When the college ranking edition of Washington Monthly magazine hit newsstands on August 23, 2010, Saint Paul College was thrust into the national spotlight. After evaluating and ranking more than 650 community colleges across the country, the prestigious magazine identified Saint Paul College as America's number-one community college.
While the ranking didn’t surprise school administrators – who have long recognized Saint Paul College’s top-notch status – the news did come as welcome acknowledgement. “This is a remarkable national recognition for our college,” says Saint Paul College President Donovan Schwichtenberg. “We have always focused on providing our students with education for employment, education for life. That has always meant a clear emphasis on quality teaching within excellent programs. We are excited this has made Saint Paul College stand out on a national level.”
The news of Saint Paul College’s accomplishment isn’t just making waves on campus; it’s gaining the attention of local leaders as well. “This confirms what we’ve known for a long time,” says Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “A student attending Saint Paul College will have a well-rounded education from a top-level institution, allowing them to compete in whatever field they choose.”
If the national ranking has propelled Saint Paul College into the spotlight, it’s the school’s focus on student-centered teaching that has stolen the show. The Washington Monthly ranking is based on data provided by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and graduation data at the U.S. Department of Education. CCSSE data are based on surveys of students at approximately 650 community colleges from across the United States.
The ranking data weighs factors that research has shown to have the biggest impacts on student learning, and that’s where Saint Paul College really stands out. “The single most important factor in the ranking data is whether or not colleges have a teaching environment that promotes active and collaborative learning,” says Policy Director of Education Sector Kevin Carey, who authored the Washington Monthly article on America’s best community colleges. “Saint Paul College is unusually successful in promoting an active teaching environment focused on group learning and engagement with other students, faculty and the community.”
One look around Saint Paul College’s campus allowed Washington Monthly reporter Erin Carlyle to confirm the teaching environment at Saint Paul College was worthy of its number-one ranking. “Students tend to drown in impersonal lectures, so Saint Paul classes are small, averaging nineteen students,” she writes in her article. “Teachers roam the rooms, providing guidance as students work on individual assignments and group projects. Rather than holding limited office hours and then retreating to their homes, teachers are regularly on campus with their office doors wide open.”
A Lesson in Education
According to Washington Monthly, the success of Saint Paul College can teach other two-year colleges – and even many four-year institutions – a lot about what it means to offer a great education. Carey says one of the first lessons to be learned is educational institutions do not have to choose between setting high standards and achieving high percentages of degree completion. “There is a misconception in the higher education world that high standards and completion are naturally at war with one another, that you can’t do both,” he says. “Research findings contradict that. Successful institutions set high standards and then support students to reach them.”
He adds that community college students may even need a more challenging curriculum to keep them interested and engaged. “Community college students have competing demands on their time including families and jobs,” says Carey. “If they are not being challenged they’ll quit or transfer, but if college challenges them, the students respond to that.”
Another educational myth debunked by the Washington Monthly ranking report is that educational excellence can only be achieved at universities with high admissions standards. While most community colleges have open admissions “when it comes to quality of instruction the best community colleges outperform not only their two-year peers, but many elite four-year research universities as well,” writes Carey. “Excellence in teaching can happen right away, in a variety of settings,” he says.
Perhaps most importantly, the number-one ranking shows students a great education doesn’t have to come at a price that breaks the bank. “Many people see college as something that is unattainable and unaffordable,” says Mayor Chris Coleman. “At Saint Paul College people can get an education without being miles underwater in debt, with a strong skill set that will serve them well wherever they choose to go.”
A Point of Pride
The number-one ranking has quickly become a point of pride not just for the College, but also for its students, alumni and the surrounding community.
For Saint Paul College alumni Harry Melander – now the executive secretary for the St. Paul Building and Construction Trade Council – the ranking demonstrates, when you start at Saint Paul College, you can go anywhere. “It provides the type of hands-on experience learners need to prepare themselves for a career,” he says. “If you start as a pipefitter or electrician, it doesn’t mean you can’t go on to become an electrical or mechanical engineer. It’s a great entry point for career exploration.”
City leaders are also enthusiastic about the educational leadership Saint Paul College provides for the community. “This type of ranking really puts you on the map and proves you are putting out a great product,” says Saint Paul City Councilmember Dan Bostrom. “It’s great to have the name of your city on a great school.” Mayor Chris Coleman adds, “We’re very much a college town and we like people to know that, so it’s really wonderful to have this recognition.”
But the biggest beneficiaries may just be the Saint Paul College students, who now have even more reason to believe that at Saint Paul College they’re receiving an affordable, world-class education from some of the best teachers around – an education that will propel them toward greater opportunities and a brighter future.