States With the Best and Worst Community Colleges

 July 26, 2021
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Even though 32% of students attend public two-year institutions, community colleges can be an underappreciated part of the U.S. higher education system. This is the case despite these colleges almost always offering the most affordable option for students.

The reality is that some states have better community college opportunities for students. The newest Student Loan Hero study looks at community colleges in each state to find where students depend on these schools the most.

Student Loan Hero researchers based the findings on nine metrics, from cost to enrollment levels to student-to-teacher ratios. Here are the results.

Key findings

  • North Carolina has the best community colleges. The Tar Heel State ranks in the top 10 for six of the nine metrics examined, led by its student-to-teacher ratios. Next up among the best is Wyoming and Kansas.
  • Indiana has the worst community colleges. Only 1% of the colleges in the Hoosier State are public two-year institutions. Next up among the worst is Vermont and Tennessee.
  • There’s a significant gap in affordability for community colleges. In California, tuition and fees to attend a public two-year school average $1,271 annually — lowest among the ranked states. In New Hampshire, it’s nearly six times higher at $7,599 annually.
  • Attending community college is generally more affordable, but these institutions aren’t as popular anymore. In 1975, 51% of students enrolled in higher education institutions attended two-year public schools. That figure has plummeted to 32%.
  • The cost of attending a public two-year institution is up 125% since 2000. During that same period, though, the cost of attending a public four-year school is up 146%.

5 states with the best community colleges

Students can receive a great education at a fair cost at many community colleges across the country. The following states have the best community colleges according to Student Loan Hero’s metrics.

1. North Carolina

North Carolina didn’t rank at the top of any of the metrics examined, but it scored consistently high across the board, leading it to have the best community colleges. What stands out is the Tar Heel State has a fairly low student-to-teacher ratio of 11.2 — third-best in the U.S. That compares to an average of 17.2 across the states examined. Also, the average cost of tuition and fees didn’t change between 2017-18 and 2018-19 — the latest available data.

2. Wyoming

Community college appears to be a trendy option in Wyoming, which has the second-highest enrollment rate (67%) across the U.S. — behind Illinois at 68%. Community colleges make up a large portion of the higher education opportunities in the state, which could explain the enrollment. Here, community colleges represent 78% of all higher education institutions in the state — highest in the U.S.

3. Kansas

Kansas students who see community college as a solid stepping stone toward receiving a four-year degree likely appreciate that the state ranks in the top five among those with the highest transfer-out rates (23.3%). Kansas also has a fairly high graduation rate (38.1%) — seventh across the U.S. — which could give students the confidence they need to enroll in a community college there.

4. Mississippi

Mississippi is another state with a high graduation rate (38%) and a solid transfer-out rate (17.3%) that should encourage students to pursue a four-year degree once they’re done with community college. With a 53% enrollment rate — compared with an average of 40% across the U.S. — it seems like Mississippi students know what a great opportunity they have for in-state community college options.

5. Nebraska

Rounding out the top five, Nebraska community colleges have a lot to offer students — especially in the price department. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the cost of tuition and fees at Nebraska community colleges dropped by 1% — the only state that saw a decrease. Overall, the cost of attending community college here is $3,174 — more than $900 less than the average of $4,080 across the U.S.

5 states with the worst community colleges

Like the states with the best community colleges, the states with the worst community colleges are spread across the U.S. Let’s look at why these five states ranked poorly.

1. Indiana

The main reason that Indiana ranks so low on this list is it has very few community colleges. Only 1% of colleges throughout the state are public two-year institutions, limiting access to community college for Hoosiers. Its graduation rate of 25% is below the average across the U.S. of 30.1%.

2. Vermont

If a student is looking to save money when pursuing a higher education, attending community college in Vermont may not be their best bet. Here, the cost of attending community college comes to $7,120 — second-worst in the U.S. For comparison, attending community college costs $3,219 in the second-best state (Wyoming). From 2017-18 to 2018-19, the cost of attending community college in Vermont rose by 11% — second-highest in the U.S. behind Ohio. Lastly, the graduation rate here is 15% — lowest in the U.S.

3. Tennessee

Heading south to Tennessee, you’ll find a high student-to-teacher ratio of 20.2 and a low transfer-out rate (10.5%). Tennessee didn’t score particularly high in any of the metrics examined outside of the number of staff who are people of color as a percentage of all staff.

4. West Virginia

The cost of attending community college in West Virginia is not as expensive as Vermont, but it’s still pricey at $4,276. This high cost is partially due to an increase in tuition and fees of 5% between 2017-18 and 2018-19. The state also has the smallest number of students of color as a percentage of the student body at 13%.

5. Utah

Utah is another state with limited community college opportunities for students. Public two-year colleges only account for 3% of all public institutions in Utah. This lack of community college opportunities may contribute to the state’s low transfer-out rate of 12%.

RELATED: How to get community college student loans

Headed to a community college in New Hampshire? It’ll cost you

One of the main appeals of attending community college is the cost-savings potential. Unfortunately, community college is not as affordable in some states as it is in others.

For example, the cost of tuition and fees at public two-year schools in California averages $1,271 annually. Meanwhile, it costs nearly six times as much annually in New Hampshire, at $7,599. Here’s a closer look at the states with the lowest and highest community college tuition.

Cost of tuition and fees at public two-year colleges
Lowest Highest
Rank State Tuition cost Rank State Tuition cost
1 California $1,271 1 New Hampshire $7,599
2 New Mexico $1,705 2 Vermont $7,120
3 Arizona $2,161 3 South Dakota $6,170
4 Texas $2,259 4 Minnesota $5,389
5 North Carolina $2,504 5 New York $5,367

So why does it cost so much more to attend community college in New Hampshire than in California?

According to Student Loan Hero senior writer Andrew Pentis, perception surrounding how much an education should cost may be coming into play here.

“When families consider unique East Coast private schools that run up large bills, they’re often looking at states like New Hampshire and Vermont — and it appears the higher cost is trickling down to two-year schools as well,” Pentis explains.

New Hampshire’s cost of living isn’t helping either, says Pentis. While community colleges in New Hampshire may be more expensive than other states, so are many other consumer expenditures, and — unfortunately — even gift aid doesn’t always make an impact.

“Even though the state has a variety of scholarship and grant programs, they don’t drop schools’ sticker prices for most students,” Pentis says.

Full rankings

Despite affordability, community colleges appear less popular

Even though attending community college is generally more affordable than going straight to a public four-year or private university, these institutions aren’t as popular as they used to be.

In 1975, 51% of students enrolled in higher education institutions attended two-year public schools. As of 2018 — the latest available data — that figure has plummeted to 32%.

Percentage of students enrolled in college attending public two-year schools
1975 51% 1976 49% 1977 50% 1978 49%
1979 50% 1980 51% 1981 51% 1982 50%
1983 49% 1984 48% 1985 46% 1986 45%
1987 44% 1988 44% 1989 45% 1990 46%
1991 47% 1992 45% 1993 45% 1994 45%
1995 44% 1996 44% 1997 42% 1998 39%
1999 41% 2000 39% 2001 40% 2002 40%
2003 39% 2004 38% 2005 37% 2006 37%
2007 37% 2008 39% 2019 40% 2010 39%
2011 39% 2012 38% 2013 ​​38% 2014 37%
2015 36% 2016 34% 2017 33% 2018 32%

As you can see from the chart, interest in attending community college has significantly waned over the past few decades. As of 2018, the percentage of students enrolled in college attending two-year public schools was lower than in the past 45 years.

Pentis explains that part of the decline in community college students may have to do with the idea of community college being a less desirable or prestigious education option.

“Among high school students and, often, their parents, community college is seen as the lesser of two primary options,” Pentis says. “Most everyone would rather attend the big four-year campus, believing that it will lead to the traditional ‘college experience’ they’ve always sought.”

Pentis believes it’s worth overlooking these concerns, as attending community college over a university, particularly a private or out-of-state one, is the single biggest way for families to cut their higher education costs. Tuition is significantly lower, but so are living expenses, with many students attending community college in their own backyard being able to live and eat at their family home.

“The truth is, community colleges aren’t just more cost-effective than major colleges and universities,” Pentis argues. “They also give students the time and space they might need to take a variety of classes before committing to a degree path.”

He believes that families sometimes fail to realize that nothing is lost by attending a community college for one or two years and transferring to a preferred four-year school later.

That said, it’s understandable why some students may choose to go straight to a four-year university with community college costs on the rise. The cost of attending a public two-year institution is up 125% since 2000. However, the cost of attending a public four-year school also rose during that period, by 146%.

How to decide if a community college is right for you

While Student Loan Hero researchers looked at various metrics surrounding community college on a state level, you’ll need to evaluate each community college you’re considering on a school-by-school level. While one student may desire small class sizes, others may care more about how much tuition costs.

Not sure if community college is the right path for you? Pentis wants you to keep the following in mind to help make your decision.

  • Consider your potential career paths. It may be that your desired profession only requires an associate degree, for example, so attending a two-year school might get you into the workforce faster and without (as much) student loan debt. Some community colleges have specialized programs in nursing, auto mechanics and other popular career paths, so take each community college’s unique academic offerings into account.
  • Evaluate your academic record. If your grades and/or test scores suffered during your final semesters of high school, you might not have gotten into the four-year schools on your college list. “A two-year college can help you get back on track, discover your academic passions and decrease your need for student loans,” Pentis says. Talk to the guidance counselors at the community colleges you’re considering about what programs and resources they have to help students transfer to four-year universities. Generally, they have programs that make it easier to transfer to popular in-state universities than it would be to get in straight out of high school.
  • Look at your cash flow, particularly if you’re an independent borrower. Instead of borrowing student loans, you might decide that working through school is a better option that will also yield important real-world experience. “It’s much easier in some cases to take on jobs while studying at a community college versus a university,” Pentis says. If you want to work while in school, class schedules at community colleges can make a big difference. If they offer night and weekend classes alongside weekday ones, it will be easier to balance a work and school schedule.

Published in Research