By Victoria Lavelle
For the second straight year, Pennsylvania’s community colleges have come in last place on WalletHub’s 2017 “Best and Worst Community Colleges” list.
Pennsylvania’s community colleges ranked 46th out of 46 qualifying states in 2016, and 44th out of 44 eligible states in 2017.
Within the state, DCCC ranked third out of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges, placing at No. 580 nationwide.
Luzerne County Community College ranked first, and Butler County Community College ranked second.
WalletHub rankings were based on 14 key measures, including learning cost and financing, education results, and career outcomes.
Student reactions over WalletHub’s dead last ranking of community colleges in the Keystone State were critical and blunt.
“Students shouldn’t give WalletHub’s ranking too much clout because it’s just one out of the many that can be found on Google search,” said computer science major Danny Lawrence.
Lawrence explained that he only looks at the college ranking systems that collect data from federal agencies.
“WalletHub’s ranking of our state’s community colleges is a false representation of our superb educational experience here at DCCC,” said Kelly McCuster, a social work associate in arts student at DCCC. “The internet is littered with college rankings that are nothing more than a bunch of high-stakes popularity contests. Organizations profit by scoring a school based solely off its reputation — deserved or not. Essentially, college rankings are a bad practice because they tend to do more damage by diminishing the character and notoriety of the vast majority of participating colleges.”
Nevertheless, because choosing a college is a sizeable investment, students and their parents often turn to college rankings to assist them in making the decision. Utilizing this practice is not something that Hope Diehl, assistant vice president for DCCC’s Enrollment Services, encourages because some rankings are not credible.
“We should not give too much credence to any formal ranking system of colleges,” Diehl said. “Though college rankings may seem appealing to read, they tend to rely on questionable formulas to rank colleges.”
Diehl also pointed out that some of the more popular college rankings rely heavily upon student opinion and campus reputation, which, she explained, is not an effective tool for measuring a school’s value.
WalletHub defended its rankings.
WalletHub media director and analyst Jill Gonzalez is a financial literacy advocate who has appeared on NBC Nightly News, Fox Business Network, and Wall Street Journal Live as listed on her LinkedIn profile.
Gonzalez responded to questions raised by The Communitarian, regarding the last place ranking of Pennsylvania community colleges, with a statement via email.
“To determine which states’ have the best and worst community-college systems in the U.S., our researchers drew upon results from our analysis of 2016’s Best & Worst Community Colleges,” Gonzalez explained. “Pennsylvania ranked last because even its highest-ranking community college, Luzerne County Community College, ranks in the middle-of-the-pack at 444th. The lowest ranking Pennsylvania institution, Lackawanna College, ranked second to last at 725th for 2018 was bogged down by cost of in-state tuition and fees, and ranked 813th for this metric at $14,110 in 2016, and $14,580 in 2017. Our system is an objective study, created as a guide to help students, parents, and faculty assess the status of higher education within their state”
According to Gonzalez, WalletHub helps students, parents, and faculty assess the status of higher education within their state. She emphasized that it’s not WalletHub’s goal to damage an institution’s image by placing colleges in last place.
Regardless of WalletHub’s self-justifying response, those in the business of ranking colleges should consider focusing more on the best colleges, and less on worst. Labeling any college as the “worst in the nation” is risky business and undoubtedly counterproductive. It hurts the countless number of students and alumni who’ve worked extremely hard to receive a degree from any one of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges.
Where to find other rankings and reviews
The growing industry of ranking universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical schools has skyrocketed in recent years, and most offer a wide scale of campus details nationwide.
The long-standing U.S. News and World Report and Washington Mont h ly magazine have published college rankings for the past 11 years. Money and Forbes magazines also publish guides by Princeton Review, Barron’s, the Fiske Guide to Colleges, and The College Board.
With the advancement of modern technology and the entire world accessible at the tap of a mouse or finger, the internet has also become home to a growing population of “best and worst college” websites.
In addition to college rankings, companies like CollegeStats offers a database of more than 3,000 colleges and universities to find the advanced degree opportunities tailored to each individual student. CollegeStats allows users to decide what matters most to them in the quest to find a college fit, and a separate online degree finder to narrow the search.
Another alternative to “best college ranks” are the handful of college review websites available online. Visitors can read college reviews created by students and alumni, or write their own campus review to post. Some of those sites include CollegeTimes, StudentReviews, Unigo, and RateMyProfessor.
The American Association of Colleges (AAC) estimates there are more than 6,900 accredited four-year colleges and universities in the nation with 20.5 million undergraduate students nationwide. Nearly half of all college students, 12.4 million, are enrolled at 1,167 community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. (AACC)
The estimated number of students attending community colleges nationwide outweigh the number of students in colleges and universities, yet fewer community college rankings exist.
The flaws of college rankings systems
The Brookings Institution released a 2015 report titled, “Beyond college rankings: A value-added approach to assessing two-year and four-year schools.” The report notes that students don’t know enough about how institutions of higher learning compare along key dimensions, especially for colleges granting credentials of two years or less, which graduate two out of every five postsecondary graduates.
Moreover, popular rankings focus only on a small fraction of four-year colleges and tend to reward selective institutions over others that contribute and invest most to student success.
Organizations, websites, and magazines that rank schools all claim to have their own criteria to rate schools in a variety of categories that include four-year universities and colleges, and two-year community colleges, technology and liber arts institutes. The creation of additional sub-categories has also been trending, such as best dorms, best education, safest campus, and best sports program are a few examples.
Though most ranking systems have their own methodologies, a closer examination reveals some common traits. To start, college rankings aim to target high school graduating seniors and their parents in the pursuit of higher education.
All rankings are dependent upon college reputation provided by students or alumni, and opinions offered by surrounding school district counselors and neighboring colleges.
Another similarity is key data on campus graduation rates, and annual income of graduates influence a college’s overall ranking. Lastly, each organization explains in a small print reminder that no ranking system is perfect, with a notation marking the many limitations and caveats of the data analysis put into rankings.
How the data is compromised
Global College Search Associates (GCSA) in Chicago offers a client-based, interest-focused approach to the college search and selection process. GCSA helps navigate students through an array of career options achievable through the many majors and programs available throughout various educational institutions in the United States and abroad.
GCSA president Patricia Kranhke explained that during her previous job as an assistant director of admissions at Rutgers University, she was responsible for collecting and calculating much of the data being submitted to the federal government and the various ranking publications, such as U.S. News and World Report.
Kranhke recalled how it became evident to everyone working around her during the collection of data and analysis just how easy it was for information to be manipulated to improve its placement on the rankings.
“This is why so many colleges and universities have stopped submitting their information to the rankings publications, and why U.S. News and World Report is fumbling around in the media trying to push their agenda and change their research methodology,” she said. “The better way to obtain real, unadulterated data is from the federal government.”
How prospective students are affected
Members of the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) have expressed long withstanding concerns about college ranking publications and internet sites, and suggest that the effects of college rankings are “extensive and ongoing.”
In 2011, the NACAC released results from the National Association for College Admission Counseling Ad Hoc Committee on U.S. News & World Report Rankings Survey.
The survey found that while a majority of college admission counseling professionals hold negative opinions of the U.S. News & World Report undergraduate rankings, colleges still use rankings to market themselves, and the title “Best Colleges” is not an accurate representation of the information in the publication.
The survey also noted despite holding strong negative attitudes toward the U.S. News & World Report rankings, the majority of NACAC members still use the rankings in their admission and advising work.
Information students can trust
The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) introduced the “College Scorecard” in 2015 under the Obama administration. Using data and collecting information from the student loan program and the IRS, the Scorecard is thought to offer better, more accurate results in comparison to data previously available, according to Kranhke.
Before the DOE’s scorecard, average graduate earnings post-graduation was taken from the annual Payscale College Earnings Report that required graduates to volunteer their yearly income.
The College Scorecard data was designed to increase transparency, while aiding students with choosing the right college. The data has also been used to improve college quality by reflecting how well schools are serving students.
However, the College Scorecard Data only reports earnings data for students starting as undergraduates who received federal loans or grants. Federal aid recipients make up roughly half of all college students who generally have lower family incomes than their peers, leaving wide-spread speculation as to the scorecard’s accuracy.
To believe that favoritism and bias don’t play some role in the college ranking process would be silly and naïve.
Campus visits are recommended
Disclaimers on student review websites caution users that the corporations make no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of its content.
That is just one reason college officials like Diehl recommend visiting a college instead of simply relying on rankings.
“At DCCC, we reach out to future college hopefuls through college fairs and career nights, and recommend they schedule a guidance visit here on campus by calling the admissions office,” Diehl said.
To see DCCC information on the College Scorecard, students should visit https:// col leg es corecard . ed .gov / school/?211927-Delaware_ County_Community_College
Contact Victoria Lavelle at Communitarian@mail.dccc. edu