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Best Community Colleges In Florida

community colleges in floridaFlorida may be known for its bustling nightlife, diverse mix of cultures, seemingly endless coastline and several nationally renowned universities, but only a select few are aware of the top-notch colleges that operate in the Sunshine State below the university level. The Florida College System oversees two distinct types of schools: community or junior colleges, which exclusively award associate degrees and professional certifications; and state colleges, which are also sanctioned to offer certain four-year study plans that culminate in bachelor's degrees.

Not all of the institutions in the Florida College System are created equal, however — some of them charge more affordable tuition and feeds, provide greater financial aid support, graduate a greater percentage of students or place a higher priority on accessibility and distance education than others. We gathered a big spread of 2013-14 data on each of these schools and ranked them according to six metrics of varying significance to student success:

  • Affordability of tuition and fees
  • Schedule flexibility
  • Distance education participation
  • Graduation rates
  • Student-to-faculty ratio
  • Acceptance rates of transfer applicants into the University of Florida system

You can check out our full methodology at the end of the article, in case you want to know more about how we went about the rankings. For now, though, without further ado, let's take a look at the top 10 Florida community colleges and talk about some of the reasons why they made the list.

The top 10 Florida community colleges

1. Valencia College (Orlando, FL)

Topping the list is Valencia College, not only one of the largest Florida community colleges but also one of the least expensive and most accessible. Of the more than 42,000 students who attended Valencia in the 2013-14 academic year, nearly 14,000 were enrolled in at least some distance education courses, and the cost of tuition, fees and supplies the same year was low enough to place it in the top 10 percent for affordability. In fact, the amount listed for tuition and fees alone was just $2,378, the lowest among any of the top 10 Florida community colleges and nearly $800 less than the statewide average for two-year institutions in 2014.

  • Major award winner: Valencia College was the inaugural recipient of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in 2011, recognizing the institution for its achievements in accessibility, certificate and degree completion, student employment after graduation and success among minority and low-income students.
  • Enrollment: 42,180 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 33%

2. Eastern Florida State College (Cocoa, FL)

The data for Eastern Florida State College didn't indicate runaway superiority in any one particular category, but its respectable showing across the board was enough to land it the No. 2 spot. Highly reasonable tuition and a solid graduation rate in 2014 placed it among the top quintile in both categories, and its rate of acceptance for attempted transfers to institutions of the State University System of Florida also ranked in the top 20 percent.

  • Like-minded communities: The four campuses of EFSC — located in Cocoa, Melbourne, Palm Bay and Titusville — had a total of 60 student clubs between them in 2015, including hobby clubs, leadership clubs, language clubs, arts clubs and career-oriented clubs for welders, nurses, engineers and more.
  • Enrollment: 16,711 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 31%

3. Santa Fe College (Gainesville, FL)

Even though our No. 1 school boasts the lowest cost of tuition among schools on this list, Santa Fe College in Gainesville holds the title for the most affordable school overall. Its reported cost of books and supplies in 2013-14 came in at less than half the expense in the same category at other schools, placing its total cost of attendance just above $3,100 for the year and ranking it among the top 10 percent of affordable schools statewide. The graduation rate at Santa Fe took a lofty place in our rankings, also, easily making the top 10 percent and coming in second overall.

  • Wide renown: Not only is Santa Fe among the top Florida community colleges, it's made its presence felt on the national and international stages as well. The Gainesville school is a charter member of the League for Innovation in the Community College, an international organization dedicated to diversity, community, service and quality at two-year educational institutions.
  • Enrollment: 15,113 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 32%

Even though our No. 1 school boasts the lowest cost of tuition among schools on this list, No. 3 Santa Fe College in Gainesville holds the title for the most affordable school overall.


4. College of Central Florida (Ocala, FL)

The College of Central Florida, known locally as CF, offers a wealth of accessibility features, particularly for nontraditional students (students who aren't attending college for the first time right out of high school). It ranked third statewide in percentage of distance education students, with 44 percent of the student body taking some coursework in the online learning environment. What's more, tuition that cost about $650 less than the state average was good for an affordability score in the top 30 percent, and the Ocala school's graduation rate also placed in the top quintile among all schools surveyed.

  • Working parent? No problem: As an added accessibility benefit, CF offers weekend/evening classes and degrees and provides on-campus child care for students who are trying to fit their continued education into a busy family schedule. On top of that, returning students with workforce, military or other non-scholastic experience may qualify to earn course credit for their life experience.
  • Enrollment: 8,162 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 44%

5. South Florida State College (Avon Park, FL)

Students at South Florida State College were accepted into State University System of Florida schools at the highest rate among all schools on this list, with more than three-fourths of applicants gaining entry. That figure would be impressive enough in itself, but SFSC also boasts a graduation rate in the top quintile and a financial aid distribution that covers 98 percent of the student body. Tuition, fees and supplies at South Florida State were a little steeper than some other top Florida community colleges, but the student-faculty ratio of just 17:1 could be worth the extra outlay.

  • Eye on the arts: SFSC works to bring national and internationally acclaimed artists and entertainers to the Avon Park campus's Theater for the Performing Arts. Entertainment and arts programs over the last 30 years have included orchestral performance, musical theater, ensemble dance, jazz, oratory, comedy and more.
  • Enrollment: 2,699 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 29%

6. Lake-Sumter State College (Leesburg, FL)

Even though its percentage of distance education students isn't as high as some of the other schools on this list, Lake-Sumter State College maintains a commitment to providing flexible scheduling options for students with family and career obligations. Weekend and evening coursework is available in many of the school's degree and certificate programs, and a ratio of fewer than 20 students per faculty member goes a long way toward ensuring that students in all types of classes can get the help they need when they need it.

  • Community responsibility: Administrators at LSSC work to keep the needs of their surrounding communities as they establish programs and build new facilities. Athletic events and arts programs produced by the school are open to the public, and library facilities on LSSC campuses are designed to benefit the regional population at large.
  • Enrollment: 4,288 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 28%

7. Pasco-Hernando State College (New Port Richey, FL)

Administrators make accessibility a high priority at Pasco-Hernando State College, where on-campus day care and flexible class scheduling combine with fairly robust distance education enrollment to provide opportunity for students in a variety of personal circumstances. The numbers seem to show that it's working, too — rates of graduation and transfer to State University System schools for PHSC students both fell on the sweet side of the statewide mean in 2014.

  • High student density: This Gulf Coast institution has a student body that's greater than half the size of the population of New Port Richey, its surrounding city. Towns with high percentages of students in residence tend to have a fairly solid infrastructure of libraries, coffee shops, tutoring services and other academic services and recreations.
  • Enrollment: 10,206 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 31%

Looking for distance education options? A considerable percentage of Northwest Florida State College's student body enrolled in online coursework the past school year.


8. Northwest Florida State College (Niceville, FL)

While an education at Northwest Florida State College may not be as competitively priced as those at some other top Florida community colleges, the data indicate that it pays off for students who see it through. Our analysis found both the graduation rate and university transfer rate to be in the top 30 percent statewide and among the top eight of all schools surveyed in both cases. There was also a considerable percentage of the student body enrolled in online coursework — more than a third of all students in 2014, also good for a top-8 position among Florida College System schools.

  • Four-year degrees: As a state college, NWFSC is able to offer four-year bachelor's degrees alongside the usual certifications and associate degrees granted by community colleges. Degrees available in 2015 included health care management (B.A.S.) project management (B.A.S.), elementary education (B.S.) and nursing (B.S.N.).
  • Enrollment: 6,708 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 37%

9. Broward College (Fort Lauderdale, FL)

With a student body of nearly 45,000, Broward College is the largest institution on our list by enrollment. It's also one of the most affordable, with tuition and fees that cost around $650 less than the statewide average in 2014 and an overall cost of attendance that placed among the top 20 percent for affordability. Distance education enrollment at the three Broward county campuses is fairly low, percentagewise, which suggests that students are taking more advantage of campus-based day care services and weekend/evening courses than online options.

  • Environmental stewardship: Broward is one of the top Florida community colleges for ecological initiatives, featuring concentrated initiatives toward sustainability, native landscaping and solar-powered transportation. As a testament to that commitment, two buildings on campus hold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
  • Enrollment: 43,833 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 22%

10. Chipola College (Marianna, FL)

Rounding out our list is Chipola College, an institution at the northern edge of the Panhandle that has been serving Marianna students for nearly 60 years. Chipola is home to an interesting pair of superlatives in our data set: it's the smallest school by enrollment, totaling just 2,160 students in 2013-14 academic year, and it has the absolute highest graduation rate among all Florida community colleges we surveyed. The small student body may help keep the student-faculty ratio relatively low, as well — it was reported as 20:1 in 2014.

  • State employee financial aid: Chipola features a program that can forgive up to six semester hours of tuition for employees of eligible Florida state government agencies. Certain independent study or selective admission courses don't qualify for the waiver, but many degree-eligible courses can be fully discounted.
  • Enrollment: 2,160 students
  • Percentage of students enrolled at least partly in distance education: 28%

What does it really mean to be the best?

We wanted to use a sound, reasoned and repeatable statistical methodology to rank the top Florida community colleges, and this list represents the results of that calculation. There are, however, numerous subjective considerations that come into play when choosing where to continue your education, and those less measurable things might have more significance to you than a school's graduation rate or number of students per professor. Look into a few Florida community colleges, both nearby and through distance education programs, and determine by your own metrics which one is the best one for you. Then, once you're ready, check out how you can make the most of online education in Florida.

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Methodology

We ranked 28 Florida community and state colleges, each of which belongs to the Florida College System and releases data through the Florida Department of Education. A 10-point scale was used to calculate each school's score on the following six categories, with a distribution of statistical weight indicated by the value in parentheses:

  1. Percentage of students enrolled in distance education (15%), National Center for Education Statistics, 2013
  2. Total cost of attendance (30%), including tuition & fees plus books & supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013
  3. Student-to-faculty ratio (5%), National Center for Education Statistics, 2013
  4. Graduation rate (5%), National Center for Education Statistics, 2013
  5. The acceptance rate of transfer applicants into the State University of Florida System (30%), Florida Department of Education, 2013
  6. Flexibility (15%), based on three* data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2013

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

Sources:
1. K-20 Education Code, The 2014 Florida Statutes, The Florida Legislature, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?mode=View%20Statutes&SubMenu=1&App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=1007.33&URL=1000-1099/1007/Sections/1007.33.html
2. Tuition and Fees by Sector and State over Time, Trends in Higher Education, The College Board, accessed July 15, 2014, http://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-sector-state-time
3. "Valencia Named Top Community College in Nation," Carol Traynor, Valencia College, December 12, 2011, accessed July 15, 2014, http://news.valenciacollege.edu/academic-issues/valencia-named-top-community-college-in-nation/
4. Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, The Aspen Institute, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.aspeninstitute.org/policy-work/college-excellence/overview
5. Clubs & Activities, Eastern Florida State College, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.easternflorida.edu/student-life/clubs-and-activities/
6. Who We Are, Santa Fe College, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.sfcollege.edu/about/
7. About the League, League for Innovation in the Community College, accessed July 15, 2014, http://www.league.org/league/about/about_main.htm
8. About, SFSC Performing Arts, South Florida State College, accessed July 16, 2014, http://performances.southflorida.edu/about/
9. About LSSC, Lake-Sumter State College, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.lssc.edu/about/Pages/default.aspx
10. New Port Richey, Florida, State & County QuickFacts, U.S. Census Bureau, accessed July 16, 2014, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/12/1248500.html
11. Bachelor Degrees, Northwest Florida State College, accessed July 16, 2014, http://catalog.nwfsc.edu/content.php?catoid=12&navoid=2336
12. Team Green, Broward College, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.broward.edu/teamgreen/Pages/success.aspx
13. State Employee Tuition Waiver Information, Chipola College, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.chipola.edu/fiscal/waiver.htm
14. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013-14, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed June 18, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
15. “The Florida College System, Florida College System Students: Applied, Admitted, And Enrolled In The State University System Of Florida, 2009 To 2013,” Florida Department of Education, Accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.fldoe.org/schools/higher-ed/fl-college-system/data-reports/transparency-accountability.stml