CHICAGO - Long cast as higher education's neglected second tier, community colleges have never had national magazine rankings or big guidebooks that help students - and the schools themselves - see how they measure up.
Now, some higher education experts hope to change that through a national survey measuring for the first time just what students get from two-year colleges. At the same time, the initiative aims to put a new spotlight on community colleges, which are becoming an increasingly important player in higher education.
The survey, by the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, creates a national benchmark for community colleges, allowing them to compare their effectiveness against their peers.
Researchers are also cataloging characteristics of the students and painting a picture of the pressures, financial woes and other obstacles facing nontraditional students flocking to community colleges. These students, older working adults with families, immigrants and the poor, present huge challenges for community college leaders.
Traditional measures of success for four-year colleges - retention rates, graduation rates, how selective the college is in the admission process - often don't apply to community colleges, whose mission is based on open access. Instead, the survey uses other measures to gauge quality, such as how challenged the students feel, the time they spend with professors and the level of support they get from the college staff.
"This is the first attempt that's been made to capture the experience of what the community college is and to learn something about them that might affect national and state policy," said Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Colorado-based research center for improving higher education leadership. "Community colleges definitely need a way to benchmark against each other."
For many community college leaders, "The Community College Survey of Student Engagement" is a critical first step in a deeper study of a system that now claims almost half of all U.S. undergraduate students in colleges and universities. Community colleges enroll roughly 60 percent of all undergraduates in Illinois, giving the state the third-largest community-college system in the nation.
Nationwide, more than 5.9 million students attend roughly 1,150 community colleges
"The point for the public is that these are not just schools for other people's kids anymore. This is in fact almost a public utility, a resource available to everyone," said Kay McClenney, director of the study. "We want people to understand what community colleges are and also bring some hard data to the public discourse about quality."
As the numbers of community college students grow, attention should be paid to their shortcomings, higher education leaders say. In addition to low retention rates, there's concern about the large number of community college students who need remediation courses to learn basic reading and math skills.
For instance, 48 percent of public two-year college freshmen dropped out or transferred out of their college by the sophomore year in 2002, according to a recent study by the ACT. By contrast, 31 percent of the freshmen at public master's degree-granting colleges did not return for their sophomore year. For public doctoral-research universities, that rate was 24 percent.
Furthermore, several recent studies have found that nearly half of all students entering community colleges need remedial help in at least one academic area.
More than 30,000 students at 48 two-year colleges in 22 states completed the first surveys, released to the participating colleges last month. Later this year, the group will have surveyed nearly 100 colleges.
Colleges that agree to take part in the survey subject themselves to greater public scrutiny. Individual findings from the participating colleges will be made public through a Web site expected to be launched soon.
The survey questions students about their background and outside commitments, the way they interact with faculty members and other students, the degree of academic challenges they get from their courses and the support they receive from the community-college staff, financial aid officers and counselors.
It also explores the biggest stresses for two-year students, hoping to help colleges better understand what their students confront.
Giving even the most motivated students a quality education and getting them to their career goals can be an uphill climb for community college leaders.
Some of the initial survey findings were encouraging, with 73 percent of all students reporting that their college encourages them to spend significant amounts of time studying. Eighty-six percent rated their overall educational experience at their community college as good or excellent.
Yet there were major areas of concern. Only 17 percent of the students reported that they very often discussed ideas from their readings or classes with instructors outside of class, and 43 percent said they had never engaged with faculty members in that way.
Meg McSherry Breslin and Robert Becker write for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.