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Best community colleges in New Jersey

Best community colleges in New JerseyNew Jersey's community colleges are a prime economic force not just its students, but for all residents at large. According to the New Jersey Council for Community Colleges (NJCCC) — the organization that oversees all 19 schools and more than 60 campuses — community colleges account for more than half of all undergraduate students in the state. These institutions prepare learners for entry-level jobs or advanced degrees. Some even offer on-site bachelor's and master's degrees from partner universities like Rutgers University, Drexel University and Fairleigh University. New Jersey community colleges offer more than traditional programs, however. They are a source of professional certification, continuing education, and more career training for workers. They are, indeed, a source of learning and personal enrichment for virtually anyone.

All NJCCC colleges play a vital role in state and community success. Beyond that, however, they vary distinctly. No two schools offer the same programs, degrees, certificates or online learning options. Likewise, one college's bustling modern campus might be met by another's slower, history-seeped locale. Then there is the system's large cache of online courses and degrees extending educational access and programs beyond the confines of any one school. They can accommodate full-time workers, parents and other harried residents from across the region.

One thing that remains consistent, however, is the importance of matching students with the institutions that would serve them best. That takes research. We compiled a ranking of what we deem to be the best community colleges in New Jersey to simplify the school selection process for prospective students. Each school was researched and evaluated on a number of success factors, like affordability, completion and transfer rates. Here are our top 10 picks. When you're done, check out online schools in New Jersey for more.

> Read more about our methodology here

Top 10 community colleges in New Jersey

1. Raritan Valley Community College (Branchburg)

Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) connects students with leading-edge labs, resources and some of the most unique programs in the state — including a limited number of bachelor's and master's degrees. It also hosts such distinguished cultural institutions as the Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Resource Center, and the Paul Robeson Institute for Ethics, Leadership and Social Justice. What really solidified RVCC's No. 1 ranking, however, is its numbers. In 2014, RVCC ranked among the top five community colleges in New Jersey for overall affordability, student retention and transfer rate.

  • Unique programming. Raritan Valley Community College offers a number of specialized programs that can be difficult to find at other two-year colleges, like game development, environmental control technology, pre-medicine and pre-pharmacy.

2. Warren County Community College (Washington)

Warren County Community College's (WCCC) enrollment count may be smaller than most institutions featured on our list, but its achievements are anything but. In 2014, WCCC posted the highest student transfer rate and tied for the best student: faculty ratio in the entire NJCCC system. It also held the No. 3 spot for overall student graduation rate and No. 2 for the combined cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies. One might say a goal of Warren County Community College is to deliver a more personalized learning experience: Courses are small and students receive one-on-one support when choosing majors and courses.

  • Be a quick study. Warren County Community College's Power Pack program lets students complete courses in less than a month, without sacrificing instruction hours. Students who prefer a more flexible pace can take advantage of the college's online courses and degrees.

3. Rowan College at Burlington County (Pemberton Township)

At Rowan College in Burlington County (RCBC), the concept of community college extends well beyond campuses and two-year programs. Formerly Burlington County College, RCBC changed its name in 2015 to signify a new partnership with Rowan University. The change brought RU faculty and bachelor's degrees to the Mount Laurel campus. The college offers many online programs in the NJCCC system.

  • How 3 + 1 = savings.The Burlington County Times reports that in 2016, RCBC made history by becoming the first community college in New Jersey to offer a special program for upperclassmen and women. The "3+1" option helps students cut costs by completing their junior years at RCBC before transferring to Rowan University of another 4-year school.

4. Mercer County Community College (West Windsor)

Mercer County Community College (MCCC) is a cultural microcosm — a fact that carries certain advantages. Students may attend courses on MCCC's 292-acre West Windsor Campus, its James Kerney campus in downtown Trenton or online. Learners include both county- and city-dwellers, and hail from more than 100 countries across the globe. The opportunity for students to share courses with peers of various backgrounds and perspectives provides a rich, well-rounded learning experience. Another benefit of attending MCCC: affordability. The institution reported the lowest average net price of all New Jersey Council for County Colleges (NJCCC) schools in 2014, ranked in the top five for the combined cost of books, fees, tuition, and supplies.

  • Go further, travel less. The MCCC University Center at Mercer lets students earn on-site advanced degrees from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Felician University, Rutgers University and William Paterson University. Thanks to MCCC's partnerships with area universities, students can qualify for guaranteed admissions at institutions like Rutgers, Rider, Montclair and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

5. Rowan College at Gloucester County (Sewell)

As with RCBC above, Gloucester County College became Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC) as part of a partnership with Rowan University extending bachelor's degree programs to the traditionally two-year school. The school is one of the top community colleges in New Jersey for student focused on completion or segueing into advanced programs: The college's transfer and graduation rates ranked No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, among all NJCCC schools in 2014.

  • Carve your path. Career Coach is an online portal designed to help RCGC students plan their futures. The program allows students to complete a career assessment, learn more about wages and employment rates, or translate military occupations into civilian jobs and degree programs.

6. County College of Morris (Randolph)

County College of Morris (CCM) posted the highest community college retention rate in the state in 2014, a distinction that may be linked to its efforts to make college manageable for everyone. The school's online degree programs accommodate rural, working and otherwise busy students, while a partnership with Rutgers University offers relocation-free bachelor's degrees. County College of Morris maintains robust athletics and student life programs.

  • A breath of fresh air. And a future of no smoking! County College of Morris is not just a smoke-free campus; it was one of the very first colleges in the United States to ban smoking on its campus. That's a significant healthy lifestyle point to look forward to when attending, as often, schools may have smoking sections or only partial bans.

7. Salem Community College (Carneys Point)

Salem Community College (SCC) is one of the top community colleges in New Jersey for students seeking a more personal learning experience. With fewer than 1,200 enrollments a year, SCC offered the best faculty:student ratio in the NJCCC in 2014 — an honor it shared with Warren County Community College. One need not report to campus to take advantage of SCC's small classes, however. Its online courses and student support programs serve learners from across the region.

  • Get cultured. Salem Community College's Museum Pass program gives students access to the Delaware Art Museum, the Penn Museum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, among others.

8. Sussex County Community College (Newton)

Sussex County Community College's (SCCC) hillside campus channels the idyllic New England college vibe right down to College Hill in Newton, New Jersey. Its centerpiece: the Norton Mansion, a Rural-Gothic construction established in 1858. The campus also features a damaged beam from the World Trade Center in memory of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While SCCC itself is historic, its learning options are decidedly modern. Students can earn certificates or associate degrees in both applied and academic programs, and the school also launched its first 100-percent online degree programs in fall, 2016.

  • Deep roots. There's plenty of historic pride at SCCC to pique a future student's interest — especially one fond of history. Surveyor Jonathan Hampton built the famous Military Road right through College Hill during the French and Indian War. The road began in historic Elizabeth and linked a string of fortifications along the Delaware River.

9. Middlesex County College (Edison)

With more than 12,000 students, Middlesex County College is the largest school (by enrollment) on our list, and it maintains top-five rankings in student retention and transfer rates. Of its 100+ certificate and associate degree programs, more than 20 are specifically designed with transfer students in mind. According to their website, their most common destinations include major universities like Rutgers University, Columbia University and New York University. In 2015, Middlesex County College eligible was the only NJCCC institution nominated for the prestigious Aspen Prize, an honor reserved for the top 150 community colleges in the nation.

  • Past meets present. Middlesex County College's main campus in Edison Township rests atop of the United States Army's former Raritan Arsenal. In 2015, construction crews unearthed vintage World War I and II munitions left over from the arsenal, which closed in 1963. Another draw for historians!

10. Ocean County College (Toms River)

Ocean County College (OCC) posted the highest graduation rate of all NJCCC schools in 2014. Its secret: accessibility. The college's 20+ sites extend higher education to thousands of county residents while its on-site child care center and its night and weekend programs support working learners and families. A significant amount of OCC students participated in online courses or degree programs in 2014, ranking it fifth against other schools on our list, with 26.41 percent of students taking some sort of online education.

  • Seeing stars. Ocean County College's Robert J. Novins Planetarium is one of the largest and busiest planetariums in New Jersey. Another OCC star credential: music legend Bruce Springsteen is an alum.

Methodology

We ranked the 19 member schools of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. Each school was scored on a 5-point scale, using the following seven data points and the weights specified.

  1. Percentage of students enrolled in distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013: 15%
  2. Cost of attendance, based on the cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies 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, 2014: 5%
  4. Average retention rate for full- and part-time students, College Scorecard, 2013: 5%
  5. Graduation rate in 200% of time over a rolling two-year average, College Scorecard, 2013: 5%
  6. Transfer-out rate as of fall 2014 for students entering in fall 2011, New Jersey Higher Education Institutional Profiles, 2015: 30%
  7. Flexibility, based on the following data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2014: 10%
    1. Whether the school offers credit for life experiences
    2. Whether the school offers programs of study that can be completed entirely in the evenings and on weekends
    3. Whether the school offers on-campus day care for students' children

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Sources:
1. New Jersey Council of County Colleges, http://www.njccc.org/
2. "'3+1' equals college affordability through Rowan College at Burlington County," Greg Volpe, Burlington County Times, June 26, 2016, http://www.burlingtoncountytimes.com/news/local/equals-college-affordability-through-rowan-college-at-burlington-county/article_5055bd90-394a-11e6-8efb-ef6cec27eb18.html
3. "Middlesex County College Named in Top 150 in Nation," Middlesex County College, http://www.middlesexcc.edu/blog/middlesex-county-college-named-in-top-150-in-nation/
4. "Vintage Ammo Unearthed at New Jersey College Campus," Channel 4, NBC New York, September 6, 2015, http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Vintage-Ammo-Unearthed-at-New-Jersey-College-Campus-325114651.html
5. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013-14, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed June 5, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
6. Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements), College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed June 5, 2016, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
7. New Jersey Higher Education Public College & University 2015 Institutional Profiles, State of New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, Accessed June 5, 2016, http://nj.gov/highereducation/IP/IP2015/index.shtml