Group ranks top 120 community colleges, fastest-growing higher ed sector in the U.S.

By Liz Goodwin

The D.C.-based non-profit the Aspen Institute has ranked the nation's top 120 community colleges. Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan helped present the winners today.

The analysis and resulting list are part of an initiative to improve graduation rates among the six million Americans who enroll in the primarily two-year, public educational institutions each year. Community colleges are now the fastest-growing sector of higher education in this country, with students making up 40 percent of total undergrads nationwide.

President Obama pledged $12 billion to community colleges as part of his goal for the United States to lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020, but Congress only approved a fraction of that funding. The Aspen competition was announced at a White House conference on community colleges last fall.

To pick the winners, judges analyzed Department of Education data on the percentage of students who graduate with an associate's degree or successfully transfer from their community colleges into four-year institutions. They also assessed the proportion of low-income and minority students who completed each program, and if completion rates improved over time at the particular schools. The 120 winners, representing the top 10 percent of the country's 1,200 community colleges, can now enter to win a $700,000 prize.

Even as millions of students have flocked to overcrowded community colleges during the recession, the institutions are doing a pretty bad job at graduating those students. Fewer than three in ten full-time community college students graduate with a two-year degree in three years, according to Department of Education data. And not even half of all students who enroll in community colleges with the goal of graduating from them or transferring to a four-year university meet that goal within six years.

One major problem is that the bulk of community college students take remedial courses because they did not learn basic math and reading comprehension in high school. Remedial courses do not transfer to four-year universities, and they also slow students' progress toward an associate's degree, even though they are often necessary. Another problem is that not all community colleges are clear about which courses transfer to four-year institutions, so students often waste time on classes that don't get them closer to a bachelor's degree.

The point of the Aspen competition is to identify colleges that are beating these problems so that their strategies can be exported to struggling schools with dismal graduation rates.

Community college enrollment surged in 2008 even as the percentage of young people in four-year colleges stayed flat. Some community colleges have had to turn students away as their shrinking budgets haven't been able to keep up with record enrollment. California community colleges warn they may have to reject as many as 400,000 applicants this fall.

Here's the full list of the top colleges:

Enterprise-Ozark Community College Enterprise, AL
George C. Wallace State Community College-Hanceville Hanceville, AL
Northeast Alabama Community College Rainsville, AL
Cochise College

Estrella Mountain Community College

Douglas, AZ

Avondale, AZ

Arkansas State University-Beebe Beebe, AR
Coastline Community College Fountain Valley, CA
Santa Barbara City College Santa Barbara, CA
Allan Hancock College Santa Maria, CA
San Joaquin Delta College Stockton, CA
Mt San Antonio College Walnut, CA
Trinidad State Junior College Trinidad, CO
South Florida Community College Avon Park, FL
Brevard Community College Cocoa, FL
Daytona State College Daytona Beach, FL
Broward College Fort Lauderdale, FL
Santa Fe College Gainesville, FL
Lake City Community College Lake City, FL
Lake-Sumter Community College Leesburg, FL
Chipola College Marianna, FL
Miami Dade College Miami, FL
Northwest Florida State College Niceville, FL
Central Florida Community College Ocala, FL
Valencia Community College Orlando, FL
Saint Johns River Community College Palatka, FL
Tallahassee Community College Tallahassee, FL
Augusta Technical College Augusta, GA
Southeastern Illinois College Harrisburg, IL
Rend Lake College Ina, IL
Lake Land College Mattoon, IL
Illinois Eastern Comm. Colleges-Olney Central College Olney, IL
Illinois Eastern Comm. Colleges-Lincoln Trail College Robinson, IL
Northeast Iowa Community College-Calmar Calmar, IA
Indian Hills Community College Ottumwa, IA
Northwest Iowa Community College Sheldon, IA
Salina Area Technical College Salina, KS
Cowley County Community College Arkansas City, KS
North Central Kansas Technical College Beloit, KS
Flint Hills Technical College Emporia, KS
Garden City Community College Garden City, KS
Northwest Kansas Technical College Goodland, KS
Hutchinson Community College Hutchinson, KS
Manhattan Area Technical College Manhattan, KS
Ashland Community and Technical College Ashland, KY
Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College Cumberland, KY
Hazard Community and Technical College Hazard, KY
Madisonville Community College Madisonville, KY
Maysville Community and Technical College Maysville, KY
West Kentucky Community and Technical College Paducah, KY
Big Sandy Community and Technical College Prestonsburg, KY
Somerset Community College Somerset, KY
Washington County Community College Calais, ME
Kennebec Valley Community College Fairfield, ME
Kellogg Community College Battle Creek, MI
Macomb Community College Warren, MI
Mott Community College Flint, MI
Gogebic Community College Ironwood, MI
Delta College University Center, MI
Alexandria Technical College Alexandria, MN
Central Lakes College-Brainerd Brainerd, MN
Minnesota State Community and Technical College Fergus Falls, MN
Minnesota West Community and Technical College Granite Falls, MN
East Central Community College Decatur, MS
Mississippi Delta Community College Moorhead, MS
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Perkinston, MS
Pearl River Community College Poplarville, MS
Hinds Community College Raymond, MS
Metropolitan Comm. College-Business & Technology Kansas City, MO
Linn State Technical College Linn, MO
Crowder College Neosho, MO
Ozarks Technical Community College Springfield, MO
North Central Missouri College Trenton, MO
Missouri State University-West Plains West Plains, MO
Fort Belknap College Harlem, MT
Chief Dull Knife College Lame Deer, MT
Miles Community College Miles City, MT
Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture Curtis, NE
Southeast Community College Area Lincoln, NE
Northeast Community College Norfolk, NE
New Mexico
Navajo Technical College Crownpoint, NM
New York
CUNY Kingsborough Community College Brooklyn, NY
Erie Community College Buffalo, NY
SUNY College of Technology at Canton Canton, NY
Corning Community College Corning, NY
Niagara County Community College Sanborn, NY
Onondaga Community College Syracuse, NY
Hudson Valley Community College Troy, NY
North Carolina
Surry Community College Dobson, NC
Coastal Carolina Community College Jacksonville, NC
James Sprunt Community College Kenansville, NC
Cleveland Community College Shelby, NC
Davidson County Community College Thomasville, NC
Lorain County Community College Elyria, OH
Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology-Okmulgee Okmulgee, OK
Carl Albert State College Poteau, OK
Northern Oklahoma College Tonkawa, OK
Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology Lancaster, PA
South Carolina
University of South Carolina-Union Union, SC
South Dakota
Mitchell Technical Institute Mitchell, SD
Lake Area Technical Institute Watertown, SD
Alvin Community College Alvin, TX
Trinity Valley Community College Athens, TX
Lee College Baytown, TX
Blinn College Brenham, TX
Texas State Technical College-West Texas Sweetwater, TX
Texarkana College Texarkana, TX
Southwest Texas Junior College Uvalde, TX
Victoria College Victoria, TX
Wharton County Junior College Wharton, TX
Snow College Ephraim, UT
Wytheville Community College Wytheville, VA
Pierce College at Fort Steilacoom Lakewood, WA
Spokane Falls Community College Spokane, WA
Spokane Community College Spokane, WA
Walla Walla Community College Walla Walla, WA
West Virginia
Carver Career Center Charleston, WV
Bridgemont Community and Technical College Montgomery, WV
Moraine Park Technical College Fond du Lac, WI
Northeast Wisconsin Technical College Green Bay, WI
Milwaukee Area Technical College Milwaukee, WI

(Students in Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, one of many community colleges where enrollment has surged: AP)