Over the past 10 years, average tuition and fees at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. rose by $7,390, or almost 26%, according to College Board. Given the rising costs of attending a four-year university, many students consider public two-year colleges as an alternative. While the cost of attending community college has also risen, community colleges continue to offer many students a more affordable and flexible option that helps them save money. For the 2018-2019 school year, the average tuition and fees for public two-year college in the U.S. was $3,660. By comparison, the average tuition and fees for private nonprofit four-year colleges in 2018-2019 was $35,830. Students at community colleges can also explore the possibility of transferring to a four-year university.
Because of its affordability and flexibility, community college has been seen by many social scientists as a means of upward mobility for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. However, student outcomes vary by community college. In order to better understand the value of individual community colleges, we looked at data for 796 community colleges across three metrics: graduation and transfer rate, cost and student-to-faculty ratio. For details on our data sources and how we put the information together our final rankings, check out the Data and Methodology section below.
This is SmartAsset’s sixth study on best community colleges. Check out the 2018 version of the study here.
- Three years running. For the third year in a row, a significant number – at least half – of our top 10 community colleges are located in North Carolina. This year, six Tar Heel State schools made it into our top 10. The top community colleges in North Carolina for 2019 are Pamlico Community College, Catawba Valley Community College, Blue Ridge Community College, McDowell Technical Community College, Coastal Carolina Community College and Johnston Community College.
- Many new faces. Though North Carolina does well as a state again, many of the schools on our 2019 list are new to the top 10. In fact, only three schools – Pamlico Community College in Grantsboro, North Carolina; Pierce College at Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington and East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Mississippi – were in the top 10 last year.
1. Cloud County Community College – Concordia, KS
Offering more than 335 courses every semester, Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kansas has the highest graduation and transfer rate of any college in our study overall. According to our data, 89% of students either graduate from the community college or transfer to a four-year institution. By comparison, the average graduation and transfer rate across all 796 community colleges is 43%. Cloud County Community College charges $3,180 in tuition and fees for in-state students completing two semesters of coursework and ranks 248th out of all 796 colleges for this metric.
2. Pamlico Community College – Grantsboro, NC
Located in Grantsboro in eastern North Carolina, Pamlico Community College is the most affordable of any community college in our top 10 and ranks within the top 15% of all schools in our study for this metric. Tuition and fees for in-state students completing two semesters of coursework in the 2017-2018 school year were just under $1,900 – $1,867 to be exact – according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). In comparison, the average tuition and fees rate for in-state students for two semesters across the top 10 community colleges is roughly $2,700. Pamlico Community College also has a relatively low student-to-faculty ratio. For the 2017-2018 school year, there was one faculty member for every nine students.
Using 2017-2018 school year data, we found that from last year, when they ranked third, their graduation and transfer rate increased by almost 8%. For the 2016-2017 school year, 64% of students graduated or transferred to a four-year university. For 2017-2018, 69% of students graduated or transferred, a top-25 rate.
3. Catawba Valley Community College – Hickory, NC
Also located in North Carolina, Catawba Valley Community College has a higher graduation and transfer rate than Pamlico Community College. Almost 80% of students at Catawba Valley graduated or transferred to a four-year university for the 2017-2018 school year, which is a top-10 rate and about 10% more than the rate at Pamlico.
However, Catawba Valley underperforms Pamlico in terms of price and student-to-faculty ratio. The Hickory, North Carolina school charges in-state students $2,585 for two semesters of school, or roughly $700 more than Pamlico, and has a student-to-faculty ratio of 14.
4. Aaniiih Nakoda College – Harlem, MT
Located on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Harlem, Montana, Aaniiih Nakoda College performs well across all metrics. It had a graduation and transfer rate of 59% and ranked 79th for this metric overall. It charged tuition and fees of about $2,400 and ranked in the top 20% of schools in our study for this metric. Aaniiih Nakoda College also had a student-to-faculty ratio of 10 for the 2017-2018 school year. By comparison, across the schools in our top 10, there was an average graduation and transfer rate of 67%, average tuition and fees of $2,673 and an average student-to-faculty ratio of about 11.
5. Blue Ridge Community College – Flat Rock, NC
Blue Ridge Community College is the third North Carolina school on our list. For those conscious about not dipping too much into their 529 college savings plans, it offers reasonable tuition and fees along with an impressive student-to-faculty ratio of seven and ties for second overall in that metric. Although it ranks within the top 21% of all schools in our study for graduation and transfer rate, the Flat Rock, North Carolina community college notably has a lower graduation and transfer rate than all but one other school in our top 10. IPEDS data shows a combined rate of 52% for the 2017-2018 school year, which is approximately 30% below that of our top-ranking school Cloud County Community College, where the rate is 89%.
6. McDowell Technical Community College – Marion, NC
McDowell Technical Community College in Marion, North Carolina has the same student-to-faculty ratio as Blue Ridge Community College, seven students to one faculty member. That ties for a top-three rate. The difference in graduation and transfer rates between the two schools is 6%. At 46%, McDowell Technical Community College has a lower graduation and transfer rate than Blue Ridge, but tuition and fees for in-state students completing two semesters of coursework are about $700 less at $1,900, which means a savings of about $350 per semester.
7. Pierce College-Puyallup – Puyallup, WA
Moving up from 10th place in our 2018 study, Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington has a slightly higher graduation and transfer rate and lower student-to-faculty ratio for the 2017-2018 school year than for the 2016-2017 school year. In 2016-2017, 75% of students graduated or transferred, and there were 15 students for every faculty member. In 2017-2018, 76% of students graduated or transferred, and the student-to-faculty ratio was 14. The school ranked 10th overall and tied for 113th overall in those metrics, respectively. The latest available data for the cost of attendance at Pierce College at Puyallup shows in-state tuition and fees for students completing two semesters of coursework at $3,831.
8. East Mississippi Community College – Scooba, MS
One of 15 community colleges in Mississippi in our study, East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Mississippi has a high graduation and transfer rate of 82%, the second-highest rate in our study. Additionally, while tuition is higher here than at all but one of the other schools in our top 10, at $3,240 it is still about $1,000 lower than the average tuition of almost $4,300 across all 796 colleges in our study.
Students at East Mississippi Community College may receive less one-on-one or small-group instruction than students at other schools in our top 10. For the 2017-2018 school year, there were 18 students for every one faculty member. The Scooba, Mississippi school has the highest student-to-faculty ratio of any school in our top 10, though it still falls below the average ratio across all 796 colleges in our study. For the 2017-2018 school year, there were 18 students for every one faculty member. The average student-to-faculty ratio across all schools was almost 19.
9. Coastal Carolina Community College – Jacksonville, NC
Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, North Carolina is a satellite school of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Coastal Carolina Community College is an affordable option for budget-conscious students whose parents have often worked hard to set up college savings plans. For the 2017-2018 school year, tuition and fees for in-state students for two semesters were less than $2,500 and ranked 149 out of 796 schools overall, or within the top 19%. Additionally, more than two-thirds of students graduated or transferred for the same year, a top-40 rate.
10. Johnston Community College – Smithfield, NC
Rounding out our list, Johnston Community College in Smithfield, North Carolina – the last of six North Carolina schools in our top 10 this year – has a similar profile to Coastal Carolina Community College. It is relatively affordable, ranking 184th overall for tuition, which totals around $2,700 for the 2017-2018 school year. The graduation and transfer rate is 56% and ranks 108th out of the 796 schools in our entire study.
Data and Methodology
In order to create our rankings of the best community colleges in America, we considered data on 796 community colleges. We compared the 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 (IPEDS) and is for the 2017-2018 school year.
- Graduation and transfer rate. This is the percentage 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 2017-2018 school year, the most recent data available.
- 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.
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