The 5 states where community colleges earn high marks

Education experts also weight in key topics including free tuition and the impact of COVID-19 in WalletHub study
By: | August 18, 2020
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Which states have the best community college systems?

According to a recent study of nearly 700 institutions from personal finance website WalletHub, Wyoming ranked as the No. 1 state in providing an all-around quality educational experience for students.

Washington, Maryland, Hawaii and Connecticut also cracked the Top 5 in WalletHub’s rankings, which scored schools based on cost and financing, educational outcomes and career outcomes, as well as 18 additional metrics.

WalletHub and its panel of education experts also rated individual community colleges and found the State Technical College of Missouri to be the best overall, beating out Arkansas State University-Mountain Home and the College of San Mateo in California. The school with the best career outcome rank was the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture.

Wyoming meanwhile had two colleges in the Top 10: Northern Wyoming Community College District and Casper College. Central Wyoming College also had the fourth-lowest student-loan default rate among those colleges.

Not every state and school was represented in the polling. Data was not made available for nine states. Among the states near of the bottom of those represented were Alabama, Mississippi and Ohio.

Expert analysis

WalletHub leaned on its panel of experts to also respond to a series of questions about the state of community colleges, particularly during this challenging financial and enrollment time as they grapple with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victor M. H. Borden, Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Indiana University, says two of the biggest concerns are student health and welfare.

“Community colleges serve individuals who are among those most negatively impacted by the pandemic (essential workers and those who lost their employment),” he says, “Community colleges are already challenged by serving students who maintain full lives that include jobs, child care, parent care, etc.”

John Thelin, a renowned research professor at the University of Kentucky, however, sayscommunity colleges are relatively well-situated to respond thoughtfully and helpfully during the pandemic crisis. Less dependence on dormitories, residence halls, college sports, and other features of traditional campus life make much public community college a versatile, resilient option.”

Several of the panel’s experts took aim topics key to the future of community colleges:

  • Free tuition increasing enrollment and graduation rates: Molly Ott, associate professor at Arizona State University, noted their benefits. “After the launch of Tennessee Promise in Fall 2015, Tennessee’s full-time community college enrollments grew by around 40%. Free college means more people overall will likely seek out advanced training/learning that will benefit them in the labor market. But also, other advantages arise from eliminating tuition, even among those who would’ve gone college regardless.”
  • The role of policymakers to improve education, training and outcomes: Andrew Barr, assistant professor of economics at Texas A&M University said, “policymakers should continue to work to improve the availability, quality, timeliness, and transparency of information on the expected returns and average outcomes associated with different colleges as well as programs within those colleges.”
  • Top five indicators of a strong community college system: Deron Broyles, Professor of Philosophy Of Education at Georgia State University said his top five would include, “quality faculty, interested students, broadened curriculum (beyond only training), administrator support, and social/club/professional organization opportunities.”

Inside the rankings

In performing its study, WalletHub collected data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Campaign for Free College Tuition, U.S. Department of Education and Council for Community & Economic Research.

One of the states that did particularly well was California, which saw 10 of its community colleges place in the Top 20. Others states that made it into the Top 10 were New Mexico, New York, Arkansas and South Dakota.

In breaking down individual colleges, several stood out. Imperial Valley College in California was No. 1 in the cost and financial category, which looked at a number of factors including tuition and fees, presence of free education, grant and scholarship aid and per pupil spending.

Pamlico Community College in North Carolina was best in education outcomes, which scored colleges based on areas such as first-year retention rate, graduation rate, student-faculty ratio and special learning opportunities.

The aforementioned Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture was ranked best in career outcomes, which included median salary after attending, student-loan default rate and the earnings compared with high school graduates.

Some of the community colleges that ranked high in specific categories included:

  • Lowest cost of in-state tuition and fees: Arizona’s Tohono O’Odham CC
  • Highest per-pupil spending: Montana’s Aaniiih Nakoda College
  • Lowest student-faculty ratio: New Hampshire’s River Valley CC
  • Highest graduation rate: Missouri’s State Technical College of Missouri
  • Lowest student-loan default rate (tie): North Carolina’s Lenoir CC and Martin CC

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com