Cost is often a major consideration when choosing a college. And with tuition rates continuing to rise every year — not to mention all the other expenses related to attendance — many would-be students are unable to afford a university education.

Community colleges offer students the ability to get higher education without having as much financial strain. During the 2018 to 2019 academic year, tuition and fees for full-time, in-state enrollment at a public two-year college averaged $3,660 per year versus $10,320 at a public four-year institution and $35,830 at a four-year private school. Students who earn their general-education credits at a community college before transferring to an in-state public four-year university can potentially save a lot of money.

Other than serving as an affordable, and in some cases free, option for education, community colleges have a number of attractive qualities. They often provide more flexible schedules, smaller class sizes and rigorous coursework. Some even go beyond two-year programs to offer four-year bachelor’s degrees. These qualities advantages appeal especially to students who need to balance their studies with other commitments, such as family and work.

Individual community colleges, however, vary in quality and affordability. To determine where students can receive the best education at the lowest price, WalletHub compared more than 700 community colleges across 19 key indicators of cost and quality. Our data set ranges from the cost of in-state tuition and fees to student-faculty ratio to graduation rate. Read on for our findings, expert insight from a panel of researchers and a full description of our methodology. In addition to this ranking, we also conducted a state-level analysis of the Best & Worst Community College Systems.

Main Findings

Best Community Colleges in the U.S.

Rankings by State

Ask the Experts

With college costs rising and more Americans pursuing degrees, community-college proves to be an attractive option for many students. For advice on improving the U.S. community-college system, we asked a panel of experts to weigh in with their thoughts on the following key questions:

  1. Do you think that making community college tuition-free will increase enrollment and graduation rates?
  2. What can policymakers do to improve the quality of education and training at community colleges and the career prospects of graduates?
  3. Should community colleges focus more on preparing graduates for the workforce through career and technical education or on preparing graduates to move to a four-year college?
  4. In evaluating the best and worst community college systems, what are the top five indicators?

Methodology

In order to determine the best community colleges in the U.S., WalletHub selected a sample of 710 schools from the list of member institutions in the American Association of Community Colleges. Due to data limitations, we were not able to include all member schools. Please note that the AACC is not affiliated whatsoever with WalletHub and was used strictly as an informational resource.

We evaluated the schools based on three key dimensions, including: 1) Cost & Financing, 2) Education Outcomes and 3) Career Outcomes. We constructed the three dimensions using 19 total metrics, each grouped with related metrics in the appropriate category and listed below with its corresponding weight. We graded each metric on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the best community college.

Finally, we determined each school’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample.

Cost & Financing – Total Points: 33.33

  • Cost of In-State Tuition & Fees: Double Weight (~6.67 Points)
  • Presence of Free Community-College Education: Triple Weight (~10.00 Points)
    Note: This metric considers the presence or absence of legislation to provide free community-college education or if such legislation is currently under consideration.
  • Average Amount of Grant or Scholarship Aid Received: Full Weight (~3.33 Points)
  • Availability of Employment Services for Students: Full Weight (~3.33 Points)
    Note: This binary metric considers the presence or absence of “activities intended to assist students in obtaining part-time employment as a means of defraying part of the cost of their education,” as described by the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Per-Pupil Spending: Full Weight (~3.33 Points)
  • School Spending Efficiency: Full Weight (~3.33 Points)
    Note: This metric was calculated by dividing per-pupil spending by the cost of in-state tuition and fees.
  • Faculty Salary: Full Weight (~3.33 Points)
    Note: This metric was adjusted for the local cost of living.

Education Outcomes – Total Points: 33.33

  • First-Year Retention Rate: Full Weight (~4.44 Points)
  • Graduation Rate: Full Weight (~4.44 Points)
  • Transfer-Out Rate: Half Weight (~2.22 Points)
  • Credentials Awarded per 100 Full-Time-Equivalent Students: Full Weight (~4.44 Points)
    Note: “Credentials” refer to degrees and certificates.
  • Student-Faculty Ratio: Full Weight (~4.44 Points)
  • Share of Full-Time Faculty: Full Weight (~4.44 Points)
  • Presence of Special Learning Opportunities: Full Weight (~4.44 Points)
    Note: This binary metric considers the presence or absence of special learning opportunities, such as accelerated programs, cooperative (work-study) programs, distance education, dual enrollment, weekend/evening college etc.
  • Presence of Credit for Life Experiences: Full Weight (~4.44 Points)
    Note: This binary metric considers the presence or absence of “credit for life experiences” option. Life experience credits can be acquired through certain activities such as community work, volunteerism, seminars, workshops, skills training, or participation in a nonprofit organization and can be converted to academic credits.

Career Outcomes – Total Points: 33.33

  • Return on Educational Investment: Double Weight (~13.33 Points)
    Note: This metric measures the ratio of starting salary for graduates to cost of education.
  • Student-Loan Default Rate: Full Weight (~6.67 Points)
  • Median Salary after Attending: Full Weight (~6.67 Points)
    Note: This metric measures the median earnings — 10 years after entering the school.
  • Share of Former Students Earning Above the Average Earnings of a High School Graduate: Full Weight (~6.67 Points)
    Note: This metric measures the share of former students earning more than $25,000, or about the average earnings of a high school graduate aged 25 to 34 years, six years after they first enrolled.

Sources: Data used to create this ranking were collected from the National Center for Education Statistics, CNBC, U.S. Department of Education, Council for Community & Economic Research and College Measures.

Image: Motortion Films / Shutterstock.com

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