As states consider initiatives to try to increase the affordability of and access to community colleges, a new WalletHub analysis found South Dakota had the best community college system in the United States, with Alaska and Washington following directly behind.
The report was released in tandem with an analysis pinpointing the best and worst community colleges in the country, research 728 different institutions. To determine the best state systems, researchers calculated a weighted average of all the scores from community colleges located within each state. Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota was determined to be the finest community college in the country, according to the survey.
One of the connecting threads among some of the highest-ranked colleges was that they were located in states which either provided free community college education in certain circumstances, in the case of Minnesota, or had considered passing such legislation, according to Jill Gonzalez, an analyst for WalletHub.
“Colleges in states that provide free secondary education or have at least introduced legislation on the matter obviously have a leg up here, not only cost-wise, but in quality of education as well," she said.
A number of states in the previous year have considered offering tuition-free enrollment in four-year and/or community colleges, including a program in New York’s public college system (although the initiative, named the Excelsior Scholarship, has its critics). Earlier this year, members of California’s state legislature considered free community college tuition for students, legislation inspired by Tennessee’s Promise program. Oregon, however, recently discovered the state didn't plan for the number of students who would be both interested in and qualified for its free community college plan, and the state is running out of money to fund the initiative.
Public college costs are rising faster than tuition rates at private colleges and universities, which can make reduced or free tuition rates for community college applicants all the more attractive. While education officials largely agreed that free tuition would help boost enrollment at community colleges, it was less certain that such practices would have a similar effect on graduation rates. Kristin Bailey Wilson, an associate professor of Educational Administration, Leadership and Research in the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Western Kentucky University, expressed concern that the influx of new enrollees could have unexpected consequences.
“At best, tuition represents about 30% to 40% of total revenue. Free sounds good to students, so free tuition means more high schoolers will attend community colleges; however, community colleges will not have the funding to build more classrooms or hire more faculty members. They’ll have 30 cents for every needed dollar,” she said. “Typically, that means academic leaders build cheap academic infrastructure, such as online classes staffed by adjunct or part-time faculty members, or increasing class sizes or faculty teaching loads. The research suggests that such approaches to building academic infrastructure are not positively related to persistence or graduation.”
Transportation has proven to be a hindrance for many potential applicants to four-year universities, including adult learners and other non-traditional students. In response, some states have adjusted practices at their community colleges to attract these potential applicant populations; California has sought to target unemployed or underemployed adults with an online-only program, while Pennsylvania is utilizing “interactive television” lectures to reach people in rural areas who want to enroll in community colleges. Other states have worked to make the transition between a local two-year community college and a four-year university that may be further from home or other responsibilities more seamless for interested students.
"To effectively improve the quality of education at community colleges, policymakers can provide incentives for the establishment of community college and four-year university partnerships,” she said. “This way, community college students can earn course credits at four-year universities, potentially motivating them to transfer from two-year colleges to four-year universities. Transfer students can save an average of $12,260 over two years on tuition and fees alone."
Many experts note the need to stanch the bleeding of state government divestment of higher education funding, an issue detailed in a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report released earlier this week. It is important for community colleges to maintain a dual focus on students who are interested in pursuing career and technical education (CTE) opportunities, as well as those who were hoping to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year university, with most saying a college should not necessarily invest in the notion that they can only adequately service one or the other group. Gina Anderson, the interim associate dean at the College of Professional Education and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Woman’s University, said for community colleges to thrive, the relationship with four-year universities must be reciprocal and substantive.
“Community colleges can provide both vocational and technical education, as well as prepare graduates to move to four-year universities. Seamless transfer pathways are crucial,” she said, detailing the ways in which a four-year university could excel in servicing transfer students like the Education College at TWU. “These areas of specialization and faculty expertise increase the quality of our programs, and thus the value of a college degree. Rather than duplicate programs already in place at four-year institutions, community colleges should focus on working with four-year institutions to complement those programs.”