Best Community Colleges in Arizona

Although the state itself only recently celebrated its centennial in 2012, community colleges have been active in Arizona for almost 130 years. The first two-year institution in the Grand Canyon State was founded in Graham County in 1888 while the land was still a U.S. territory, and the intervening years would see the appearance of more and more regional campuses and online schools in Arizona.

We gathered data from the U.S. Department of Education to determine which institutions were the best by the numbers. The specifics of our methodology are listed at the end of the article, in case you want to know just how we arrived at our conclusions.

Here are the 10 best community colleges in Arizona and a little detail on what makes them the top schools that they are.



Phoenix College (Phoenix)

The No. 1 finish among community colleges in Arizona is also one of the biggest; Phoenix College, namesake of the state's capital, had over 12,000 students enrolled in 2014 and serves as the flagship institution of the Maricopa County Community College District — one of the largest community college systems in the country. Administrators at Phoenix College place a focus on accessibility for nontraditional students, offering weekend or evening classes and course credit for qualifying life experience. On top of that, nearly a third of enrolled students were taking part in distance education initiatives in 2014, and a comfortable student-faculty ratio of 17:1 tied it for third-best among community colleges in Arizona on our top 10 list in that category.

  • Learning across generations: Students with young children may find Phoenix College especially accommodating, thanks to an on-campus child care program designed to watch over and teach little ones in the infant, toddler and preschool age groups. Care services are available in spring, fall and summer semesters and offered in partnership with Southwest Human Development's Head Start program.

Cochise College (Douglas)

Affordability was key in landing Cochise College among the top Arizona community colleges, with the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies taking the No. 1 spot for affordability among schools on our list. It also ranks as one of the best online community colleges in Arizona, coming in at No. 3 on our top 10 list for its percentage of students taking at least a portion of their semester credits in the virtual classroom. That combination of affordability and distance education access appears to pay off for degree-earning students, according to our data — Cochise College had the third-best graduation rate of any school on our list in 2013.

  • Eye on economics: Since 1995, Cochise College has been gathering, analyzing and forecasting data from the Center for Economic Research on its Douglas campus. The center works to help educate regional residents on economic concepts at the local, state and national level, as well as interfacing with local leaders to foster a climate of well-informed economic decisions in its home county.

GateWay Community College (Phoenix)

GateWay Community College's overall enrollment was 5,950 in 2014, but the class sizes at this Phoenix institution suggest a much more intimate environment; the student-faculty ratio of 13:1 at GateWay was the lowest among the top 10 states on our list that year. GateWay was also one of the few schools on our top 10 list that offered the attractive trifecta of credit for life experience, weekend or evening course options, and on-campus day care.

  • Fostering entrepreneurs: Starting a business is commonly understood as part of the American Dream, and the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation (CEI) on GateWay's campus aims to provide the resources necessary for students to build a future on their passion and ideas. The mission of the CEI — and its business incubator, Fahrenheit Labs — is to make accessible the services, space and support necessary for early-stage startup companies to thrive.

Eastern Arizona College (Thatcher)

Popular wisdom suggests that making college affordable goes a long way toward creating a tradition of student success, and Eastern Arizona College in the town of Thatcher serves as a strong example of that principle in action. One measure of college affordability is average net price, which subtracts the average amount of grants and scholarships per student from the average cost of tuition and fees, living expenses, and books and supplies. The net price reported for 2013 students at EAC was the lowest of any of the top community colleges in Arizona, with its graduation rate landing at No. 3 statewide and its retention rate ranking EAC third among the schools in that field on our top 10 list.

  • A long history: Founded in 1888 as St. Joseph Stake Academy, EAC isn't only the oldest institution among the best Arizona community colleges — it's the longest standing two-year institution in all the lands west of the Mississippi River. Although the college has occupied a few different campus locations and changed its name almost a dozen times, it's operated more or less continuously since the end of the 19th century.

Paradise Valley Community College (Phoenix)

At Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, the third member of the Maricopa County Community College District system to make this list, students have a solid track record of seeing their education through to the end. PVCC ranked No. 2 in retention rate, No. 3 in graduation rate and No. 2 in transfer rate among the top Arizona community colleges. Accessibility measures such as life experience credit and weekend/evening classes were available for students as of 2015.

  • Learning-centered college: PVCC administrators take their position as stewards of a learning institution seriously, centering their institution's mission on ensuring that substantive learning outcomes are accessible to the full spectrum of students who enroll in their programs. Any college in the U.S. can say things like this, naturally, but the data show that PVCC ranks high enough in multiple categories on our list to back it up.

Central Arizona College (Coolidge)

No other college in the Grand Canyon State has a greater percentage of students enrolled in distance education that Central Arizona College, where a stunning 70 percent of students are taking at least some of their courses in the virtual classroom. CAC also had the second-lowest average net price among the top community colleges in Arizona, and had the highest graduation rate among the schools on our top 10 list in 2013.

  • University transfer partnerships: Students at CAC who are hoping to transfer out to four-year schools at the end of their associate degree program can make use of the Coolidge institution's partnership agreements with more than two dozen universities and career academies nationwide. The list of partners includes such schools as Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, Brigham Young University, University of Maryland - University College and a selection of national nursing schools.

Estrella Mountain Community College (Avondale)

Retention and transfer rates were high at Estrella Mountain Community College, another member of the Maricopa County Community College District. EMCC students transferred out of the two-year at the third-highest rate among the 10 best Arizona community colleges, and the year-over-year retention rate for new students came in at No. 2 overall among all two-year schools in the state. The Avondale school also placed well in our average net price category, with a lower average net price than all but three other schools on our list.

  • Master-planned institution: EMCC is a relative newcomer among top Arizona community colleges, having been founded in 1992, and it might be said that still doesn't exist in an incarnation even close to its final form. The school has produced a master development plan that extends through 2024 and details its vision for more than 800,000 square feet of facilities, including new academic buildings, remodeled residence halls, a campus loop road for added vehicle traffic and 20 acres of sport courts and athletic fields.

Yavapai College (Prescott)

Northern Arizona's Yavapai College made a fairly strong showing in multiple categories across our metrics, standing out particularly with its No. 4 rankings among schools on our list for its retention rate and percentage of students enrolled in distance education. YC also placed fairly well for its student-faculty ratio, which was reported at 18:1 in 2014, and the power trio of campus-based accessibility factors — available life experience credit, on-campus day care and degrees that can be earned entirely through weekend or evening courses — gave it a strong standing in our flexibility metric as well.

  • School of wine: Yavapai College also holds the distinction of being the only college in the American Southwest to offer courses and certificate programs in viticulture (grape growing) and enology (wine production). The Southwest Wine Center on the YC Verde Valley campus features a full-production teaching winery, an estate vineyard and a young veteran of the regional wine industry as program director.

Rio Salado College (Tempe)

Coming in at No. 9 is the largest college on our list, Tempe's Rio Salado College, which is also far and away one of the better online community colleges in Arizona. According to 2014 numbers, 62 percent of the college's 20,000+ students were enrolled at least partially in online courses, which made for an interesting statistic — the number of online students at Rio Salado College in 2014 was larger than the entire student body enrolled at each of the other top Arizona community colleges the same year. That's not all, either; RSC also took home a top-five placement in the graduation rate and transfer rate categories among the schools on our list.

  • Public radio powerhouse: Rio Salado College also boasts a point of pride that few other community colleges in the country can claim. The public radio station for the city of Phoenix, which operates under the call letters KJZZ and serves more than 1.5 million people, bases its broadcast operation at the RSC campus in Tempe.

South Mountain Community College (Phoenix)

The last school on our list is also the smallest, with a student body of less than 4,300 attending South Mountain Community College in 2014. Student-faculty numbers indicate that the small size of the South Phoenix school made for considerably personalized instruction, with its 17:1 ratio good enough to place it in a tie for No. 3 among the best Arizona community colleges. SMCC also took a top-five spot for its transfer rate and average net price among schools on our list, and it took home high marks in accessibility for its catalog of weekend and evening courses and pathways to course credit for applicable life experience.

  • Building stronger students: SMCC operates a branch of a nationwide personal development program called StrengthsQuest, which gives students and faculty access to a variety of tools that help them discover, train and utilize their particular strengths in the career, social, financial, physical and community sectors.

The best beyond the numbers

These may be the best community colleges in Arizona as far as the data is concerned, but there's no substitute for personal experience when it comes to choosing a path for your own educational journey. Learn more about the top Arizona community colleges — visit a few campuses if you can — and find out for yourself which one is the right one for you


We ranked 19 schools total, including 18 designated state community colleges and one tribal college. Each school was scored on a 5-point scale, using the following seven data points.

  1. The percentage of students enrolled in distance education, Arizona 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
  3. Student-to-faculty ratio, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
  4. The average retention rate for full- and part-time students, College Scorecard, 2013
  5. The graduation rate in 200% of time over a rolling two-year average, College Scorecard, 2013
  6. The transfer-out rate as of fall 2014 for students entering in fall 2011, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
  7. Flexibility Score, based on three data points* from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2014

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

Article Sources
  • Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013-14, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed Jan. 4, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
  • Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements), College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, accessed Jan. 4, 2016, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
  • School pages, accessed Jan. 29, 2016: Child Care, Phoenix College, http://www.phoenixcollege.edu/student-resources/campus-resources/child-care/head-start-class; Center for Economic Research, Cochise College, http://www.cochiseeconomy.com/about-us.html; Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation, GateWay Community College, http://www.ceigateway.com/about; Fahrenheit Labs, Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation, GateWay Community College, http://www.ceigateway.com/Fahrenheit; 125 Year Timeline, Eastern Arizona College, http://www.eac.edu/125/timeline/; Indicators of a Learning Centered College, Paradise Valley Community College, http://www.pvc.maricopa.edu/learning-centered/indicators-learning-centered-college; President's Message, Paradise Valley Community College, http://www.pvc.maricopa.edu/lcc; CAC Nationwide Transfer Partnerships, Central Arizona College, http://www.centralaz.edu/Home/Student_Resources/University_Transfer/CAC_Nationwide_Transfer_Partnerships.htm; Master Planning, Estrella Mountain Community College, https://www.estrellamountain.edu/about/master-planning; Long Term Build-Out 2024, Estrella Mountain Community College, https://www.estrellamountain.edu/sites/default/files/docs/about/266-long-term6-9-04-final.pdf; Southwest Wine Center, Yavapai College, http://southwestwinecenter.org/; Michael Pierce, Director of Enology, Southwest Wine Center, Yavapai College, http://southwestwinecenter.org/michael-pierce/; "KJZZ, KBAQ listeners invited to join 'Fleet on the Street'," Rio Salado College, http://blog.riosalado.edu/2010/09/kjzz-kbaq-listeners-invited-to-join.html; Strengths and Wellbeing, South Mountain Community College, http://strengths.southmountaincc.edu/
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  • KJZZ, accessed January 29, 2016, http://kjzz.org/
  • Phoenix (city), Arizona, U.S. Census Bureau, accessed January 29, 2016, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/04/0455000.html;
  • About StrengthsQuest, StrengthsQuest, accessed January 29, 2016, http://www.strengthsquest.com/content/141728/index.aspx