Best Community Colleges in North Carolina
Community colleges generate new opportunities for students and their communities. North Carolina considers them vital for economic growth, and invests in them accordingly: its community college system is the third largest in the nation, by number of schools. According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, community colleges help the state meet growing demand for educated workers as it shifts from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based one. These schools can serve as stepping stones to four-year universities, better job prospects or new workplace skills: A 2015 study published in Education, Evaluation and Policy Analysis found that even short-term certificates in boost residents' earnings.
Finding the top community colleges in North Carolina requires research, however, regardless of how one plans to attend. Fortunately, we've done some of the legwork for you. We analyzed all 58 community colleges in the state and ranked them based on a number of variables, including key performance metrics, learning options and affordability. Below is a short-list of what we consider to be the 10 best community colleges in North Carolina, along with some of the features that set them apart. When you're ready, check out online schools in North Carolina for even more info.
1. College of the Albemarle (Elizabeth City)
College of The Albemarle (COA) is based in Elizabeth City, but students can also attend courses in Currituck, Dare and Edenton-Chowan. Its service to these regions is widely acknowledged: In 2014, COA and Currituck County received the Distinguished Partners in Excellence award from North Carolina's State Board of Community Colleges. COA extends educational access even further through its online learning options. Of the 58 North Carolina community colleges we ranked, COA placed No. 2 for distance education participation, with nearly 75 percent of its students taking at least one class via distance education. The school also ranked among the top North Carolina community colleges for affordability.
- Leading-edge facilities: College of The Albemarle continuously works to provide students with new and updated facilities. In the 15-year stretch between 2001 and 2016, COA built or renovated: a new Technology Center, the Dr. Zack D. Owens Health Center, the Currituck Regional Aviation and Technical Training Center, the Dolphins Den and a Welding Lab.
2. Craven Community College (New Bern)
Craven Community College says its primary mission is to provide quality education that is flexible and affordable. Our research suggests it succeeds on both fronts: The school offered nearly 50 online associate degree, diploma and certificate programs in 2016, and it earned the No. 4 spot for distance learning participation. Night and evening programs are another flexible option. As for affordability, Craven placed No. 1 of all 58 North Carolina community colleges for its low tuition and overall net cost. Craven Community College's main campus is in New Bern but offers additional facilities in Havelock-Cherry Point.
- Advanced learning opportunities: A partnership between Craven Community College and East Carolina College lets students earn select bachelor's degrees on campus, no relocation required.
3. Pitt Community College (Winterville)
Pitt Community College (PCC) is an epicenter for higher and career education in Winterville and beyond. It serves more students than any other top-10 ranked school on this list, with 8,872 students enrolled in 2014, and online courses and community-based programs increases education accessibility for the entire region. In addition to certificates, associate and a limited number of bachelor's degrees, PCC offers targeted vocational and continuing education coursework emphasizing career-ready skills, and competency-based programs awarding credit for life skills.
- A true college experience: PCC works hard to give students the full college experience. Students can serve as ambassadors, join a variety of clubs and organizations, participate in campus arts and athletics, and more.
Durham Tech's main campus places students near dozens of major employers and more than 10 colleges and universities, including Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University.
4. Durham Technical Community College (Durham)
Durham Technical Community College, or Durham Tech, is centered near Research Triangle Park — one of the largest research parks in the world. Durham Tech' main campus places students near dozens of major employers and more than 10 colleges and universities, including Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. The college's assortment of academic and career training programs provide learner pathways into either circle, as do its remote, online and hybrid study options. According to our rankings, Durham Tech is one of the top community colleges in North Carolina for affordability, ranking No. 6 among schools on our list, and it has a student-to-faculty ratio of 18 to 1.
- Lifelong learning: Durham Tech's Ed2Go program offers affordable continuing education courses online while its UGotClass program connects learners with flexible career skills and vocational coursework or certificates through the Online Learning Network.
5. Tri-County Community College (Murphy)
Tri-County Community College (TCCC) may be based in Murphy, but two additional campuses and robust online learning options open new doors for learners well beyond the city limits. Like other top community colleges in North Carolina, TCCC offers a mix of college transfer, vocational, technical and adult education courses. One thing that separates the school from many of the other 58 colleges in our rankings is its low cost and student-to-faculty ratio of 16 to 1. It also offers a Quality Enhancement Program called Career KEYS to help students prepare for college transfer or the workforce early on.
- Campus perks: TCCC's Spa Therapies area of its main campus lets students indulge in reduced-cost cosmetology, therapeutic spa and esthetics services from students enrolled in affiliated programs.
6. Western Piedmont Community College (Morganton)
Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC) is situated on 300 acres of rolling hills in Morganton, where it offers the fifth-lowest student-to-faculty ratio of all 58 community college reviewed. Its accolades extend well beyond our rankings, however: Its official website notes that in 2008, WPCC was one of just seven community colleges across the state to be designated as an "Exceptional" college for performance measures required by the North Carolina General Assembly. WPCC offers certificates and associate degrees in several disciplines, including three associate programs designed for college transfer.
- Honoring the past: WPCC is home to the Sam J. Ervin Library, established in honor of the U.S. Senator — a Morganton local — who chaired the 1973 Watergate hearings.
7. Mitchell Community College (Statesville)
Mitchell Community College (MCC) is a long-standing pioneer of postsecondary education throughout the state. Founded in 1852 as the Concord Presbyterian Female College, it is among the oldest institutions we reviewed. According to its official website, it was also one of the first institutions in the state to offer an early college program for motivated high school students, who can earn tuition-free credit through MCC's Career and College Promise program. Today, No. 3 overall in distance education participation, with 73 percent of its students taking distance ed. MCC offers vocational, continuing education and college transfer programs in several disciplines. Non-degree-seeking students are invited to take personal enrichment on-campus or online.
- Historic roots: Over the course of it history, MCC has served as an all-women's fine arts college, a junior women's college, a resource for young men during the Great Depression and returning WWII veterans, and a fully independent early postsecondary institution.
Randolph Community College is one of only six community colleges in the southeastern region to participate in the Southern Economic and Education Leadership Consortium (SEELC) Grant program.
8. Randolph Community College (Asheboro)
Randolph Community College says its primary vision is to become a premier educational resource that helps area students achieve their personal dreams and career goals. A review of its career and academic support services reveals a framework designed to make RCC's goal a reality. The school offers counselor mentors, placement assessments, notable career services, tutoring, academic skills centers, career services, tutoring, a drug and alcohol abuse prevention plan, and a special mentoring program specifically for minority male students. Evidence that it may be working: RCC had the second-highest retention rate of all 58 North Carolina community colleges.
- Unique skills training program: RCC is one of only six community colleges in the southeastern region to participate in the Southern Economic and Education Leadership Consortium (SEELC) Grant program. Through this unique program, RCC works to improve economic opportunities for the long-term unemployed and U.S. veterans.
9. Cleveland Community College (Shelby)
While perhaps all North Carolina community colleges strive to excel as an educational hub, Cleveland Community College's (CCC) performance indicators deserve additional recognition. Of the 58 schools we reviewed, CCC earned top-10 rankings in the areas of distance education, affordability, student-to-faculty ratio and its graduation rate. According to CCC's website, the college also awards on average $8.5 million in financial aid to more than 70 percent of students, the majority of whom graduate with zero student debt.
- By the numbers: Licensing exam pass rates for CCC's Practical Nursing, Radiologic, Cosmetology, EMT and Registered Nursing programs have exceeded 90 percent for several years running.
10. Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute (Hudson)
Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute (CCC&TI) is perhaps known just as much for its student culture and experience as for its programs. The institution's Caldwell Campus in Hudson is just a short drive from two regional population centers — and the economic opportunities they provide. Watauga Campus, on the other hand, is situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains where students can access ski slopes, rock climbing, hiking, boating and other recreational activities.
- Live entertainment: CCC&TI's campus-based J.E. Broyhill Civic Center hosts concerts and other performing arts performances throughout the year.
We ranked the 58 schools belonging to the North Carolina Community College System. Each school was scored on a 10-point scale, using the following seven data points and the weights specified.
- Percentage of students enrolled in distance education courses, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014: 15%
- 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%
- Student-to-faculty ratio, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014: 5%
- Average retention rate for full- and part-time students, College Scorecard, 2013: 5%
- Graduation rate in 200% of normal time, College Scorecard, 2013: 5%
- Number of transfers per 1,000 students into any of the 16 four-year public colleges in the University of North Carolina System over a three-year average, University of North Carolina InfoCenter, 2012-14, and the National Center for Education Statistics, 2012-14: 30%
- Flexibility, based on three data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2014: 10%
In the final results, we used the number of transfers per 1,000 students as the tiebreaker. The school that received the higher score in that category was ranked higher in the final list.
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2. "Learning While Earning: The New Normal," McCourt School of Public Policy, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, October 28, 2015, cew.georgetown.edu/workinglearners
3. "Recovery- Job Growth And Education Requirements Through 2020," McCourt School of Public Policy, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/North-Carolina-Recovery.pdf
4. "Career Clusters," McCourt School of Public Policy, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/North-Carolina-CLusters.pdf
5. Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2014-15, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed May 5, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
6. Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements), College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed May 5, 2016, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
7. Community College Transfer Trends, 2012-14, University of North Carolina InfoCenter, Accessed May 6, 2015, http://www.northcarolina.edu/infocenter