Best Community Colleges in Illinois
To say that the state of Illinois places a high value on its community colleges would be something of an understatement. The very first junior college nationwide was founded there in 1901, born out of the desire to provide a pathway to higher education students who wanted to stay in their communities after graduating from high school, and that first institution has grown into a statewide system that includes 48 schools in 39 community college districts.
In order to figure out which ones among those 48 institutions could be called the best community colleges in Illinois, we developed a system of metrics to analyze seven categories of data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and other independent agencies. We looked at total attendance cost, student-faculty ratio, distance education focus and transfer rate to four-year institutions, among other factors, and we came up with a pretty clear who's-who of top Illinois community colleges.
You can read about our methodology in more detail at the bottom of the page, if you're curious about the full list of metrics and the specific weights assigned to each of them. Without any further ado, however, let's get down to business — here are the 10 best community colleges in Illinois and a brief summary of the noteworthy features of each one.
Olney Central College (Olney)
As is often the case in lists like these, the No. 1 ranked Olney Central College didn't take the top spot in any specific category but placed near the top in almost all of them. It took spots in the top 5 for graduation rate and affordability of tuition and fees, and its overall cost of attendance was low enough to place among the top three in that category as well. Students at OCC also enjoy ample opportunity for personal attention from professors — the 14:1 student-faculty ratio at Olney was the second-lowest in the state in 2014.
- Strong aid packages: Not only does OCC offer one of the lowest overall cost totals in the state, but its average net price — total attendance cost minus federal, state and institutional financial aid — was the third-lowest on the list. OCC students had out-of-pocket costs just over $1,000 for the year in 2013, according to Department of Education data, despite a pre-aid cost of tuition, feed, books and supplies closer to $4,000.
Lincoln Trail College (Robinson)
Lincoln Trail College is the second institution from the Illinois Eastern Community College group of schools to make the list, and the reasons that it stands out from the pack are similar to those that gave its region-mate the No. 1 spot. Its strong graduation rate and affordable total cost placed it near the head of the class in both categories, and its average net price for students receiving federal financial aid was the best in the state. LTC also stood out as one of the best online community colleges in Illinois, boasting the third-highest percentage of distance education students in the state.
- Non-traditional students: Although this statistic didn't contribute to our rankings, LTC also stood out for the average age of its student body. Students enrolled during the fall 2014 semester were 30.5 years old on average, which suggests that students returning to school after taking a few years off may find a fair number of like-minded individuals around them at the Robinson-based institution.
Although this statistic didn't contribute to our rankings, Lincoln Trail College stood out for the average age of its student body: Students enrolled during the fall 2014 semester were 30.5 years old on average, which suggests that nontraditional students may find a fair number of like-minded individuals around them at the Robinson-based institution.
Highland Community College (Freeport)
Another one of the top online community colleges in Illinois can be found at Highland Community College in the northwestern city of Freeport. Only two other schools on our list fared better in the distance education category, and just four institutions in the entire state had a higher percentage of students enrolled in distance education courses. Cost of books and supplies was also a standout category for HCC, with 2014-15 students averaging an outlay of less than $1,000, and the reported total cost of attendance ranked among the 10 most affordable in the state.
- Dedicated to success: Students looking for some help adjusting to the college experience can visit the Success Center at HCC, where faculty and staff provide peer-tutoring services, study groups, review sessions, communication skills courses, a first-year experience seminar and other resources for guidance and support that can help you contend with the academic and social challenges that most students face.
Waubonsee Community College (Sugar Grove)
With one of the largest student bodies among the top community colleges in Illinois, the Sugar Grove campus of Waubonsee Community College perhaps deserves extra recognition for its considerable percentage of students who transfer out with a goal of finishing. Only four schools on our list had higher transfer rates than Waubonsee. The institution's affordable cost of tuition and fees were around $900 less than the statewide average and ranked No. 1 for affordability statewide in 2014.
- Institutional scholarships: The Waubonsee Community College Foundation (WCCF) endows dozens of scholarships for which Waubonsee students may be eligible. Using an online tool on the school's website, students can apply for awards designed for single parents, technology students, aspiring elementary school teachers, nursing majors, fine artists and many other specific populations and interest groups.
Elgin Community College (Elgin)
Students at Elgin Community College tend to stick around from one year to the next. The Elgin school's retention rate, which measures the percentage of first-time, students who remain enrolled after their first two semesters, was the best among all community colleges in Illinois in 2014. Again, it may be financial accessibility that allows ECC students to stay the course year after year — the reported cost of tuition and fees at ECC was only a few dollars more than the most affordable institution in the state, placing it at No. 2 in that category and giving students a break of about $850 when compared to the system-wide average.
- Special programs galore: Administrators at ECC understand that college isn't always best served as a one-size-fits-all experience. Students in Elgin can take advantage of an array of special programs put in place to assist members of certain populations, including international students, military veterans, at-risk youth, English language learners and students over 50 years old.
Lake Land College (Mattoon)
Affordability seems to take a position of priority at Lake Land College, home to the lowest reported overall cost of attendance among the top 10 and a impressively low average expense of just $360 for books and supplies in 2014. LLC also made a strong showing in the online enrollment category, with its percentage of distance education students high enough to place it among the top 15 percent of community colleges in the state.
- Sustainable campus: Awareness of human impacts on the environment is high at Lake Land College, and students and faculty work together to ensure that LLC makes as little negative ecological impact as possible through comprehensive recycling initiatives, renewable energy usage and a focus on energy-efficient construction and technology.
Awareness of human impacts on the environment is high at Lake Land College, and students and faculty work together to ensure that LLC makes as little negative ecological impact as possible.
Oakton Community College (Des Plaines)
Oakton Community College stands particularly well in terms of its students continuing through their academic programs from year to year, placing among the top four institutions within the top ten in the retention rate and transfer rate categories. Oakton also offers diverse accessibility options to its students, with its better-than-average rate of online enrollment being joined by options to obtain course credit for life experiences and select degree plans that can be earned entirely through weekend or evening classes.
- Young family partnership: Aspiring Oakton students with very young children can take advantage of supervised, play-based learning and day care through the institution's Early Childhood Centers. Services are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and fully licensed by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and financial assistance for child care fees may be available to students who qualify.
McHenry County College (Crystal Lake)
Tuition, fees, books and supplies at McHenry County College may not have as affordable a price tag as at other schools in the state, but that isn't putting much of a damper on student success. Students at the medium-sized school in Crystal Lake transfer out to four-year institutions at the third-highest rate among all the top 10 schools, and its retention rate was good enough to place it among the top 10 campuses statewide in that category. Online enrollment at MCC was strong as well, with approximately one student in four taking at least some distance education courses in 2014.
- Find your passion: Students at MCC can choose among nearly 40 student clubs and organizations, from fine arts societies for photographers and creative writers to meetups for aspiring video game developers, practitioners of meditation, nursing students, environmentalists and students who share similar cultural backgrounds or political orientations.
Harper College (Palatine)
The largest student body among the top 10 community colleges in Illinois can be found at Harper College in Chicago's northwest suburbs, an institution named for inaugural junior college co-founder Dr. William Rainey Harper, with an enrollment rate of 14,957 students. The retention rate for students at Harper College ranked No. 2 in the state, and the total cost of attendance in the 2014-15 academic year was low enough to rank it among the top four most affordable among the top 10. Online enrollment at Harper was lowest among our top 10 schools, but weekend/evening courses and on-campus day care help provide access for students who might otherwise have trouble committing to a traditional schedule of classes.
- Career development: Around 26 percent of students at Harper are enrolled in career or technical programs, according to data from the Illinois Community College Board, and resources available at the institution's Career Development Center are in place to help them succeed. Between career assessments, exploration workshops, reading materials and degree plan counseling, students can make sure that they're moving wisely forward into working life.
John Wood Community College (Quincy)
Coming in at No. 10 is John Wood Community College, located in the Mississippi River city of Quincy in far western Illinois. A greater percentage of students at JWCC made successful transfers to four-year institutions than any other school in the top 10, perhaps due in part to the state's highest rate of distance education enrollment and a student-teacher ratio of 10:1, by far the best among all community colleges in Illinois.
- Focus on degrees: The data show that an overwhelming percentage of JWCC students — around 76 percent in 2014 — were enrolled in study plans designed to help them transition into bachelor's degree programs after completing their community college education.
What it really means to be the best
Even though we used objective, quantitative measurements to come to the conclusions presented in this list, there remains an important subjective dimension to each institution that can only be understood when you experience it for yourself. Remember to visit the websites or campuses of the top community colleges in Illinois as well as others in your area and see for yourself which ones best fit your career and academic goals.
We ranked 48 schools belonging to the Illinois Community College System. Each school was scored on a 10-point scale, using the following seven data points.
- Percentage of students enrolled in distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013
- 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
- Student-to-faculty ratio, National Center for Education Statistics, 2013
- Average retention rate for full- and part-time students, College Scorecard, 2013
- Graduation rate in 200% of time over a rolling two-year average, College Scorecard, 2013
- Transfer rate to a senior institution for the fall 2009 cohort as of fall 2013, Illinois Community College Board, 2015
- Flexibility Score, based on three data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2013
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2013-14, National Center for Education Statistics, Accessed Nov. 4, 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements), College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, Accessed Nov. 4, 2015, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
- Summary of Transfer Rates by College: Fiscal Years 2001-2015, Illinois Community College Board, Accessed Nov. 5, 2015, page 15, https://www.iccb.org/pdf/faq/FY15_FAQ_TransferRate_5M3_Spreadsheet.pdf
- 2015 Data and Characteristics of the Illinois Community College System: Tables, I-1, I-2 and I-3, Illinois Community College Board, Accessed Nov. 5, 2015, http://iccbdbsrv.iccb.org/databook/2014/2015databook.cfm
- ICCS Information & Facts, Illinois Community College Board, accessed November 27, 2015, http://www.iccb.state.il.us/facts.html
- History, Joliet Junior College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://www.jjc.edu/college-info/Pages/history.aspx
- Data Documentation, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 27, 2015, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/assets/FullDataDocumentation.pdf
- Success Center, Highland Community College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://highland.edu/students/successcenter.asp
- WCC Scholarships, Waubonsee Community College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://www.waubonsee.edu/downloads/FY2017%20Brochure%20Updated.pdf
- What are graduation, retention, and transfer rates?, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 27, 2015, https://fafsa.ed.gov/help/fotw91n.htm
- pecial Programs, Elgin Community College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://elgin.edu/students.aspx?id=3302
- "Creating a Carbon Neutral Campus," Lake Land College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://www.lakeland.cc.il.us/as/tec/sustain/documents/Sustainability%20Media%20Guide%202014.pdf
- Early Childhood Centers, Oakton Community College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://www.oakton.edu/about/ece_centers/index.php
- Student Organizations, McHenry County College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://www.mchenry.edu/studentlife/clubs.asp
- Career Development Center, Harper College, accessed November 27, 2015, http://goforward.harpercollege.edu/services/careercenter/index.php
- About JWCC, John Wood Community College, accessed November 27, 2015, https://www.jwcc.edu/about/