Best Community Colleges in Tennessee
When the Tennessee State Board of Education approved the creation of the state's first community college in 1965, there were comparatively few opportunities for students who were kept from committing to a traditional four-year degree. More and more such institutions have emerged in the decades since, in cities and towns from the banks of the Mississippi River to the Great Smoky Mountains, and students today have more options than ever before to sharpen their career skills or get a head start on their college degree.
In order to figure out which ones among them were truly the best community colleges in Tennessee, we looked at all the public two-year colleges in the state. Below is a list of the top 10 community colleges in Tennessee, ranked from No. 1 to No. 10, each with a brief explanation of the reasons it stood out above the rest.
You can read about our methodology at the end of the article to see how we got to the best of the best, but for now, let's dive in.
Southwest Tennessee Community College (Memphis)
It was often the case that the best community colleges in Tennessee placed near the top of the statewide rankings overall, and the No. 1-ranked Southwest Tennessee Community College is no exception. The Memphis institution reported that more than 44 percent of its student body was enrolled in at least some online coursework in 2014, good enough for the No. 3 spot statewide in that category. Non-traditional options for student access didn't stop at the virtual classroom, either; Southwest was one of the few two-year schools in the state to offer on-campus daycare for students as of 2015. On top of all that, Southwest charged its students less overall for tuition, fees, books and supplies than every other school in the state but one.
- Gaining SMARTS: New and returning Southwest students may apply to be a part of the institution's Southwest Mentors Advancing Retention, Teamwork and Success (SMARTS) program, in which faculty mentors work to help them get the most out of their time in school.
Walters State Community College (Morristown)
One measure of college affordability other than the raw cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies is average net price, which adds room and board and other necessities to those basic costs and subtracts the average amount of grant and scholarship aid each eligible student receives. Walters State Community College took the No. 1 spot on our average net price metric, with the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reporting expenses of just $4,412 per aid-eligible student in 2014. To put that in perspective, the statewide average net price that year was $6,858, giving Walters State a discount of more than $2,400. The Morristown-based school also ranked No. 2 among the top online community colleges in Tennessee, with more than 45 percent of the student body taking at least some of their courses in the virtual classroom.
- Academic programs galore: Walters State students have dozens upon dozens of academic degrees and certificates to choose from, including more than 100 associate degree programs and nearly 60 ways to transition smoothly into a university institution after graduation through the Tennessee Transfer Pathway (TTP) program.
Volunteer State Community College (Gallatin)
Volunteer State Community College is the first school on our list to break the top three for a fairly important metric for many community college students: job placement in their field after graduation. Vol State's reported 94 percent job placement rate earned it the No. 3 spot among the top 10 community colleges in Tennessee for that category, and it posted some strong showings on other metrics as well. It made the top five in tuition affordability (No. 3), student-faculty ratio (No. 5) and retention rate (No. 5), and it also scored the No. 4 spot for participation in distance learning with more than 41 percent enrollment in distance education courses.
- Tools for success: Vol State offers students a feature called College Success Zone, a Web-based resource portal designed to empower students to find the help they need. Tutoring opportunities for distance education students are also available, thanks to a partnership with online tutoring service Tutor.com.
Columbia State Community College (Columbia)
A school's student:faculty ratio can help you figure out how much individualized attention may be available to each student, and Columbia State Community College has the third-best student-faculty ratio in the state. Columbia State was also able to report the second-best retention rate and a top-five graduation rate for the 2014-15 academic year, and its rank for outbound transfers to university-level institutions was also good for the No. 3 spot statewide. The school also earned the No. 6 spot for participation in distance education, with around 40 percent of students taking some classes online.
- Heritage institution: Founded in 1965, Columbia State is the longest-serving institution of all the top community colleges in Tennessee. It's grown quite a bit in those 50+ years, adding campuses in Franklin, Lawrenceburg, Lewisburg and Clifton, and works to honor its trailblazer status by continuing to increase access to education for regional students.
Roane State Community College (Harriman)
Roane State Community College focuses on location and schedule flexibility for its students. In fact, it had the highest proportion of enrolled students taking at least one of their courses in the virtual classroom -- nearly 50 percent of students, in fact -- and there were no fewer than nine full degree plans available in 2016-17 that could be earned through evening classes alone. That's not the whole story of Roane State, either; it also placed No. 1 for student:faculty ratio (16:1) and job placement rate (97 percent).
- Four-year degrees: Thanks to a partnership with Tennessee Technological University, students at Roane State can choose to earn a bachelor's degree in either elementary education or interdisciplinary studies without transferring out. Tennessee Tech's TTU 2+2 programs allow Roane State students to earn a degree through the university but remain on their community college campus for classes.
Motlow State Community College (Tullahoma)
When it comes to successful student outcomes, it seems Motlow State Community College has got something figured out. The Tullahoma school took home the metaphorical Triple Crown, placing at No. 1 across the retention rate, graduation rate and outbound transfer rate categories. As if those academic bright spots weren't enough, Motlow students also found jobs in their field at the second-highest rate among the top 10 community colleges in Tennessee (94 percent). Motlow also offers flexibility through weekend and evening degree plans and multiple university partnerships.
- Priority adult education: Through the Adult College Express (ACE) program at Motlow, busy students over the age of 25 can apply to receive affordable tuition benefits, smaller class sizes, transfer assistance to four-year schools and access to classes that meet just one night per week.
Pellissippi State Community College (Knoxville)
Retention rate was one of the top metrics for Pellissippi State Community College, which placed at No. 4 for its proportion of students who stick with their school year after year. It also tied for No. 4 in post-graduation job placement, and its percentage of students who successfully transferred out to four-year institutions was also good enough for a top-five finish in that category. Student:faculty ratio at the Knoxville school was agreeable as well, tying it for fourth in the state according to NCES numbers.
- Focus on the arts: Administrators at Pellissippi State work hard to ensure that its students and the community it serves have a regional hub for art and culture, putting on numerous concerts, performances and exhibitions that can be attended free of charge. The Knoxville campus also hosts an annual Festival of Cultures, where residents of East Tennessee can learn about and explore the diversity of arts, food and perspectives in their community.
Cleveland State Community College (Cleveland)
Affordability has long been one of the hallmark features of community college education, and Cleveland State Community College came away with top marks in this all-important category. The NCES reported an average annual tuition, fees, books and supplies expense of just $4,597 in the 2015-16 academic year, which landed the Cleveland institution at the No. 1 spot among community colleges in Tennessee for raw affordability. What's more, those affordable necessities combined with accessible financial aid programs produce the state's No. 2 most affordable average net price of $4,629 in 2014 -- more than $2,200 less expensive than the statewide average.
- Small business booster: Cleveland State is home to one of the 14 locations in the Tennessee Small Business Development Center (TSBDC) network, where aspiring entrepreneurs can go to receive one-on-one counseling, business training, professional agency referrals and other services that can help get your business up and running.
Northeast State Community College (Blountville)
Northeast State Community College was also one of the more affordable options among the top community colleges in Tennessee, with the NCES data on its average net price and average cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies ranking it at No. 5 statewide on both metrics. The Blountville school also had one of the higher graduation rates in the state, coming in at No. 4 in that category for the 2014 cohort, and the availability of evening/weekend degree programs and alternative plans for tuition payment allows students some flexibility.
- Guidance and support: Northeast State students in special circumstances -- namely low-income or first-generation students and those with documented disabilities -- can apply to take advantage of a federal program called TRIO, which provides mentoring, tutoring services, financial literacy training, academic planning, outbound transfer guidance and more.
Dyersburg State Community College (Dyersburg)
The last school on our list is also the smallest institution on this list. Dyersburg State Community College reported enrollment of just 2,847 in 2014, according to the NCES, and posted a student-faculty ratio that tied for No. 2 in the state. DSCC students also paid an average net price that was around $700 less expensive than the state average, and 92 percent of 2014-15 graduates were employed in their field of study after graduation. The school also offers credit opportunities for life experience, weekend/evening degree programs and alternative tuition plans.
- University partners: Qualifying new and returning students at DSCC may be eligible for the Dyersburg school's dual admissions program with three local four-year institutions: the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee at Martin and Middle Tennessee State University. DSCC also maintains an agreement with the University of Tennessee Knoxville that allows for a simple transfer process.
One last thought on the best community colleges in Tennessee
Our list uses hard data and mathematical analysis to show which schools perform the best by the numbers, but there's no substitute for direct experience when it comes to choosing the best campus for your own college experience. If you're looking to continue your education, try to visit a few schools for yourself and find out which one of the best community colleges in Tennessee is the right one for you.
We ranked the 13 community colleges in the Tennessee Board of Regents system. Each school was scored on a 5-point scale, using the following seven 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
- Retention rate of full-time, first-time freshmen, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, 2015
- Graduation rate, National Center for Education Statistics, 2014, and the placement rate for graduates in jobs related to their degree field, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, 2015
- The number of transfers to 4-year public universities in Tennessee per 1,000 students, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, 2016
- Flexibility, based on the following data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2015
- 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
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2014-15 and 2015-16, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed November 7, 2016, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- 2015-2016 Tennessee Higher Education Fact Book, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, p. 45 and 53, accessed November 15, 2016, https://www.tn.gov/assets/entities/thec/attachments/2015-2016_Fact_Book.pdf
- Articulation and Transfer in Tennessee Higher Education: 2015-2016, Tennessee Higher Education Commission, p. 44, accessed November 15, 2016, https://www.tn.gov/assets/entities/thec/attachments/Articulation_Transfer_Report_2016.pdf
- School pages, accessed November 28-29, 2016: Net Price Calculator, Bergen Community College, http://bergen.edu/Portals/0/calculator/npcalc.htm; Southwest Mentors Advancing Retention, Teamwork and Success (SMARTS), Southwest Tennessee Community College, http://southwest.tn.edu/retention/SMARTS/; Programs of Study, Walters State Community College, http://catalog.ws.edu/content.php?catoid=13&navoid=549; College Success, Volunteer State Community College, http://www.volstate.edu/CollegeSuccess/; Our History, Columbia State Community College, http://www.columbiastate.edu/about-us/history; Our Communities, Columbia State Community College, http://www.columbiastate.edu/about-us/our-communities; Evening Programs, Roane State Community College, http://www.roanestate.edu/?9901-Evening-Programs; University Partnerships, Roane State Community College, http://www.roanestate.edu/?8264-University-Partnerships; Adult College Express, Motlow State Community College, http://www.mscc.edu/ace/; The Arts at Pellissippi State, Pellissippi State Community College, http://www.pstcc.edu/arts/; Culture and Diversity, The Arts at Pellissippi State, Pellissippi State Community College, http://www.pstcc.edu/arts/culture.php; Small Business Development Center, Cleveland State University, http://www.clevelandstatecc.edu/about/small-business-development-center; TRiO, Northeast State Community College, http://www.northeaststate.edu/Campus-Resources/Student-Support-Services-(TRiO)/; Start Here. Go There!, Dyersburg State Community College, http://www.dscc.edu/current-students/registration-resources/transfer-information;
- Tennessee Transfer Pathway, accessed November 28, 2016, http://www.tntransferpathway.org/
- About Us, Tennessee Small Business Development Center, accessed November 29, 2016, https://www.tsbdc.org/about-us/
- TRIO Home Page, Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education, accessed November 29, 2016, http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/trio/index.html