaging to say.”

It’s OK to recognize excellence, but not to rank colleges , several community college leaders told Inside Higher Ed.

Washington Monthly’s list of the best 50 community colleges also was controversial.