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best community colleges

How much is higher education worth? Judging by Census Bureau data quite a bit. The average associate’s degree holder earns 18% more than the average high school diploma holder. In dollar terms, that’s a difference of $5,400 per year. And while $5,400 may not seem like a life-changing amount, over time $5,400 per year can mean extra money in your savings account which can then be invested, either on your own or with a financial advisor. With the costs of four-year colleges rising, affordable community colleges are becoming increasingly attractive. But not every community college offers the same value.

Below we look at data on three separate metrics to find the best community colleges in America. We compared 798 community colleges across three metrics: graduation and transfer rate, cost and student-to-faculty ratio. Check out our data and methodology section to see where we got our data and how we put it together to create our final score.

This is SmartAsset’s fifth annual study of the nation’s best community colleges. Check out the 2017 version here.

Key Findings

  • North Carolina gets a good grade – North Carolina is home to six of the community colleges in the top 10. In last year’s analysis, we also found that North Carolina was a great state for community college students.
  • Community college is affordable – Across our 798 community colleges we examined in-state tuition and fees cost about $4,300. In-state tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions cost about 2.3 times as much on average.

community college

1. College of Eastern Idaho

The College of Eastern Idaho, located in Idaho Falls, takes the top spot as the best community college in America. According to our data, 71% of students here either graduate or transfer to a four-year institution.

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) also reports that this college has a student-to-faculty ratio of four. That means any student studying here will have plenty of one-on-one time with their instructors.

2. James Sprunt Community College

James Sprunt Community College comes in second. This community college is located in Kenansville, a small town in southeastern North Carolina. The school ranks so well thanks to high graduation rates and low student-to-faculty ratios. In both of those metrics, it ranks in the top 40.

Plus, you won’t have to clean out your savings account to take classes here. In-state tuition and fees cost only $2,542 for two semesters.

3. Pamlico Community College

Last year’s top community college continues its tradition of being one of the best by taking the third spot in this year’s analysis. Affordability is a top priority for many community college attendees, and it’s tough to beat Pamlico when it comes to price.

According to our data, two semesters at Pamlico Community College will cost just under $1,900. With that kind of price you can get a quality education while keeping your checking account intact.

4. Arkansas State University at Mountain Home

Mountain Home, Arkansas residents looking for an affordable option for higher education don’t need to look too far. The local Arkansas State University at Mountain Home offers high-quality, low-cost education to residents in north-central Arkansas.

This two-year institution’s best grade came in its graduation and transfer rate. According to our data, 76% of students who attend this college either graduate or transfer to a four-year program.

5. East Mississippi Community College

Residents in eastern Mississippi have access to one of the best community colleges in the country, according to our data. IPEDS data shows that two semesters’ worth of classes in Eastern Mississippi Community College will cost $3,240, a relatively high amount for our top 10.

However, East Mississippi Community College gives its students plenty of bang for their buck. This community college has the best graduation and transfer rate in our top 10.

6. Cape Fear Community College

Attendees of Cape Fear Community College have nothing to worry about it when it comes to quality of education. This higher education institute has a student-to-faculty ratio of 12, and a graduation or transfer rate of 65%.

For both of those metrics, the school ranks in the top 50, which is the equivalent of scoring in the top 6%.

7. Montgomery Community College

Montgomery Community College is the fourth of six North Carolina-based schools to rank in this top 10. Located in Troy, the school offers classes in a wide range of subjects. It offers traditional classes in subjects like criminal justice, early childhood education and law enforcement, while also offering classes in atypical subjects like gunsmithing and taxidermy.

So this may be a good option for people looking for an off-the-beaten-path career. Montgomery Community College ranks seventh, thanks to scoring in the top quarter in all of the metrics.

8. Roanoke-Chowan Community College

Roanoke-Chowan Community College takes the eighth spot. This community college has gone by a few different names in the past, but has been around in one form or another since 1967. The school offers students a range of options from skills-based certifications to full two-year associate’s degrees. In total, the college has around 20 curricular programs students can choose from.

This community college ranked really well in student-to-faculty ratio and graduation rate, which is why it claimed a top 10 spot. In both of those metrics, Roanoke-Chowan Community College ranked in the top 80.

9. Western Piedmont Community College

Western Piedmont Community College takes ninth. This institution of higher learning is located in Morganton, North Carolina, a town of around 17,000 residents situated east of Lake James State Park. Western Piedmont Community College’s best scores came in graduation and transfer rate and student-faculty ratio. In each of those metrics Western Piedmont scores in the top 15% of community colleges.

10. Pierce College-Puyallup

Last but not least is Pierce College at Puyallup. This community college serves students in Puyallup, Washington, a city about 10 miles southeast of Tacoma and 35 miles south of Seattle. Students who attend this college have about a 75% chance of graduating or transferring to a four-year institution.

However access to such high-quality education will cost a bit more than some of other schools in this study. The cost of in-state tuition for two semesters is just over $3,800, the highest sum of any school ranked in the top 10. That means students here may need to take out a larger student loan, but our analysis suggests the extra debt is well worth the education Pierce College at Puyallup provides.

best community colleges

Data and Methodology

In order to create our rankings of the best community colleges in America, we analyzed data on 798 community colleges. We compared these schools across the following three metrics:

  • Student-to-faculty ratio. This is the number of students for every faculty member. Data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and is for the 2016 – 2017 school year.
  • Graduation and transfer rate. This is the percent of students who either graduate from the community college or transfer to a four-year institution. Data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and is for the 2016-2017 school year.
  • Cost of tuition and fees. This is the cost of tuition and fees for in-state students completing two semesters of coursework. Data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and is for the 2017-2018 school year.

To create our final ranking, we gave each community college a score in each of the metrics based on how far above or below the mean they were. We used the sum of these numbers to create our final ranking. The community college with the highest cumulative score received a score of 100. The community college with the lowest score received a 0.

Tips for Maximizing Your Saving

  • Utilize high-yield savings accounts – While community college is a great way to save money on your education there are ways to stretch your savings even further. One way is to move your savings to a high-interest-rate account. Online banks in particular tend to offer the best rates. For example, Ally savings accounts come with a 1.75% APY and no minimum deposit.
  • Look into certificates of deposit – Certificates of deposit (CDs) are another safe investment which offers interest rates higher than your standard savings account. The downside to CDs is that you cannot take your money out until the end of the CD’s term without incurring a hefty penalty. The upside is that CDs typically come with interest rates above 2%. The Capital One 360 2-Year CD Account, for example, offers a 2.5% APY.
  • Get an expert opinion – If you really want to squeeze every last penny out of your savings, it may be a good idea to talk to an expert. A financial advisor can help you decide not only how to maximize your savings but also how to leverage those savings into a secure retirement, or a down payment on a home. Check out SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool if you are unsure of where to find a financial advisor. Our tool will match you with up to three local financial advisors who have an expertise in your specific areas of need.

Questions about our study? Contact us at press@smartasset.com.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Derek Miller, CEPF® Derek Miller is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh where he studied economics. He is passionate about using data to help people make better financial decisions. Derek is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He is a data journalist whose expertise is in finding the stories within the numbers. Derek's writing has been featured on Yahoo, AOL, and Huffington Post. He believes the biggest financial mistake people make is waiting too late to save for retirement and missing out on the wonders of compounding interest. Derek lives in Brooklyn.
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