In today’s economy it can be difficult to get the best jobs without having a good education. Unfortunately, the cost of attending a four-year college is rising quickly, forcing many people to take on large chunks of debt or forgo college entirely. According to College Board, the average cost of attending a four-year public university has risen $5,000 in the past decade. For students looking for ways to budget, community college is a good option.
Trying to budget for college? Try SmartAsset’s student loan calculator.
In order to find the best community colleges in America, we analyzed data on 808 community colleges. We compared them across metrics like transfer rate, graduation rate, cost and student-to-teacher ratio. Check out our data and methodology section below to see where we got our data and how we put it together.
- North Carolina on top – North Carolina is home to five of the top 10 community colleges in the country. Community colleges in North Carolina tend to be affordable while doing a good job graduating their students.
- Community college is a bargain – Depending on where you live, tuition and fees to attend an in-state community college can be two or three times less than tuition to attend an in-state four-year school.
This is SmartAsset’s fourth annual study of the nation’s best community colleges. Check out the 2016 version here.
1. Pamlico Community College – Grantsboro, North Carolina
Orginally founded in 1962 as an industrial education center, Pamlico has matured into the best community college in the country. According to our research, Pamlico has one of the highest graduation and transfer rates in the country with 84% of its students either graduating or transferring.
In-state tuition fees are also very affordable, costing only $2,347 annually. This compares favorably with other options in North Carolina. For example, the in-state tuition cost to attend University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is $8,566.
2. Eastern Idaho Technical College – Idaho Falls, Idaho
In 2016, Eastern Idaho Technical College served over 13,000 students, many of whom studied part-time. The college also offers over 110 different degrees, making it a good place to study for a broad range of students.
The reason Eastern Idaho College ranked so high is because of its low student-to-faculty ratio. According to our data, there are about eight students for every faculty member, meaning each student should be able to receive adequate attention.
3. East Mississippi Community College – Scooba, Mississippi
East Mississippi cracks our top 10 once again. This community college scores well on all three of our metrics with its graduation and transfer rate being the standout statistic. Just under 75% of students who attend East Mississippi graduate or transfer to a four-year program.
East Mississippi Community College has also made efforts to modernize its classes to keep up with the economy. It recently became the first community college in Mississippi to offer an e-commerce technology program.
4. Washington State Community College – Marietta, Ohio
Washington State Community College in Marietta, Ohio finishes fourth thanks to a low student-to-faculty ratio. Its student-to-faculty ratio of 10 is almost half the national average of 19 (meaning there are fewer students per faculty member).
5. Pierce College at Puyallup – Puyallup, Washington
Pierce College at Puyallup ranks as the fifth-best community college in 2017. A large number of students (76%) either graduate or transfer to a four-year college. While Pierce College’s price tag ($3,691 for annual in-state tuition and fees) may seem steep relative to other community colleges in our top 10, it is still a good deal when looking at other local options. For example, in-state tuition to attend the University of Washington in Seattle is over $10,000.
A student concerned about taking on student debt could save over $12,000 on tuition by attending Pierce College for two years and then transferring to the University of Washington.
6. Piedmont Community College – Roxboro, North Carolina
Initially founded in 1970 as Person County Technical Institute, Piedmont Community College has evolved into one of the best community colleges in the country. Piedmont offers students the chance to get a good education for one of the lowest costs in our study. At only $2,419 for tuition and fees, Piedmont is much more affordable than other options in North Carolina.
For example, two years at Piedmont Community College costs roughly $5,000. In comparison, two years at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would run up a bill of around $17,000, just for tuition. For those struggling to afford student loan payments, it may make sense to refinance your student loans at a lower rate.
7. Mid-Plains Community College – North Platte, Nebraska
According to our data, Mid-Plains Community College is a great option for students who appreciate a lot of one-on-one time with teachers and faculty. Mid-Plains Community College has a faculty-to-student ratio of nine. That rate is tied for second-lowest in the top 10.
However one factor the school could improve is its graduation rate. According to our data, only had 57% of its students graduate or transfer to a four-year program.
8. College of the Albemarle – Elizabeth City, North Carolina
Located in northeastern North Carolina, College of the Albemarle is the oldest community college in North Carolina. It was established in 1960 and was the first institution in the North Carolina Community College System.
College of the Albemarle does an excellent job offering students an affordable education. Our data shows that annual in-state tuition and fees at College of the Albemarle cost only $2,211. That’s the lowest figure in our top 10. At the same time College of the Albemarle manages to graduate or transfer 62% of its students, a figure 22% higher than the national average.
9. Mayland Community College – Spruce Pine, North Carolina
Located in the Appalachian Mountains in western North Carolina, Mayland Community College is one of 58 institutions within the North Carolina Community College System. This college accepts students as young as 14 into its programs.
Mayland Community College ranked well in our study due to its affordability and high graduation and transfer rate. Our data shows that 64% of students either graduate or transfer. That graduation and transfer rate is 24% higher than the national average. In addition, Mayland should be affordable for most students as annual in-state tuition and fees run up a bill of around $2,400.
10. Tri-County Community College – Murphy, North Carolina
Closing out our list is another excellent community college within the North Carolina Community College System. Tri-County Community College serves the southwestern portion of North Carolina. Around 61% of students graduate or transfer to a four-year program. Tri-County Community College also offers students the chance to learn a wide range of skills from welding to accounting.
Data and Methodology
We made some changes between this year’s study and last year’s study. For starters, this year we expanded our study significantly. Last year we included 565 schools in the study. This year, we upped that figure to 808 schools. Last year we also used the ratio of graduates’ median starting salaries to the overall cost of attendance as a metric in our study; this year we did not.
In order to create our rankings of the best community colleges in America in 2017, we analyzed data on 808 different community colleges. We compared these colleges 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 2015-2016 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 2015-2016 school year.
- Cost of tuition and fees. This is the cost of tuition and fees for in-state students completely two semesters of coursework. Data comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and is for the 2015-2016 school year.
We weighted each metric equally. Then 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 100. The community college with the lowest score received a 0.
Tips on Managing Student Debt
Students are graduating from college with more than debt than ever. But it’s important to come up with a solid plan for tackling it. Ignoring student debt can lead to serious long-term problems, like a low credit score.
If you’re struggling with making student loan payments, you may be able to negotiate a lower monthly payment. The federal government offers income-based repayment plans, for example. Depending on your scenario an income-based repayment plan will mean you pay something like 15% of your discretionary income on student debt.
You may also want to consider refinancing your existing student loans. By refinancing you can take out a completely new loan with different terms. Ideally you would get a new loan with a lower interest rate. If you are struggling because monthly payments are too high, you can refinance to a loan with a longer term period. This will lower your monthly payments. Be cautious though, this will mean you are paying out in overall interest costs over the life of the loan.
Nick Wallace completed the data analysis for this study.
Questions about our study? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: ©iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages