Ranking the best community colleges and assessing their murky future

Recent enrollment declines and lack of funding have deeply impacted 2-year institutions. Can they make a comeback?

Florida State College professor Susan Reilly called the next year facing community colleges “a little scary”—and for good reason. Given the steep enrollment declines during the pandemic and numerous other challenges facing presidents and states, their outlook is uncertain.

In an interview with WalletHub, which unveiled its Best and Worst Community Colleges for 2022 on Tuesday, she talked about their value, particularly in this time of heightened inflation, but also the laundry list of items that could set them back again.

“I believe very strongly in the mission of community colleges, but I have a lot of concerns about their future,” said Reilly, who is also the college’s director for the Center on Economic and Financial Education. “Only four-year, for-profit colleges saw a bigger decline in enrollment in the last 5 years or so. Yet, community colleges remain the most affordable option for pursuing post-secondary education. Will free tuition reverse the losses in enrollment that community colleges have seen over the last five years? Possibly. But it will not solve the problems that community college students face. These students need a lot of support—learning how to study, child care, mental health counseling, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and more.”

WalletHub revealed the ones that are doing it best in its annual list by comparing 650 community colleges across 19 different benchmarks, including overall quality of programs, faculty strength, graduation and retention rates, and cost of attendance. It also compiled a separate one for Best State Community College Systems; it was topped by Connecticut, which has served students well with free tuition offers among other positives but is facing myriad problems of its own with funding and trimming of faculty and programs.

Echoing the frustration and wishes of many educators in the Charter Oak state, Reilly said, “We really need to see more investment in student services and in faculty to make sure that the influx of students that will come with free tuition are successful in college and in their future, which includes both additional schooling and in the workforce.”

Community colleges were primed last year to get a massive $45 billion infusion from the federal government, but that tanked when the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion Build Back Better plan proved too costly for legislators. Instead, they got completely shut out. They’ve gotten some relief through expanded Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) recently but not anything substantive. One of the major setbacks of that promise was the ultimate exclusion for free tuition for all at two-year institutions and what that could mean for the sector’s future.

“A tuition-free community college will likely create an additional level of access for students who would have solely selected the workforce rather than pursuing higher education full-time or while working,” said Everrett Smith, assistant professor and program coordinator in the  School of Education at the University of Cincinnati. “Completion has historically been a challenge for many community colleges and is tied to the financial costs of attendance. However, new programs that address financial needs, such as college promise programs, have the potential to spur growth in enrollment and graduation metrics. Similar programs and policies, as part of broader enrollment strategies, can contribute to hikes in enrollment and positive trends in completion rates over time, especially among full-time students.”

There is, of course, the question of value beyond free tuition. Are even the most affordable community colleges now preparing students for the next steps in their lives—whether that be entry into the workforce or moving up to get bachelor’s degrees? Some are. Some aren’t.

“Reducing tuition at community colleges may attract some students to enroll, but it will not necessarily stop or offset declining enrollments if potential students are opting not to enroll based on factors other than tuition price,” John Thelin, professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, said. “I doubt it will have much impact on graduation rates, which already are complex, diverse and resist any single profile, let alone explanation.”

Lower cost of entry has not been a boon during the past two pandemic years in terms of enrollments. Even at an average of $3,800 per year, as Thelin points out, other factors are at play. And not every community college is inexpensive for those who would attend. Of the top five schools in WalletHub’s Best CCs this year, none of them cracks the top 250 in its measure of cost and financing (factoring in tuition and fees, free tuition offers, grants, per-student spending and faculty salary). Because of that, the best score overall was just 71.02 out of 100. However those five are all powerhouses in terms of student success, with the State Technical College of Missouri landing in the No. 1 spot overall because of education and career outcomes. The best in terms of cost and financing is Eastern New Mexico University’s Ruidoso Campus.

Despite the challenges facing community colleges, some leaders see better days ahead as the COVID-19 pall clears.

“Communities are emerging from the pandemic, and employers have an immediate need for talent pipelines of well-trained workers,” said Jeff Lowrance, vice president for Communications, Marketing & Public Relations at Central Piedmont Community College. “With the possibility of a recession looming, no one knows for sure what to expect. Community colleges will continue to be the best value in U.S. higher education.”

So what can be done to reverse enrollment trends and get prospective students to see the true value of a community college education? It starts with help from outside campuses.

“At the federal level, broadening the Pell Grant program to include more students would help more persist and complete,” Lowrance said. “At the state and local level, providing more funding for faculty and staff salaries would help colleges retain their best instructors and administrators. In several program fields, nursing and IT for example, it is difficult for colleges to match the salaries faculty members can earn off campus.”

WalletHub’s Top 20 community colleges

State Technical College of Missouri (71.02)

Northwest Iowa Community College (68.4)

Alexandria Technical and Community College, MN (67.23)

Manhattan Area Technical College, KS (67.0)

Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (65.93)

Montgomery College, MD (64.5)

Tillamook Bay Community College, OR (64.21)

Mt. Hood Community College, OR (64.02)

Naugatuck Valley Community College, CT (63.74)

Northwestern Connecticut Community College (63.71)

Manchester Community College, CT (63.71)

Irvine Valley College, CA (63.7)

Kauai Community College, HI (63.66)

Capital Community College, CT (63.64)

Moraine Park Technical College, WI (63.55)

College of San Mateo, CA (63.53)

Fox Valley Technical College, WI (63.37)

Blue Mountain Community College, OR (63.33)

Clackamas Community College, OR (63.3)

Best community colleges on cost/financing:

  1. Eastern New Mexico University-Ruidoso Campus
  2. West Shore Community College, MI
  3. Klamath Community College, OR
  4. Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute, NM
  5. New Mexico State University-Alamogordo
  6. New Mexico State University-Carlsbad
  7. Capital Community College, CT
  8. Quinebaug Valley Community College, CT
  9. Northwestern Connecticut Community College
  10. Aspuntuck Community College, CT

Best on education outcomes

  1. Pamlico Community College, NC
  2. Southern Arkansas University Tech
  3. Mitchell Technical College, SD
  4. Lakeshore Technical College, WI
  5. Gateway Technical College, WI
  6. Olney Central College, IL
  7. Mayland Community College, NC
  8. Colby Community College, KS
  9. State Technical College of Missouri
  10. Lake Area Technical College, SD

Best on career outcomes

  1. Nebraska College of Technical Architecture
  2. Northwest Iowa Community College
  3. State Technical College of Missouri
  4. Manhattan Area Technical College, KS
  5. Alexandria Technical and Community College, MN
  6. Mitchell Technical College, SD
  7. North Dakota State College of Science
  8. Southeast Technical College, SD
  9. Normandale Community College, MN
  10. North Hennepin Community College, MN

States with the best community colleges

  1. Connecticut
  2. Maryland
  3. New Mexico
  4. Washington
  5. Hawaii
  6. Wisconsin
  7. Minnesota
  8. Wyoming
  9. North Dakota
  10. Oregon
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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