Best Community Colleges in California
Ever since President Obama introduced America's College Promise in 2015, a proposal to make community college tuition-free for qualifying students, legislators and education administrators in California have been working to make that dream a reality in the Golden State. The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office (CCCCO) reported in 2016 that 23 regional Promise programs were active in the state, and that the program's reach was expected to extend to even more students in the coming years.
It's important with us that we stay up to date with our rankings, and we wanted to crunch the numbers to find out which schools are the best community colleges in California. More precise details of our methodology can be found at the bottom of the page, but the long and short of it is that we gathered a mountain of data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the CCCCO, the University of California and California State University systems and analyzed how the schools compared to one another, then scored them accordingly to find out which schools stood out from the crowd.
Check out our survey of online schools in California if you're looking for info on four-year colleges, but for now we're focusing on the two-year side of the aisle. Read on to learn about the top community colleges in Los Angeles County, the greater Bay Area and beyond.
Las Positas College (Livermore)
Las Positas College may not have run away with any of the individual categories in our statistical survey, but its appearance in the upper percentiles nearly across the board was enough to place it at the head of the class. Its retention, graduation and transfer rates all fell among the top 20 schools out of 113 statewide on those metrics, and the Livermore school's percentage of distance education students put it at No. 3 among the best community colleges in California in that category.
On-campus day care and alternative tuition plans gave it a boost on the flexibility metric, and its proximity to booming job markets in the Bay Area can be an additional plus for graduates.
- Small-school feel: If you're the type of student who doesn't like to navigate big crowds on campus, LPC might be the right school for you. The total enrollment headcount in fall 2014 was just 8,835 students — around 4,000 fewer than the next-smallest school on our list.
Reedley College (Reedley)
The rate of successful transfers into four-year degree programs at schools both in and outside of California can show how well a community college is functioning as a springboard to university education. Reedley College, located about 25 miles outside of Fresno, took the No. 2 spot on our transfer rate metric, reporting more than 105 transfers per 1,000 students in 2015.
Student-faculty ratio was another bright spot for our No. 2 school. Reedley College features fewer students per faculty member than any other school on our list, which suggests that students who need one-on-one time with professors are likely to be able to find it when they need it.
- Extended opportunity: Reedley College takes part in a pair of initiatives -- Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) and Cooperating Agencies Resources for Education (CARE) -- that offer escalated support services to first-generation college students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Santa Monica College (Santa Monica)
Santa Monica College is another school that put up impressive numbers in the university transfer rate category. SMC produced a larger number of successful transfers to four-year schools across the country than any of the other top community colleges in California. Its student body of more than 30,000 may account in part for its success on that metric, but its per capita transfer rate was still high enough for the No. 3 spot among our top ten schools. Affordability of tuition, fees, books and supplies was another standout statistic at SMC -- no other school on our list posted a lower aggregate cost for the 2015-16 academic year.
- Star maps: SMC students have access to the John Drescher Planetarium, which has stood in its current incarnation since the late 1990s. Planetarium operators also produce public star shows on Friday nights and open their doors to school groups and other learners for occasional daytime events.
Citrus College (Glendora)
Strong affordability numbers and a fourth-ranked transfer rate combined to put Southern California's Citrus College at No. 4 overall and No. 2 among two-year schools in the Los Angeles area. The Glendora institution placed second among schools on our list for affordability of tuition and fees and landed at No. 4 in the average net price category. What's more, it outpaced all other schools on our list in terms of graduation rate and featured a first-year student retention rate within eight percentage points of the top school in the state.
- Community commitment: Citrus College maintains a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called the Citrus College Foundation, which works to advance students' educational goals, provide education and vocational training and offer cultural opportunities for the greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys.
Pasadena City College (Pasadena)
An institution that retains a large percentage of its first-year students tends to be a place where a special focus is placed on encouraging student success. Not only did Pasadena City College post the second-highest retention rate on our list for both full-time and part-time students, but its graduation rate also came away with the No. 2 spot among our top ten schools.
If you want to take traditional, campus-based classes but need some flexibility in scheduling, PCC has got you covered. Entire degree programs here can be earned through weekend or evening coursework.
- Prestigious company: PCC has a history of educating or employing people who go on to do great things. Among them: sports legend Jackie Robinson, who attended in the 1930s, and adjunct music instructor and Grammy-winning harpist Alison Bjorkedal.
San Joaquin Delta College (Stockton)
A college's percentage of students enrolled in online courses is often a fair measure of its commitment to enhancing student access, and San Joaquin Delta College was one of the most accessible two-year online schools in California. No other school on our list had a greater rate of distance education enrollment than this Stockton institution.
Campus-based flexibility measures are also part of the package at Delta. Students have opportunities to cash in their life experience for college credit and can choose to pursue degree plans that take place entirely in evenings and on weekends.
- Focus on the arts: Students at Delta are treated to multiple visual and performance art exhibitions each year at the LH Horton Jr. Gallery and the Delta Center for the Arts, as well as an annual jazz festival on the first Saturday in December.
Glendale Community College (Glendale)
Glendale Community College had the best net price ranking among the top ten community colleges in California, despite an average tuition figure that ranked No. 8 on our list. That pair of stats suggests that students at the Glendale institution have considerable access to grants, scholarships and other financial aid measures to help cover enrollment costs. GCC was also the No. 1 school on our list for its rate of transfers to four-year universities, and its avenues for life experience credit, on-campus day care services and alternative tuition plans gave it a boost in the flexibility category.
- Green energy: Faculty and administration at GCC have been working together for several years to outfit the campus with substantive sustainability measures, including a large solar panel array atop a parking structure that supplies 10 percent of the campus's electricity.
MiraCosta College (Oceanside)
MiraCosta College is another college on our list that's earned a spot among the top online schools in California -- approximately 40 percent of students were enrolled in at least some distance education courses here in 2015, more than all other institutions but one in our top ten.
MCC also boasts a graduation rate that shares the No. 4 spot in our top ten and features a total average cost of tuition and fees that landed it in a two-way tie for fourth on that measure of affordability. On top of all that, the Oceanside school tied for second among our top ten schools for its ratio of students to faculty members.
- Serious recreation: Oceanside is located in coastal San Diego County, putting MCC students within easy access of several popular beaches, famous attractions like the San Diego Zoo, world-class road cycling and outdoor activities like hiking, surfing and kayaking.
Ventura College (Ventura)
Online enrollment is sturdy at Ventura College, giving it the No. 5 ranking among schools that made our list, and its approach to educational flexibility didn't stop there. On-campus students at the Ventura school can make use of affordable child care services through the campus's Child Development Center, alternative tuition payment plans for qualifying students and degree programs available exclusively through weekend and evening courses. Education was affordable here, as well -- the average net price of less than $4,000 for the year put it ahead of all other schools on our list but one in that category.
- College Promise program: Graduates of Ventura County high schools who choose to attend VC can have their first year of tuition and fees covered by the Ventura College Promise program, provided that they apply for college within one year of graduation, fill out a FAFSA and meet a few other conditions.
Palomar College (San Marcos)
Our No. 10 school was one of the top online community colleges in California, reporting a 31 percent distance education enrollment figure that gave it the No. 3 spot in that category of our analysis. Palomar College is also one of the largest schools on our list, with more than 23,000 students enrolled in 2015.
This San Marcos institution also finished near the top on our student-faculty ratio metric. Just two other schools on our list could claim fewer students per faculty member. Palomar also came up strong in the affordability category, boasting an average net price more than $700 lower than the mean cost of our top ten schools.
- Regional outreach: In order to better serve students in the area north of San Diego, Palomar College operates additional learning center locations in Fallbrook, Escondido, Pauma Valley, Mt. Carmel, Camp Pendleton and Ramona.
Final thoughts about the best community colleges in California
We worked with hard data to come up with our best community colleges in California, but it's important to point out that numbers can't take individual student preferences into account when ranking schools. Make sure to look around, if you can, before choosing among the top campus-based or online schools in California for yourself.
We ranked the 113 California Community Colleges member schools on multiple factors related to educational opportunity, student performance and student services. Each school was scored on a 10-point scale, using the following six data points.
- The percentage of students enrolled in distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
- Cost of attendance, based on the average net price for students receiving scholarship and grant aid, and the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014 and 2015
- Student-to-faculty ratio, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
- The number of transfers per 1,000 students to the University of California System, California State University System, and in-state private and out-of-state colleges, 2014-15
- Flexibility, based on the following data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2014
- Whether the school offers credit for life experiences
- Whether the school offers programs of study that can be completed entirely in the evenings and on weekends
- Whether the school offers on-campus day care for students' children
- Whether the school offers any kind of alternative tuition plan. These may include, but aren't limited to, payment plans or guaranteed rates.
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Admissions by Source School: Full Year Transfers by UC and Campus from the California Community Colleges, 2014-15, University of California Infocenter, http://universityofcalifornia.edu/infocenter/admissions-source-school
- California Community College Transfers by Institution of Origin 2014-15, The California State University, Accessed August 10, 2016, http://asd.calstate.edu/ccc/SummaryYear.asp
- Transfer Volume to In-State Private (ISP) and Out-of-State (OOS) Baccalaureate Granting Institutions Report, 2015-16, California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office Management Information Systems Data Mart, http://datamart.cccco.edu/Outcomes/Student_Transfer_Volume.aspx
- School pages, accessed December 14-15, 2017: Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, Reedley College, http://www.reedleycollege.edu/student-services/extended-opportunity-programs-and-services-eops/index.html; The John Drescher Planetarium at Santa Monica College, http://www.smc.edu/AcademicPrograms/Planetarium/Pages/default.aspx; Citrus College Foundation, Citrus College, http://www.citruscollege.edu/foundation/Pages/default.aspx; History, Pasadena City College, https://www.pasadena.edu/about/history.php; Achievements, Pasadena City College, https://www.pasadena.edu/about/achievements.php; Center for the Arts, San Joaquin Delta College, https://deltacollege.edu/div/finearts/dept/dca/gallery/; Energy and Electricity, Glendale Community College, https://www.glendale.edu/about-gcc/faculty-and-staff/environment-and-sustainability/campus-sustainability-efforts/energy-and-electricity; Child Development Center, Ventura College, http://www.venturacollege.edu/departments/student-services/child-development-center; What is the Ventura College Promise?, Ventura College, http://www.venturacollege.edu/sites/default/files/files/departments/administrative/foundation/vc_promise_spots_available_09.21.2017.pdf; Campus Locations, Palomar College, https://www2.palomar.edu/pages/about/locations/;
- Best of San Diego, City of San Diego, accessed December 15, 2017, https://www.sandiego.com/best-of-san-diego