Introduction of Student-Centric Factors Central to Ranking Relevance
College rankings today are ubiquitous as increasing numbers of publications release their own ranking systems trying to list colleges and universities across the United States from best to worst. The biggest similarity between these rankings, however, is they are geared toward a shrinking population that no longer makes up the majority of postsecondary students. As a result, the rankings and ratings being released are based on factors that are no longer top-of-mind for prospective students. In this interview, Lenore Rodicio shares her thoughts on the impact the current rankings have on student demand, especially as it relates to two-year education, and reflects on the factors that should be taken into account for the creation of a truly student-centric set of higher education ratings.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What impact do institutional rankings have on student demand?
Lenore Rodicio (LR): Most of the research surrounding the effect of institutional rankings on student demand has been done at the four-year university level, specifically looking at institutions with selective admissions. For example, a 2014 analysis by Reback and Alter for the American Education Research Association showed that institutions ranked in the top 25 in the more popular academic ranking lists tend to see a percent increase in new student applications in the years they make the lists, while peer institutions that do not make the top 25 show a similar percent decrease in new student applications. Favorable rankings were also associated with increases in out-of-state applicants. The actual ranking does not appear to have as much of an effect as simply “making the list.”
Evo: How else are colleges, especially two-year institutions, affected by institutional rankings published by groups like US News and World?
LR: Currently, there is little research available related to the ranking of two-year institutions in relation to student demand for those institutions. A 2014 study commissioned by the American Council on Education determined that for two-year institutions, location and affordability were the key factors in students’ decisions to attend community colleges, while reputation played a lesser role. In contrast, a 2012 study by Noel-Levitz surveying community college students indicated that nearly 71 percent of enrollees attributed academic reputation to their enrollment decision. Neither addressed the issue of ranking specifically.
Clearly, more data is needed in this area, but it appears from the available data that institutional ranking is not as important a factor for community college students. That said, creating a more student-centric model of institutional information could provide more structured data to help prospective students to see the value in a two-year degree or other credential targeted at a workforce need.
Evo: How well are the priorities of two-year colleges represented by institutional rankings?
LR: For the majority of two-year colleges, institutional rankings fail at providing an accurate picture of college priorities. Our two-year institutions were designed to be open-access institutions that meet the student where they are and provide the necessary academic and student supports necessary to get the student where they want to go.
This fact has various implications for rankings.
It means that a student who begins their career at a community college cannot accurately compare their situation to the situation of the more traditional students typically captured in institutional ranking measures. A student who works full time and chooses to enroll in a single course each semester and completes their associate’s degree in 7 to 8 years might not be considered a completer for the purposes of institutional rankings, but that degree is priceless for that family. Similarly, a recent immigrant enrolling in English language courses may choose not to complete their degree and/or stop out for a time, but their new language acquisition may allow them to obtain a better-paying position and navigate daily life in America.
But beyond the deficiencies in accurately assessing the student outcomes themselves, current institutional rankings fail to show the effort and resources that community colleges invest in the populations that they serve. These efforts range from intensive learning support for students lacking basic skills in reading, writing and mathematics to hands-on appreciative advisement for all students. In addition, community colleges have also begun to invest in other areas to support students including financial advising, childcare and even food pantries.
Evo: What would a student-centric institutional ranking look like?
LR: First and foremost, we should avoid falling into the trap of ranking institutions. Rather, we should focus on a student-centric scorecard that describes each institution’s performance through various lenses including: educational outcomes (through the lens of the two-year experience, including transfer to another institution); employment outcomes for graduates; the value of college credit certificates and associates degrees as pathways to higher degrees; and lastly, services available to students that address some of the key factors that prevent two-year students from completing their degrees.
The first three categories listed above seem to be traditional metrics used in institutional ranking. What would set apart a student-centric scorecard from current ranking systems is that the scorecard would be developed from the frame of reference of the community college student. For example, rather than providing three-year completion rates for students, a student-centric scorecard would provide a profile of the most recent graduating class to include average time to completion, broken down by the following demographics:
- Socioeconomic status
- Beginning academic level (g., developmental education, second-language learner, college gateway courses)
- First generation in college
- Full-time vs. part-time enrollment
Comparisons to national averages for the same demographics would show institutional performance in comparison to its peers.
Employment outcomes, particularly for career and technical education programs, are of particular interest to community college students, and of increasing importance to external stakeholders and legislators. Institution-wide, programmatic averages for percent of graduates obtaining employment—as well as average entry-level earnings for program completers—can provide useful, basic information to guide students in selecting career pathways, while at the same time demonstrating the value of college credit certificates and associates degrees. But what would provide a more powerful message is coupling this metric with a scorecard section titled, “Next Steps to Advance in Your Career.” This latter screen would clearly show the career ladder that can be built from a college credit certificate to a baccalaureate degree and beyond. Linking these advanced degrees to the availability of programs at the community colleges themselves and local transfer institutions can allow students to begin planning their post-community college education even before they enroll.
When building a scorecard around student services, we should first and foremost look to the students’ reasons for why they do not complete degrees. At Miami Dade College, like most two-year institutions, the primary reasons that students list for why they may not complete a degree include (1) working full time; (2) caring for dependents; (3) lack of finances; and (4) being academically underprepared. A potential scorecard in this area could describe:
- Scholarship and financial aid opportunities to offset the need to work full-time;
- On-site daycare options, or for institutions unable to provide on-site daycare, connections to daycare agencies within the community;
- Campus accessibility, including location and transportation subsidy programs
- In addition to scholarship and financial aid opportunities, the availability of financial literacy workshops, connections with agencies such as Single Stop;
- Out-of-classroom support for students lacking basic skills, including tutoring, peer mentoring groups, and alternative learning modes, as well as success stories and/or data of students who began in developmental education.
- Engagement activities, such as clubs, athletics, service learning and other co-curricular activities
- Career preparation workshops, internship opportunities and other career exploration activities
This section of a student-centric scorecard should be both qualitative and quantitative. It should include both a description of the services offered. Ideally, as our data collection systems evolve, this scorecard section could also be enhanced with data describing the outcomes for students who make use of these services. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list of potential services. Our institutions have worked diligently with community service providers to address these and other student needs. Providing recognition of these can provide key information that students can use in making their college decisions.
Evo: How would student demand for two-year education and associate’s degrees be impacted by the introduction of a student-centric institutional ranking system?
LR: A student-centric scorecard can shift the mindset of students from viewing community colleges as “last resort” options, to a first option. A scorecard containing basic information that addresses student needs while in college can open students’ eyes to the possibilities that a low-cost, high-yield community college certificate or degree can offer them. These student-centric scorecards can show them how the community college can alleviate some of the external pressures that keep students from completing a degree, and in addition serve as a step-ladder to continuing education to help them advance in their degrees.
More importantly, a student-centric scorecard would provide relevant information from the point of view of the students themselves. Rather than providing a single arbitrary number that represents an institution’s overall performance, a student-centric scorecard highlights an institution’s strengths in serving a diverse student population.
By providing information by demographic, prospective students can see how they themselves would fare in particular institutions and/or programs. A student-centric scorecard can also remove the stigma from current students who have not completed their degrees in the traditionally requisite timeframe by showing them that, although it might take longer, they too can complete a degree.
Author Perspective: Administrator
Author Perspective: Community College