Democracy Dies in Darkness

Grade Point

New rankings: Never mind the Ivies. Check out Howard Community College.

By Nick Anderson

August 29, 2016 at 5:27 PM

Howard Community College in Maryland (Mike Scrivener/courtesy HCC)

There is not much surprise when Stanford and Harvard land atop a ranking of universities.

But it is eye-catching when Howard Community College makes the top four on a national college ranking, Prince George's Community College the top 20 and the University of the District of Columbia the top 30.

The Washington Monthly, which has been seeking to bust the conventional wisdom about what makes a good college  for more than a decade, on Monday offered a new way of sorting schools: the best colleges for adult learners.

The magazine looked at the ease with which students earn credit for skills and knowledge learned through work or other life experience. It also rewarded schools with low tuition, flexible class schedules (evenings, weekends, online), and an array of services offered to support adult students, such as on-campus child care and financial aid counseling. And it included newly available federal data on what people earn 10 years after they start college and the rate at which former students repay educational loans.

By those measures, Weber State University in Utah, followed by Utah Valley University, Central Texas College and Howard County's public college top the list of best two-year schools for students age 25 and older. Prince George's college ranked 19th and UDC 26th. The list encompassed traditional two-year community colleges as well as four-year universities that produce a large number of associate's degrees.

"Adult learners are the most important underserved group in higher education," said Monthly Editor in Chief Paul Glastris.  "They are in excess of 40 percent of all students, and yet an afterthought at most colleges. … Our hope is that the schools on our list get some recognition in their markets or even nationally, and that recognition trickles down to people looking for schools."

Related: [U.S. News college ranking trends]

But its new analysis of adult learning put a spotlight on a sector of the higher education market that is often overlooked because of the national obsession on where teenagers choose to go to college. Of 20 million students in postsecondary, degree-granting schools, federal data show that about 8 million are age 25 or older. That's four out of every 10 college students.

Kate Hetherington, president of Howard Community College (courtesy of HCC)

At Howard Community College, about 34 percent of its 9,600 students are at least 25 years old. Kate Hetherington, in her 10th year as college president, said it was highly unusual for a school like hers to get noticed in national rankings. "We're thrilled and honored," she said.

Hetherington said the college strives to help adults get an excellent education at a low price. She cited new programs enabling military veterans and paramedics to use their work experience for an accelerated path to a degree in nursing. Many adults work while going to school, she said. "They're part-time. They're focused learners." Some transfer to the University of Maryland or other public universities.

Tuition and fees for county residents total about $4,700 a year, a bargain compared to the price for public and private four-year schools. Hetherington said she graduated herself from a community college in Philadelphia before earning degrees from Penn State, Villanova and Widener universities. "I really do believe in the mission," she said.

The Monthly also ranked four-year schools on how well they do for adult learners.  The top five, in order, were Golden Gate University in San Francisco, the University of Utah, Park University in Missouri, Concordia University-St. Paul in Minnesota and the University of Colorado at Denver.

In the U.S. News lists of top colleges, the nation's best-known arbiter of prestige, Golden Gate is unranked and Park's ranking is not published. Utah ranks 115th among national universities, Concordia 99th among regional universities in the Midwest and Colorado-Denver 199th among national universities, according to U.S. News. The U.S. News analysis uses data that the Monthly does not, such as admissions selectivity and reputational surveys.

The Monthly's lists of top colleges and universities were scrambled this year when the magazine included data from the federal College Scorecard on post-college earnings and loan repayment rates. The earnings data is controversial because some college leaders view it as incomplete and misleading. But federal officials say it offers the best available snapshot to date of financial outcomes after college.

Related: [How much do alumni from a college earn? The feds give answers]

Georgetown University, in Washington, zoomed to 9th place on the Monthly's list under the new methodology, up from 109th the year before. U.S. News ranks Georgetown 21st.

The Monthly's top 10:

  1. Stanford
  2. Harvard
  3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  4. University of California at San Diego
  5. University of Pennsylvania
  6. Texas A&M
  7. UC-Berkeley
  8. UCLA
  9. Georgetown
  10. UC-Davis

Among liberal arts colleges, Washington & Lee University in Virginia fared far better this year in the Monthly's rankings, landing in 7th place. Previously it had been 57th.

The Monthly's top 10:

  1. Berea in Kentucky
  2. Harvey Mudd in California
  3. Amherst in Massachusetts
  4. Williams in Massachusetts
  5. Haverford in Pennsylvania
  6. Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania
  7. Washington & Lee
  8. Pomona in California
  9. Colgate in New York
  10. Swarthmore in Pennsylvania

Among master's universities, James Madison University in Virginia jumped to 6th place in the Monthly's rankings, up from 68th the year before.

The Monthly's top 10:

  1. Truman State in Missouri
  2. Trinity in Texas
  3. State University of New York-Geneseo
  4. Valparaiso in Indiana
  5. California State-Stanislaus
  6. James Madison
  7. Providence in Rhode Island
  8. Evergreen State in Washington
  9. Cal State-San Bernardino
  10. Western Washington

Nick Anderson covers higher education for The Washington Post. He has been a writer and editor at The Post since 2005.

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