No sector of higher education has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than community colleges. While enrollment across all higher education institutions fell 5.1% between fall 2019 and fall 2021, public two-year colleges have suffered the steepest drop in enrollment during that time, falling by 13.1%, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Yet, community colleges remain an affordable alternative to four-year institutions. Some students choose to begin their college education at a public two-year school and then transfer to a four-year institution, where they can get their bachelor’s degree. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a private, nonprofit four-year school was nearly 10 times that of a public two-year college.
With this in mind, SmartAsset set out to find the best community colleges in the country. We analyzed data for 801 schools across the following three metrics: student-to-faculty ratio, graduation and transfer rate and the cost of tuition and fees. For details on our data sources and how we put all the information together to create our final rankings, check out the Data and Methodology section below.
This is SmartAsset’s ninth study on the country’s best community colleges. You can read the 2021 study here.
- North Carolina and Wisconsin have the best community colleges. All 10 schools at the top of our rankings are located in either North Carolina or Wisconsin. North Carolina is a particularly strong state for community colleges, with more than half of the schools that rank in the top 25 located in the Tar Heel State.
- Community college costs vary significantly. Across the 801 colleges in our study, two semesters of tuition and fees cost an average of $4,578 for the 2020-2021 school year. Reported tuition and fees are lowest at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico ($1,095) and highest at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby, Illinois ($13,232).
- Across the top 10 schools in our study, the average graduation and transfer rate stands at 71%. In contrast, the average combined graduation and transfer rate across the bottom 10 community colleges is only 33%. Overall, about 47% of students across all 801 schools in our study end up graduating or transferring to a four-year school.
1. Montgomery Community College - Troy, NC
Montgomery Community College ranks as the No. 1 community college in America, according to our metrics. Located about 70 miles east of Charlotte, the school is tied for the ninth-lowest student-to-faculty ratio (eight students per instructor). Meanwhile, 79% of students either graduate or transfer to a four-year institution, the 10th-best rate. Tuition and fees at Montgomery are also lower than 80% of other community colleges. In 2020-2021, in-state students paid $2,537 for two semesters of coursework at Montgomery Community College.
2. Carteret Community College - Morehead City, NC
With one instructor for every eight students, Carteret Community College is also tied for the ninth-lowest student-to-faculty ratio. The school also sees 72% of students either graduate or transfer to a four-year institution, 26th-best across our study. With in-state tuition and fees just $2,640 for two semesters of coursework, Carteret ranks in the 25th percentile for affordability.
3. Northwood Technical College - Shell Lake, WI
Northwood Technical College, formerly known as Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, ties for the sixth-best student-to-faculty ratio in our study, as there is an instructor for every seven students. Located in northwestern Wisconsin, the school is also tied for having the 12th-highest graduation or transfer rate (77%). Meanwhile, two semesters of coursework cost in-state students $4,917 in tuition and fees.
4. Nicolet Area Technical College - Rhinelander, WI
Nicolet Area Technical College is tied for the 12th-highest graduation and transfer rate (77%) and has the 19th-best student-to-faculty ratio of nine students per instructor. Tuition and fees at Nicolet Area Technical College cost in-state students about $4,500, slightly less than the national average.
5. Halifax Community College - Weldon, NC
Halifax Community College has the 31st-best graduation and transfer rate across our study, as 71% of students graduate or transfer to a four-year institution. The school’s 11-1 student-to-faculty ratio is tied for 50th-best among all 801 community colleges. The school also has 167th-most affordable tuition and fees at $2,608 for two semesters of coursework.
6. Western Technical College - La Crosse, WI
While tuition and fees at Western Technical College ($4,500) are just under the national average, the school is tied for having the 13th-best graduation and transfer rate (76%). Meanwhile, Western Technical College’s student-to-faculty ratio of 9-to-1 is tied for 19th-best.
7. Lenoir Community College - Kinston, NC
Lenoir Community College is tied for 26th overall for graduation and transfer rate, as 72% of its students get their diplomas or transfer to a four-year institution. The school’s student-to-faculty of 13-to-1 ranks 132nd, while the cost of tuition and fees ($2,568) is lower than 80% of the schools in our study.
8. Blue Ridge Community College - Flat Rock, NC
About 71% percent of students at Blue Ridge Community College graduate or transfer to a four-year institution (tied-31st). There is one instructor for every 13 students at Blue Ridge, which ranks as the 132nd-best student-to-faculty ratio. In-state students paid $2,651 for two semesters of coursework in the 2020-2021 school year, which is less than 79% of the schools in our study.
9. Haywood Community College - Clyde, NC
Haywood Community College has a student-to-faculty ratio of 8-to-1, tied for ninth-best among all 801 schools. Haywood is also tied for 112th overall for graduation and transfer rate (59%), while tuition and fees in 2020-2021 were $2,580 for in-state students (161st-lowest).
10. Randolph Community College - Asheboro, NC
Randolph Community College rounds out the top 10, thanks in part to a 9-1 student-to-faculty ratio, which is tied for 19th-best. The school’s 59% graduation and transfer rate ranks 112th overall and tuition and fees for in-state students ($2,386) ranks 138th-best.
Data and Methodology
To compile our rankings of the best community colleges in America, we analyzed data on 801 community colleges and compared them across the following 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 2020-2021 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 IPEDS and is for the 2020-2021 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 IPEDS and is for the 2020-2021 school year.
To create our final rankings, 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 score of 0.
Tips for Saving for a College Education
- Work with a professional and create a plan. A financial advisor can help you plan for how you’ll pay for a college education. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- Save with a 529 plan. While 401(k)s help people save for retirement, 529 plans are tax-advantaged savings accounts that help parents save for their children’s future education needs. Contributions can be invested in mutual funds and grow tax free. When it comes time to use the funds, the money can be withdrawn tax free, as long as it’s used to pay for qualified higher education expenses like tuition, fees or books.
- Understand your student loans. If you’re considering a student loan, be sure to know how much you will pay and the loan length. SmartAsset’s student loan calculator can help you understand its amortization over time.
Questions about our study? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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