President Barack Obama recently announced a plan to develop a college ratings system to help students make informed decisions about where they can get the best college education deal. Coincidentally, Bankrate undertook the task of ranking two-year community colleges and technical centers around the country to see where students can get the best, affordable start in their college careers.
Community colleges serve nearly half of all U.S. undergraduate students and play a crucial role in both workforce development and as a springboard to a four-year education. But few are recognized for just how far they go to serve students.
Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, we ranked more than 900 public two-year institutions to determine the best and brightest schools. Our rankings were based on six criteria: graduation rate; student retention rate; the student-faculty ratio; the school's in-state tuition and fees; the percentage of full-time first-time undergraduates receiving financial aid; and the average amount of grant aid they received from federal, state and private sources combined. The data cover full-time freshman students who entered college in fall 2008.
Our survey did not include private institutions, schools that did not report information on all six criteria to the National Center for Education Statistics or schools with fewer than 100 full-time students.
Following are the top 10 community colleges in the country based on Bankrate's criteria.
10. Colby Community College
Sliding into No. 10 on our list, Colby Community College in Colby, Kan., wins our accolade as one of the top community colleges because of its 10-1 student-faculty ratio, low in-state tuition of $1,824 per year ($2,944 with fees), and the fact that 97 percent of full-time first-time students receive some grant or scholarship aid. In addition to getting a cost break, students also receive direct attention from their instructors. Besides maintaining a low student-faculty ratio, Colby makes an effort to accommodate students who may not be able to make it to the main campus by offering courses through 24 locations spread throughout 14 surrounding counties.
While Colby offers programs of study ranging from broadcasting to massage therapy to solar photovoltaic studies, the broad array of agriculture programs really make this institution shine. Colby's 60-acre agricultural center acts as a living laboratory, provides students with real-world farming experience and offers the perfect place for the school's agrocentric programs, including agronomy, farm and ranch management, and agriculture economics.
The school also maintains strong programs for students who want to work with four-legged friends, including programs in equine science, animal science, and a robust veterinary technology program that can be completed on campus or online.
9. Mayland Community College
A 9-1 student-faculty ratio, low tuition and high retention rate landed Mayland Community College in Spruce Pine, N.C., a spot on our list of top community colleges, but the school also gets high marks for its emphasis on teaching soft skills in addition to providing technical and academic education.
"(We treat education) like a job. At a job, you just don't say, 'Well I don't feel like going today' or 'I'm going to be late,'" says Mayland President John Boyd, adding that the school maintains attendance and tardiness policies. "Students need to understand that there's no less expectation of their behavior at school as there would be in the workforce."
With more than 10,000 credit and noncredit students, the school is robust enough to support 27 academic and technical programs spread across the main Spruce Pine campus and two satellite learning centers. Nursing, electronics engineering, cosmetology, welding and horticulture are the most popular programs, says Boyd. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average Mayland student receives more than $4,600 in federal, state, local and institutional grant aid.
8. Charlotte Technical Center
While some four-year institutions struggle to offer students any financial aid, the average student at Charlotte Technical Center in Port Charlotte, Fla., receives nearly $1,000 more in scholarship or grant aid per year than the cost of tuition. The school boasts one faculty member for every seven students and prides itself on offering real-world experiences to supplement in-class learning.
Charlotte Tech's carpentry program, for example, partners with Habitat for Humanity to give students the opportunity to work on construction projects. The dental assisting program works in tandem with the American Dental Association to open a pop-up dental facility that provides services for more than 200 neighborhood children every February, and the school's culinary program serves an all-you-can-eat community meal to approximately 300 area residents every Thursday throughout the school year.
"We work very hard in getting our students intern experiences or even jobs while they're going to school," says Charlotte Technical Center Director Barney Duffy. About 85 percent of Charlotte Tech students find work within a year of graduation, Duffy adds, and if you can't find a job while in school, the school still has your back. Alumni are welcome to use the school's career placement services after graduation.
7. North Central Kansas Technical College
Nationwide, only about 20 percent of students graduate from two-year institutions within three years of enrolling. At North Central Kansas Technical College in Beloit, Kan., 81 percent of full-time students leave campus with their credentials in that time frame, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
North Central Kansas only offers technical programs -- 24 between two campuses -- and students may be required to collaborate with those outside of their degree program. Every year, students from the school's various programs -- carpentry, bricklaying, residential electricity, telecommunications, electronics engineering technology, and plumbing, heating and air conditioning -- work together to build a house from the foundation up.
"It really has been a great culmination and a great collaboration between a lot of different programs," says North Central Kansas Tech President Eric Burks. Proceeds from selling the house help fund the school's career technical programs.
North Central Kansas' technology studies program also works in tandem with the local four-year institution Fort Hays State University and provides transferrable credits students can apply toward a two-year degree program at North Central Kansas Tech or toward a four-year degree at Fort Hays State. All North Central students, regardless of program of study, receive direct attention from their teachers thanks to the school's sweet 10-1 student-faculty ratio.
6. Linn State Technical College in Linn, Mo.
Practical experience is the focus of Linn State Technical College in Linn, Mo. The reason this school boasts a 95 percent job-placement rate is because it goes to significant lengths to develop close ties with area businesses and industry leaders. Linn State boasts one of 11 Caterpillar dealer service technician programs in the country, and its commercial turf and grounds program was recognized as one of the top six in the U.S. by the National FFA Organization, also known as Future Farmers of America.
Even if students are applying for jobs outside of Linn State's area, the school still looks good to employers. In addition to receiving an academic grade, students also receive a grade on job readiness and classroom attendance for each and every course they take. Upon graduation, the school also provides a list of competencies grads can show an employer to prove their skills.
"If a company should find that a graduate cannot do what we say that that graduate can do ... the student can come back free of charge to retake a class or a portion of a class," says President Donald Claycomb. "We have not had anyone take advantage of that opportunity, but it does exist."
5. White Mountains Community College
As tuition prices skyrocket across the nation, community colleges in New Hampshire have frozen theirs for the fourth time since 2006. About 9 out of every 10 first-time full-time undergrads at White Mountains Community College in Berlin, N.H., receive financial aid, and once tuition is paid, students get access to a wide range of programs that aren't available at many other two-year institutions.
The school's environmental science program is one of seven research partners alongside schools such as Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire that participate in the state's National Science Foundation-funded Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.
"Our students are out in the field doing the work and then sending the data back to the University of New Hampshire for data input," says White Mountains President Katharine Eneguess.
The school also offers an innovative program that allows future teachers to start their studies in high school, transition to White Mountains for an associate degree in teaching, then complete work for a four-year degree by taking courses under Plymouth State University instructors on White Mountains' campus. White Mountains has also added a cybersecurity and health care IT certificate program.
4. Flint Hills Technical College
Located in east-central Emporia, Kan., Flint Hills Technical College is dedicated to hands-on education and partnering with local businesses. Seventy percent of learning time is spent in labs or in practical training. The Flint Hills construction technologies program, for instance, recently partnered with Kansas State University to build an office and classroom space on Flint Hills' campus.
The building is partially powered by solar and wind power. The construction technology program also worked with Habitat for Humanity last year to build a new house, while Flint Hills' multimedia program partners with local manufacturers to design marketing materials.
"We pride ourselves in every one of our programs to have cutting-edge technology," says Flint Hills President Dean Hollenbeck. "It's a challenge for us to make sure that our students, when they come into any of our programs, that the equipment they're using is exactly the equipment, exactly the software" that they'll be using in the real world, he says.
Nearly all -- 94 percent -- of graduates find work or continue their education after leaving Flint Hills.
3. Altamaha Technical College
This Georgia peach of a school lands on our list thanks to its low 12-1 student-faculty ratio, rock-bottom tuition of $2,100 per year and the fact that 97 percent of first-time full-time students receive financial aid. The price at Altamaha Technical College in Jesup, Ga., is even more affordable in light of how much scholarship and grant funding full-time students receive. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, full-time beginning undergrads receive average scholarship and grant packages of nearly $5,500 to help cover educational expenses.
The school also wins big points for offering a wide array of degrees, diplomas and certificates, ranging from crime scene fundamentals to paramedicine. Altamaha is also committed to helping students succeed. The school offers tutoring, personal counseling, academic advising and job placement services, which includes help connecting with local employers and interview workshops.
2. Erwin Technical Center
This technical school offers more than 20 post-secondary training programs, but James Rich, principal of Erwin Technical Center in Tampa, Fla., says practical nursing is Erwin's secret weapon. Fully 92 percent of Erwin nursing students pass their licensure exam, and across all programs of study, the school maintains a job placement rate of more than 80 percent.
The school also does a fantastic job of keeping students enrolled in their programs year after year. Nearly 90 percent of full-time students return to campus after completing their first year, and 85 percent make it to graduation. Students also leave campus with a boatload of practical training. Many of the school's industrial programs run working shops that give students a chance to test their skills with actual customers before getting unleashed into the real world.
"Every program that we have has to have an advisory committee (with) the majority of those members (being) industry people," says Rich. "They have to review our curriculum every year to make sure things are current ... but many of those are employers that hire our graduates. It's a real unique situation to have that tie to industry."
1. East San Gabriel Regional Occupational Program
East San Gabriel in West Covina, Calif., claims the No. 1 spot on our list because 100 percent of first-time full-time students receive financial aid, the average student receives a grant package topping $3,500, and at 87 percent, the graduation rate for full-time students is more than four times the national average.
East San Gabriel also has an 80 percent to 90 percent job placement rate, in part because internships or practical experience are required for all students, and many of the school's programs are designed to emulate small businesses, says Superintendent Laurel Adler. For example, East San Gabriel's microcomputer repair and maintenance program operates a computer repair shop that serves the local community.
If running your own company is the ultimate goal, this is the place to be. In addition to teaching the basics of starting a company, the school's small-business management program also helps students get off the ground.
"Once they get that degree, the school ... will actually pay for the student's business license and assist them in getting started," says Adler. "In other words, get their cards printed, help them set up their website and literally pay for the business license."