With the cost of higher education in the U.S. continuing to soar and more Americans seeking degrees these days, Historic City News finds that community colleges are filling a demand that traditional four-year institutions are failing to meet.
Long perceived as the bottom rung of the higher-education ladder, community colleges are often made the butt of jokes by just about everyone — from university loyalists to cable TV to some of the very students who attend them.
But guess who isn’t laughing: Community-college graduates out-earning bachelor’s degree holders. Indeed, the “junior colleges,” as they’re sometimes referred to, are finally garnering the respect they deserve, proving they’re more than just “halfway schools for losers”.
Much of their “second-rate college” stigma stems from three factors: price, demographics and graduation times. Although their relatively cheaper tuition rates are a clear incentive, affordability also signals subpar educational quality to skeptics. And with an average student age of 28, the nontraditional profile of the typical community-college attendee perpetuates a misconception — one that assumes these students flunked out of high school and consequently failed admissions standards at “real” universities.
In their defense, a vast majority of these students balance their studies with jobs, family or both — commitments that often limit their enrollment to one or two classes per semester and force them to delay graduation.
Across the board, however, community colleges are slowly stacking up against their traditional four-year counterparts. Schedule flexibility, rigorous coursework and smaller class sizes supply the majority of their appeal to first-time college entrants as well as to university students choosing to transfer to community colleges — an emerging trend that goes against the usual grain of transitioning from a two-year to a four-year institution.
WalletHub compared 670 community colleges in the U.S. to find the ones that beat out the rest. Their data set includes a total of 17 key metrics, ranging from the cost of in-state tuition and fees to student-faculty ratio.
For further insight into this issue, we asked a panel of leading experts to weigh in with their thoughts. WalletHub evaluated their responses to the following key questions:
- Do you think President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community-college tuition free will increase enrollment and graduation rates?
- What can policymakers do to improve the quality of education and training at community colleges and the career prospects of graduates?
- 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?
SO, HOW DID OUR TWO-YEAR COMMUNITY COLLEGES STACK UP?
In order to identify the best and worst community colleges in the U.S., WalletHub compared 670 such institutions across four key dimensions, including:
1) Cost & Financing,
2) Classroom Experience,
3) Education Outcomes and
4) Career Outcomes.
Due to data limitations, we were not able to include all of the more than 1,100 member colleges of the American Association of Community Colleges.
We then compiled 17 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights.
Our analysis draws in part on the results of the annual Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) conducted by the University of Texas at Austin.
Most community colleges do not administer the survey to their students every year and results don’t change drastically from one year to the next. WallettHub combined results from the three most recently available years spanning 2013 through 2015 for each school that participated consistently. For colleges that participated in the survey more than once in each of the three years, we used the most recent results.
- Cost & Financing – Total Weight: 5
- Cost of In-State Tuition & Fees: Double Weight
- Total Amount of State & Local Aid Divided by Total Amount of Federal Aid (Grants): Full Weight
- Cost per Student (measures per-pupil spending by the school): Full Weight
- School Spending Efficiency (cost per student divided by cost of in-state tuition & fees): Full Weight
- Faculty Staff Salary Adjusted by Cost of Living: Full Weight
- Classroom Experience – Total Weight: 5
- Active & Collaborative Learning (measures students’ level of involvement in their own education and participation in team activities/projects): Full Weight
- Student Effort (measures students’ initiative to apply themselves to the learning process): Full Weight
- Academic Challenge (measures the complexity of courses and amount of work involved): Full Weight
- Student-Faculty Interaction (measures the strength of communication and personal relationships between instructors and their students): Full Weight
- Support for Learners (measures the availability and effectiveness of school-provided support services for students’ academic success): Full Weight
- Student-to-Faculty Ratio: Full Weight
- Education Outcomes – Total Weight: 5
- First-Year Retention Rate: Full Weight
- Graduation Rate: Full Weight
- Transfer-Out Rate: Half Weight
- Credentials (degrees and certificates) Awarded per 100 Full-Time-Equivalent Students: Full Weight
- Career Outcomes – Total Weight: 5
- Return on Educational Investment (ratio of starting salary for graduates to cost of education): Double Weight
- Student-Loan Default Rate: Full Weight
Data used to create these rankings were obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Center for Community College Student Engagement, and the Council for Community and Economic Research and American Institutes for Research and Optimity Advisors.