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Long perceived as the bottom rung of the higher-education ladder, community colleges are often the subject of distasteful college humor. And university elitists aren’t the only ones poking fun. Some of the very students who attend these so-called junior colleges joke about their own schools. Even the popular TV show Community has been criticized for perpetuating the stigma, its promoters reportedly lampooning community colleges as “halfway schools for losers.”
The unpopularity of community colleges stems from three principal misconceptions: first, that a link exists between cheap tuition rates and subpar quality of education; second, students are older, high school dropouts who failed admissions standards at “real” universities; and finally, dismal graduation rates reflect academic weakness. Such myths, however, draw from the nontraditional profile of a typical community-college attendee — 28 years old, on average, balancing studies with work, family or both. Personal commitments often limit students’ enrollment to one or two classes per semester and force them to delay graduation.
But while community colleges continue to be the butt of jokes, their graduates are getting the last laugh as they out-earn bachelor’s degree holders and their alma maters finally earn respect. Across the board, community colleges are slowly stacking up against their university counterparts by offering better schedule flexibility, smaller class sizes and comparatively rigorous coursework, including bachelor’s degree programs in some states at a fraction of the university cost. First-time college entrants find those qualities most appealing — as do university students transferring to community colleges, an emerging trend that reverses the traditional path of “upgrading” from a two-year to a four-year institution.
With back-to-school season upon us, WalletHub’s analysts compared 821 community colleges to identify those that outshine their competition. In making such a comparison, we examined each school across 12 key metrics, ranging from the cost of in-state tuition and fees to student-faculty ratio to graduation rate. Scroll down for the winners, expert commentary and a full description of our methodology. In addition to this ranking, we also conducted a state-by-state analysis of the Best & Worst Community College Systems.