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Best Community Colleges In Virginia

The 10 Best Community Colleges in Virginia

The Virginia Community College System was created in 1966, and its ability to serve students has only expanded since its founding. Thanks to online courses and other measures, access to higher education is becoming less of a dream and more of a reality for residents throughout the Commonwealth.

We wanted to find out which of the state's 23 two-year public institutions that we ranked could be called the best community colleges in Virginia, so we did some digging. We took relevant data from the U.S. Department of Education and the Virginia Community College System and using in-house metrics, ranked them for prospective students.

The specifics of our methodology can be found below, in case you want to know in detail how the rankings were determined. Until then, however, here they are: the best community colleges in Virginia, listed from No. 1 to No. 10, along with an explanation of why they made the list and a bonus fact about each one.

> Read our full ranking methodology here

The top 10 community colleges in Virginia

1. Tidewater Community College (Norfolk)

The No. 1 institution on our list earned its crown in part thanks to its dedication to accessibility. Tidewater Community College is a school that understands the range of circumstances that its students may be facing, so it offers life experience credit, weekend/evening degree programs and on-campus day care — the trifecta of amenities for non-traditional students. On top of that, it had the fifth-highest percentage of students who transferred to four-year universities and featured a rate of enrollment in distance education that was higher than all but four of the schools on our top 10 list.

  • Supporting our troops: Many of the top community colleges in Virginia have initiatives in place to better provide higher education programs to servicemembers and veterans, and TCC is no exception. The institution's Virginia Beach campus is home to the Center for Military and Veterans Education (CMVE), which works to assist veterans, active duty military and their families with the finer points of college life and post-service career transitions.

2. Northern Virginia Community College (Annandale)

As the largest school on our list, Northern Virginia Community College — NOVA for short — delivers its educational programs to a student body that outsizes those at most universities. That the institution manages the educational fortunes of more than 51,000 students is impressive in its own right, but that it also boasts the best retention rate and the No. 3 rate of outbound university transfers while doing so is downright heroic. The cost of tuition at NOVA is on the affordable side of average, also, checking in at around $900 less than the statewide average for all public two-year schools reported by the College Board in 2014.

  • Dream achievers: One explanation for NOVA's high rates of retention and transfer student success might be its participation in the Achieving the Dream initiative, which focuses on working with students in challenging circumstances to help them build good study habits and stick with their degree or training program until it's complete.

3. Thomas Nelson Community College (Hampton)

Thomas Nelson Community College provides career training as well as associate degree and college transfer programs, and statistics show that its academic offerings are doing their job. The data indicate that the Hampton school's transfer rate was No. 1 statewide in 2014, and its retention rate ranked in the top five on our final list. Also, despite a slightly higher tuition and fees cost than our No. 2 school, the average expense of books, supplies and other materials was affordable enough to rank TNCC as a better overall bargain in terms of estimated total attendance cost.

  • Pathway to heritage: The best-in-class transfer rate at TNCC may have something to do with students taking advantage of the school's co-enrollment agreement with William and Mary, the second-oldest university in the country, if students who apply make the cut. The agreement ensures acceptance to the heritage institution and locks in TNCC's tuition rates for courses taken at the university, among other benefits.

4. John Tyler Community College (Chester)

Another one of the best community colleges in Virginia when it comes to transfer rate, John Tyler Community College facilitated more university transfers among its students than all but one other two-year school in the state. Students at JTCC also paid the third-lowest average cost of books and supplies out of the top 10 community colleges in Virginia, and the school's portion of distance education students was better than 50 percent of the student body. Students can also earn course credit for applicable life experience, and many degree plans offer weekend and evening courses.

  • Eye on STEM: In 2014, JTCC's Midlothian campus broke ground for the construction of a new building that features laboratory and classroom space through which the college may expand its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) course offerings. What's more, STEM students at John Tyler who meet certain qualification criteria may have access to subject-specific scholarships and other special programs.

5. Virginia Highlands Community College (Abingdon)

Virginia Highlands Community College did especially well on the average net price metric, which is a measure of the expected cost of a year of school that balances tuition, fees, books, supplies, housing and other expenses against the average amount of financial aid a student gets. VHCC was one of just four schools among the top community colleges in Virginia to report a net price of less than $5,000 in 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, due in part, at least, to its average cost of books and supplies that came in at No. 2 on our list.

  • Green thumbs: VHCC offers a special array of opportunities for students interested in gardening, landscaping and horticulture. Courses are available in subjects such as landscape construction, turfgrass management and nursery production, and students have access to an on-campus greenhouse, numerous landscaped gardens, a horticulture club, and an annual plant sale at the end of the fall semester.

6. J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College (Richmond)

Coming in at No. 6 on our top 10 list , J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College placed respectably across the board. The student-faculty ratio at Reynolds wound up tied for sixth statewide, the school's retention rate landed it just outside the top three schools on our list and enough students successfully transitioned into university degree programs to rank the Richmond school in the top five for transfer rate. Accessibility options at Reynolds include weekend/evening degree programs and a robust distance education program in which better than 54 percent of students participate at least part-time.

  • Dozens of co-enrollments: Reynolds students have a number of universities to choose from when it comes to co-enrollment student success initiatives, including George Mason, James Madison, Virginia Commonwealth University, Old Dominion and Virginia State. Some schools feature co-enrollment agreements that cover the spectrum of associate degrees while others focus on more specific subject areas.

7. Dabney S. Lancaster Community College (Clifton Forge)

Dabney S. Lancaster Community College may not be one of the bigger schools on this list, but the school's focus on affordability makes it one of the best-value community colleges in Virginia. The tuition and fees reported for DSLCC was the lowest on our list — nearly $1,500 less than the mean tuition and fees costs of all 23 schools we ranked — and the average net price passed on to students was No. 1 on our top 10 list as well. To sweeten the deal even further, the student-faculty ratio at DSLCC checked in at 17:1 in 2014, good for the No. 2 spot.

  • Close-knit environment: Not only is Dabney S. Lancaster the most affordable school on our top 10 list, it's also the smallest. Just 1,257 students were enrolled at DSLCC in 2014, which can make for a campus that rarely feels crowded and professors whose attention is often available for one-on-one meetings or supplemental instruction.

8. Paul D. Camp Community College (Franklin)

As the second-smallest school on our list, Paul D. Camp Community College took the illustrious No. 1 position in terms of personalized instruction with a runaway best student-faculty ratio of 14:1. That level of available faculty attention combines with a strong showing in the distance education enrollment category and a net price ranking of No. 6 statewide to help PDCCC students make it to the end of their programs: the Franklin institution graduated students at the second-highest rate among the 10 top community colleges in Virginia.

  • Lifelong learning: Alongside its standard associate degree and career training programs, PDCCC offers an initiative called Encore Learning, designed to provide adults aged 50 and over with a environment in which they can explore new ideas, sharpen their skills and meet other lifelong learners in their community. Encore Learning members can enroll in as many non-credit courses that their heart desires (and their schedule allows) for just $50 per year.

9. Germanna Community College (Locust Grove)

As an institution that serves seven separate counties, it's important for Germanna Community College to offer an array of options for access to its programs. Distance learning is one of the biggest — the online enrollment percentage at Germanna was third-highest among the top 10 community colleges in Virginia — and students who require classes to be scheduled on weekends or evenings can find them here as well. The Locust Grove campus focuses on nursing and other health care programs, and a planned expansion of its nursing facilities may allow it to serve even more aspiring health professionals in the coming years.

  • Driving innovation: The Fredericksburg campus of Germanna Community College is home to a hub for SkillUpVA, a program designed to help students of all ages and backgrounds develop the necessary skills to advance through the ranks of their chosen career. Events conducted through SkillUpVA include workshops, non-credit classes, meetups, boot camps, online seminars and more.

10. Mountain Empire Community College (Big Stone Gap)

Even though it occupies the last spot on our list, Mountain Empire Community College has a lot to offer. It came in at No. 2 among our top 10 best community colleges in Virginia, for affordability of tuition, fees, books and supplies, which also landed it at No. 2 in the net price metric. MECC also had the best graduation rate out of all the schools on our list, and its 60 percent of students enrolled in at least some distance education courses was good enough to land it in the No. 4 spot statewide.

  • Resources galore: Students at MECC have access to a wealth of on-campus and online resources that can help them further their academic and professional development. Students can learn the finer points of campus technology through workshops and projects offered by training firm Atomic Learning, and online tutoring and writing lab Smarthinking is available 24 hours a day.

The best beyond the numbers

We crunched a lot of numbers to get these rankings, but it remains true that data often has a tough time expressing the more subtle, qualitative parts of student life at a given institution. If you're looking into the best community colleges in Virginia, remember to visit a few campuses if you can — a college community that makes you feel like you belong can be the main ingredient in a successful education and a rewarding college experience. Check out online colleges in Virginia for more information, too.

Methodology

We ranked 23 schools belonging to the Virginia Community College System. Each school was scored on a 5-point scale, using the following seven data points and the weights specified:

  1. The percentage of students enrolled in distance education, Virginia Community College System, 2013
  2. Cost of attendance, based on the cost of tuition & books from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2014, and the average net price for Title IV students from the Department of Education's College Scorecard, 2013: 30%
  3. Student-to-faculty ratio, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013: 5%
  4. The average retention rate for full- and part-time students, College Scorecard, 2013: 5%
  5. The graduation rate in 200% of time over a rolling two-year average, College Scorecard, 2013: 5%
  6. The transfer rate to a senior institution for the fall 2010 cohort as of fall 2013, Virginia Community College System, 2015: 30%
  7. Flexibility score, based on three data points* from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2013: 10%

*If school offers credit for life experiences, weekend or evening programs, and offers on-campus daycare.

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Sources:
1. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013-14, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed Nov. 4, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
2. Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements), College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, accessed Nov. 4, 2015, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
3. Summary of Transfer Rates by College: Fiscal Years 2001-2015, Virginia Community College Board, accessed Nov. 5, 2015, page 15, https://www.iccb.org/data.accountability.html
4. 2015 Data and Characteristics of the Virginia Community College System: Tables, I-1, I-2 and I-3, Virginia Community College Board, Accessed Nov. 5, 2015, http://www.vccs.edu/about/where-we-are/impact/
5. Tuition and Fees by Sector and State over Time, The College Board, accessed Dec. 21, 2015, http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-sector-state-over-time
6. A Brief History of VCCS, Virginia's Community Colleges, accessed Dec. 21, 2015, http://www.vccs.edu/about/where-we-have-been/
7. School pages, accessed Dec. 21-22, 2015: Center for Military and Veterans Education, Tidewater Community College, http://www.tcc.edu//military; Achieving the Dream, Northern Virginia Community College, http://www.nvcc.edu/atd/index.html; William and Mary Co-Enrollment Program, Thomas Nelson Community College, tncc.edu/wm; About, College of William and Mary, http://www.wm.edu/about/; Midlothian Phase III Construction, John Tyler Community College, http://www.jtcc.edu/about/midlothian-phase-iii-construction/; STEM-H Programs, John Tyler Community College, http://www.jtcc.edu/academics/stem-h-programs/; Greenhouse/Indoor Garden, Virginia Highlands Community College, http://vhcc2.vhcc.edu/hort/greenhouse.htm; Campus Gardens, Virginia Highlands Community College, http://vhcc2.vhcc.edu/hort/campus_gardens.htm; VHCC Plant Sale, Virginia Highlands Community College, http://www.vhcc.edu/index.aspx?page=2460; Reynolds Transfer Agreements, J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College, http://www.jsr.vccs.edu/get_started/gta/reynolds_agreements.aspx; Encore Learning, Paul D. Camp Community College, http://www.pdc.edu/workforce-development/encore-learning/; Locust Grove Campus, Germanna Community College, http://www.germanna.edu/about-germanna/locations/locust-grove-campus/; About SkillUpVA, Germanna Community College, http://www.germanna.edu/workforce/skillupva/about/; SkillUpVA Workshops, http://www.germanna.edu/workforce/skillupva/workshops/; Learning Resources, Mountain Empire Community College, http://www.mecc.edu/learning-resources/
8. About Atomic Learning, Atomic Learning, accessed Dec. 22, 2015, https://www.atomiclearning.com/highed/about-us