College Guide


August 22, 2010 11:00 PM America’s Best Community Colleges

By Kevin Carey

On July 14, 2009, President Obama stood on an outdoor stage at Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit. In the crowd below local dignitaries mingled with students and former autoworkers. Obama had campaigned at Macomb during the presidential election and was returning to announce the signature higher education effort of his administration: the American Graduation Initiative.

The goal, Obama said, was for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, a lead it had long held before falling behind other Western industrialized countries in recent years. To accomplish this, he promised to invest an unprecedented $12 billion to rebuild crumbling community college facilities, increase the number of two-year students who graduate and transfer to four-year schools, improve remedial education, forge stronger ties between colleges and employers, and create inexpensive, open-source courses for students to take online. It would be, he said, the most historic effort on behalf of community colleges since President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill.

A year later, the American Graduation Initiative is in ruins. While the administration convinced Congress this past March to take tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies away from the for-profit student loan industry and use the money to increase Pell Grants for low-income students, last-minute wrangling with conservative Democrats in the Senate gutted the graduation initiative, removing most of the programs and funding that might have helped more students earn degrees. Community colleges were left with a $2 billion Department of Labor career training program and a White House summit as consolation prizes. Further funding is unlikely.

Nevertheless, in the course of his Macomb speech, Obama made a key statement that should continue to guide his administration: we must “measure what works and what doesn’t” in community colleges. “All too often,” the president said, “we don’t know what happens when somebody walks out of a classroom and onto the factory floor or into the laboratory or the office. And that means businesses often can’t be sure what a degree is really worth. And schools themselves don’t have the facts to make informed choices about which programs achieve results and which programs don’t.”

Obama was right to call for more research about what works. But there’s a lot we already know. Since 2001, a nonprofit organization called the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, based at the University of Texas, Austin, has been gathering information about which community colleges do the best job of adopting institutional practices and encouraging student habits that years of research have shown to be strongly correlated with higher levels of learning. CCSSE has surveyed hundreds of thousands of students at over two-thirds of all community colleges in America about practices including the number of books and papers assigned, the frequency of group assignments, the amount of student interaction with faculty, hours spent preparing for class, and the quality of support services. Unlike similar surveys conducted for four-year colleges and universities, all CCSSE results are published on a Web site ( for anyone to see.

In 2007, Washington Monthly combined CCSSE results with graduation rates published by the U.S. Department of Education to create the first-ever list of America’s best community colleges. This year, we have updated the list with all-new CCSSE data (see “A Note on Methodology,” page 51), ranking more than 650 community colleges nationwide in order to identify the fifty best community colleges of 2010. As usual, they’re all over the map: there’s a small, science-oriented tribal college in New Mexico (at number thirty-five), a job-focused technical institute in rural Hazard County, Kentucky (number eighteen), a midsized suburban college in Washington State that prepares students to transfer to four-year universities (number seventeen), and a college built on the rainy side of an island paradise (number twenty-four). Many of the 2007 colleges reappear on this year’s list, underscoring the reliability of the CCSSE survey. Others stand out for the first time.

Here are some things we learned from these schools:

Selectivity Does Not Equal Excellence

It is commonly accepted that the colleges with the toughest admissions standards are the most excellent. Since community colleges don’t have admissions standards, many of us discount the idea of excellence in the two-year sector. Community colleges are supposed to be substandard, the thinking goes—somewhere you go if a four-year college won’t have you. To get a great education, you need to go to a famous university.

The list of America’s best community colleges proves this notion wrong. While all the schools on it are inexpensive, have open admissions, and are largely unknown outside their local communities, they stand out in teaching and helping students earn degrees. When it comes to quality of instruction they outperform not only their two-year peers, but many elite four-year research universities as well. As the table on page 50 shows, students at the top community colleges are more likely than their research university peers to get prompt feedback from instructors, work with other students on projects in class, make class presentations, and contribute to class discussions. Research universities too often subordinate teaching to research. At the best community colleges, teaching comes first.

So uncelebrated are America’s best community colleges that one thing the top ones tend to have in common is an underappreciation of just how good they are. That’s what we found when we visited the number one institution, Saint Paul College, in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. (For more information about Saint Paul College, see Erin Carlyle, “Shakespeare with Power Tools,” page 52.)

Money Isn’t Everything

Community colleges receive far less funding per student than do four-year institutions. This is despite the fact that they are more likely than four-year institutions to enroll students who delay entry to college, have jobs and families, receive a substandard high school education, and struggle economically. In a just world, they would be funded more generously, not less, than four-year schools to compensate for the more difficult job they do.

But, while community colleges could benefit greatly from more resources (and Congress was shortsighted to eviscerate their funding), the schools on our top fifty list do markedly better than their peers in making the best of the dollars they get. Also, while the top fifty schools devote slightly more per student ($12,903) than the average for community colleges we ranked ($11,045), the amount of money they spend isn’t determinative. Nine of the top community colleges spend less than $10,000 per student. For instance, Saint Paul’s spending is below average. The right leadership, organizational culture, and approach to teaching can make a big and immediate difference, even when colleges and students lack all the resources they need.

Make It Harder and More Will Graduate

Some colleges allege that poor graduation rates are an unavoidable—even laudable—consequence of maintaining high academic standards. But CCSSE researchers have found the opposite to be true. The higher the level of “Academic Challenge”—one of the five CCSSE measures that contribute to our rankings—the more likely students are to earn degrees, even after controlling for student preparation.

At Hesston College in Kansas (number two on our list), 63 percent of students report having to write eleven or more papers during the school year. At the average community college, only 26 percent of students report such workloads. At Hesston, 85 percent of students report being assigned five or more textbooks during the year. Nationwide, only 55 percent of students at community colleges report such levels of assignment. Nevertheless, Hesston graduates nearly two-thirds of its students in four years, far above the national average of 28 percent.

The best community colleges have found that when you set high expectations, students will live up to them—even when those students face barriers to graduation. Indeed, the top fifty community colleges enroll a higher percentage of students with Pell Grants (46 percent) than the average (41 percent) for the more than 600 colleges we ranked.

We believe that ranking community colleges is important. Nearly half of all American students begin their college careers at two-year institutions. But unlike in the four-year sector, students don’t compete to get into community colleges, and community colleges don’t compete in a national market for students. So there is little demand for national rankings of the kind published annually by U.S. News & World Report—and by the Monthly elsewhere in these pages. That means that students, educators, and policymakers have no comparable, consumer-friendly information when evaluating two-year schools.

Also, it’s essential to learn from the best. As President Obama noted in his speech, most community college students never graduate or transfer to a four-year school. This represents a huge loss of potential. Community colleges have the toughest job in higher education, teaching academically and financially challenged students with a fraction of the resources given to four-year institutions. That makes it essential to spotlight the schools that have surmounted these challenges and served their students well.

Of course, our rankings aren’t perfect. Like the president, we wish we knew how community college graduates fare in the job market and their future careers. We’d like to know if students who transfer to four-year schools get good grades, earn bachelor’s degrees, and go on to graduate and professional schools. It would help to have more objective measures of learning outcomes of the kind pioneered by nonprofit research organizations like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures higher-order analytic, communication, and critical-thinking skills. The more we know about community college excellence, the better the case for investing in the best institutions and holding the rest accountable for improvement.

But that’s all the more reason why the Obama administration should make the president’s call for more research and data into learning outcomes central to its future community college strategy. Information is cheap, in the grand scheme of things, and we still know far too little about the colleges that educate nearly half of all college students. In exchange for new federal funding, community colleges should expand their already laudable commitment to transparency. In higher education, more knowledge isn’t too much to ask.

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation.


  • Jill on August 23, 2010 10:08 AM:

    This is an excellent article. Too many people in today's society think that community colleges are for substandard individuals. I work, and have worked, with several people who have gone to well-known 4-year universities only to not find a job in their field, or not like what they were doing. Only then did they enroll in a community college to get an Associate degree.

    A community college is a good place to start out at, and then transfer to a major 4-year university to get the bachelor's degree. This is a great way for a high school student to gain what college is like, and to get the general requirements out of the way before delving into their major classes, which they can do at a 4-year college. They will spend less on tuition as well.

  • Monte Engel on August 23, 2010 10:38 AM:

    You may notice a pattern, 3 states (MN, NC & KS) are disproportionately represented on this list. Obviously, there is some factor in those states that lead to these high rankins.

  • Amy on August 23, 2010 4:02 PM:

    Every time I read articles on education in Washington Monthly, I'm disappointed. The arguments are typically rather simplistic and the evidence is thin. For instance, this piece overlooks the fact that two of the five schools ranked highest in your community college rankings have graduation rates under 50%. Yet you claim these have better education (and it's quite unclear why you define good education the way you do; the variables focus on process rather than outcomes) than traditionally highly ranked institutions.

  • Scopulus on August 23, 2010 8:32 PM:

    I was a little disappointed that Delaware Technical and Community College did not make the cut.
    No other school turns out more readily trained people that go directly into our state's workforce.
    Our hospitals practically rely on this school for there techs, nurses, and specialty therapists. Quick disclaimer, my wife is a respiratory therapist student there, but it has the only accredited respiratory program in the state and that includes the Univ. of Del.

  • Nora on August 25, 2010 1:16 PM:

    @Amy, the graduation rate displayed is the percentage of students going on to graduate at 4 year universities. While a significant portion of students do intend to transfer, part of the allure of community/technical/vocational schools is having a 2 year A.A degree that stands on it's own and does not require a B.A or B.S. Also many of these schools offer certifications, 1 or 2 semester plans to gain necessary education for a field without a degree (or on top of a degree, I have a friend who had a Political Science B.A couldn't find a job, and went back for a quick Human Resources certificate and was able to gain employment only after they had gone the community route).

  • Kyle on August 25, 2010 3:23 PM:


    To understand the graduation rate, you need to understand the differences between most community college students (especially those at Tribal Colleges) and typical students at four-year institutions.

    CC students are typically older, and are much more likely to need to balance work and family responsibilities than four-year college students. As a result, they frequently take much lighter class loads simply because time and financial constraints dictate their schedule.

    Consequently, graduation rates are much different from those at institutions who serve more "traditional" college students. It doesn't mean that the two-year colleges are less academically sound, or the students less able to succeed; it only means that they are, by and large, facing a completely different set of circumstances and concomitant challenges.

    Email me if you would like more information.

  • Bernard Schuster on August 28, 2010 7:16 PM:

    Community colleges definitely make a huge contribution to the welfare of the students and of the community they serve, so I think highlighting their role in an article of this kind is great. On the other hand, I don't think you can really accurately order them like that, as if #1 is truly better than #2 etc., in reality many of the schools are most likely nearly equal, with the choice for students likely to be based on which ones are available to them, and do they an effective program in the major the student wants. Although the criteria are stated, they are constructed with idea of giving numerical ranking, which I don't think is really that meaningful. If you had a ranking system saying these are great, these are good, these are average, etc., I think that would be more meaningful and thorough information. It is striking that the school with the highest graduation rate is dead last, 50th, among the 50 community colleges in the rankings. It seems to me that graduation rate would be the most important single stat, as it would reflect an overall effectiveness measure for the other factors used in the rankings.

    Bernard Schuster

  • djacks24 on August 29, 2010 11:47 PM:

    I didn't see Washtenaw Community College on there. Didn't even get surveyed. I earned a few Associate degrees there. I did receive a good education that provided me to transfer and earn my BS degree. But it is a huge community college that is as busy (if not busier) than the two neighboring public universities. It's easier to find parking at one of the universities than it is there at the start of every semester. I had always assumed the role of a community college was dual purpose in being in touch with local businesses and provide training to support the local economy. Secondly, to prepare students to transfer to a 4 year college. WCC is like a transfer mill that is primarily concerned with pumping students through the system and onto the universities with little regard for filling the needs of providing job ready programs or even providing programs for in demand occupations. Its seems as though they are completely in cahoots with the universities but couldn't care less about the local economy's needs. To them, an area of study wasn't worth offering, if it didn't lead to a bachelor's degree program at a 4 year college. Furthermore, if it wasn't for the fact that I had some spectacular part-time instructors that cared more about the students then their tenure, I would have wrote off the school in a couple of occasions. Any of the full-time faculty I had classes with seemed uncaring and out of touch with the subject material that they taught. As if every semester they read from the same script, with the assumption that the information never changed. If I had a choice I would've chosen a different school.

  • Diane on September 17, 2010 7:03 PM:

    @Nora - 4 year graduation rate is not how many go on to graduate from a 4 year institution. It is how many graduate from the 2 year college within 4 years!

    @Kyle - All of the colleges in this list are community colleges so they are not comparing graduation rates of Ivy League students to those more commonly found in community colleges. While tribal college students often face more challenges due to the huge disparity in income, health services and public resources thanks to a few centuries of oppression, the others, whether they are urban or rural have students with similar challenges. Graduation rates are one good indication of the overall health of a college.

    I find it disconcerting that this list contains colleges that just missed being on the "Dropout Factory" list, with rates in the 20% range!. I'd like to see the whole list of 650. My guess it that there are some in the top 200 that are far better than some of those listed here. Living in MN, I know that a few are outstanding (Itasca C.C.) but others rode to the top due to one heavily weighted factor while having a less than a top reputation locally.

  • scott ebner on October 05, 2010 2:55 PM:

    I'm not seeing the list. Could you direct me to it? Thx.

  • Tara on December 02, 2010 10:17 PM:

    I'm a student and Carolinas College (ranked #3) and I cannot believe how satisfied I am as a student. The teachers care about you, and will take the time to answer any questions or concerns you may have. They are passionate about what they do, and it shows through their teaching. This is by far the best schooling I've ever received, and it shows in my grades!! :)

  • Tara on December 02, 2010 10:24 PM:

    I'd also like to add that our school has a higher passing rate for the NCLEX (98%) than UNC!

  • Saint Paul Student on December 20, 2010 7:35 PM:

    I question the integrity of this review because I attended Saint Paul College last semester and was bewildered along with most of my fellow classmates that such a dysfunctional school would be anywhere close to the top in the country. This school is not even top in this state? They have ZERO interest in student involvement and are anything but "green". There are stories at Saint Paul College of students going through an entire program, earn a degree, and then find out that the financial aid office can't find their money. This school is a scandal waiting to happen and this #1 status smells of paid publicity in several ways. I challenge ANYONE to attempt to engage this school as a student and see how far you get without frustration. You will not get past the application process.

  • Saint Paul College Student After Looking at Data on December 20, 2010 7:57 PM:

    Well, I found your problem...the data that you have on your chart is completely false. It is not even remotely true that the interaction between the Students and Faculty is good. In fact, I have tried to engage the faculty and offer ways that there could be some student input into the course the college takes and they have specifically said they had no interest in any input from students about anything they do. The state website has a graduation rate for this school at 23%. With the numbers for St Paul College being so much higher than the others and yet my experience was more than difficult, I suspect that there is some foul play going on with the data you guys are receiving from Saint Paul College. You certainly didn't talk to the right students...or past students that have failed out because a lack of real interest in the student's experience. I would have to use profanity to fully express how I feel...but there is a scandal here and you guys need to protect your reputation and not be fooled by people who are experts in manipulating institutional data to protect their jobs. Something really stinks about this.

  • Nicolas Boggio on January 03, 2011 5:19 PM:

    I went to Broward Community College. Then I was able to get a scholarship to Florida Atlantic University. I ended up getting my BS in Civil Engineering and now I am finishing my Masters in Structural Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I currently have a 3.8 GPA and have 10 credits left. I have also obtained my professional license. It is very offensive for people to think that only "inferior people" attend two year colleges. I come from a financially challenged family, not only did I have to work and help my mother while she was going through several cancer treatments, but I also have to keep my academics up....

  • SA on February 19, 2011 12:23 PM:

    where is that list?????

  • Washington Monthly on February 19, 2011 2:24 PM:

  • @ Saint Paul College student on August 13, 2011 1:40 PM:

    That crossed eye FA lady got to you too, eh? I've talked to everyone from the retention department, enrollment center, FA office, and even to the IT help desk for help in getting back to school after a long layoff. All of them with the exception of the crossed eye lady at FA went above and beyond IMO to help me get what I needed in order for me to go back to school. We all know not everyone will like the school in which they attended, it's a fact of life, but you don't have to lie about it now! You know as well as anyone with a, "common sense" knows why the graduating ratings are like that! You can cheat yourself but don't cheat others now.

    But maybe you should attend a for-profit school then you would know how lucky you are to have attended Saint Paul College!! The one thing about Community colleges is that they ARE NOT out to get your money and then leave you hanging out at the corner of the street begging for change. You want someone who'll act like they want you there and treat you like a superstar? Go to a for-profit school!! Until you sign that dotted line of course, they'll even roll a red carpet for you to the entrance of their school if you ask them too. But be warned though, once you sign the dotted line, be prepared for a ride to Hell and back!!!

    Community Colleges are the best to have happened to a community, and I truly believe they deserves as much, if not more grants from the federal government then your typical 4-year colleges and definitely way more than those ripoff for-profit schools whose sole purpose is to cheat the uniformed and the poor for all they have!

    To everyone thinking about going back to school and getting a two year degree to either get a higher paying job or just to change career, go to your local Community College and not a for-profit college that you see on TV or those online ads. You'll save tons of head aches, MONEY, and be able to appreciate what these Community Colleges are doing for YOUR communities!!!

    But of course, to each their own so.....

    That's all, goodbye and come again!!

  • Tseng Y. on January 29, 2012 4:21 PM:

    I'm from Mn and I attend century college in white bear,MN but I live in St. Paul. I think over all MN is a great state for college students over all. If you look at the listing, about 4 community colleges are rank in the top ten are from MN. This says a lot for MN and I am please with what MN has done for our smaller (higher) education communities.