Best Community Colleges in Washington

There are more than 40 community and technical colleges in Washington, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That count includes a total of 34 public institutions, all of which are directed in part by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).

The total enrollment count across all SBCTC schools was just shy of 370,000 students according to a 2019 report published by the Board. Almost half of them are seeking workforce training and around 40 percent are pursuing a transfer to Washington's universities.

Overall, 58 percent of those enrolled in higher education at a public college or university in the state choose one of the SBCTC two-year schools. Nearly half of these students work and a quarter of them have children. Washington's community colleges are also a popular choice for adult learners, with students having a median age of 26.

Whether your personal goals are more academic or more career-oriented, attending one of the best community colleges in Washington can help you get where you want to go. Check out our list of the state's best two-year schools below.



Shoreline Community College (Shoreline)

Shoreline Community College sits just 10 miles from downtown Seattle, which makes it a key source of workplace talent in one of the nation's most bustling metros. The college is just as diverse as its surrounding communities, each year attracting more than 900 international students from all around the world.

More than 100 academic and professional programs are available at Shoreline, including 40+ Associate in Arts (A.A.) plans that fit into the statewide Direct Transfer Agreement. It's also one of the top online community colleges in Washington, offering close to 30 degree programs and certificate programs through distance education.

SCC offers the American Honors Program, which features a more challenging curriculum to better prepare advanced students for four-year university programs. Participants collaborate with a community of scholars to share their ideas and work on in-depth academic projects.


South Puget Sound Community College (Olympia)

Founded as Olympia Vocational Technical Institute in 1962, South Puget Sound Community College has grown into a comprehensive institution that offers students two very different campus options. Its primary location in Olympia sits amid natural woodlands, while its recently inaugurated Lacey campus is located in a city center.

As well as offering career certificates and associate degree programs in traditional college major subjects, SPSCC gives students the opportunity to pursue their interests through academic pathways such as healthcare and information technology. Pathways allow you to take courses that match your interests or fit your goals, whether you're trying to graduate quickly or learn on a part-time basis.

One unique approach taken by SPSCC is the bundling of two or more courses into experiences called learning communities. Students in a given learning community can earn credits for each of their linked courses.


Pierce College (Puyallup)

It's not often that a new community college has substantial enrollment in its first year, but Pierce Community College is the exception to the rule. More than 1,500 students walked through the doors of PCC in 1967, and its current enrollment of more than 15,500 learners per year shows that it continues to attract a large student body to this day.

Three brick-and-mortar campuses -- the main locations in Puyallup and Fort Steilacoom and an off-site center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord -- make it one of the more accessible colleges in the greater Tacoma area. Online courses are available as well, both self-paced and with required attendance.

PCC offers nearly 70 programs of study, including professional certificate programs and associate degree promgrams in fields like nursing, science and business. Students here can also earn B.A.S. degrees in teaching, dental hygiene and emergency management.


Everett Community College (Everett)

Everett Community College is another of the larger SBCTC institutions, welcoming more than 19,000 students each year. It also may be one of the best Washington community colleges for first-generation college students -- a quarter of those enrolled are reported as being the first member of their family to pursue higher education.

ECC offers degree programs in seven academic divisions, including high-tech fields like aerospace and advanced manufacturing. One initiative within the transitional studies division, known as Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST), pairs language instructors with professional/technical faculty to teach literacy and job skills in one program.

Students at ECC may also earn over two dozen bachelor's and advanced degrees right on campus at the Everett University Center, thanks to partnerships with five area universities. Bachelor's degree subjects include nursing, engineering and organic agriculture.


Lower Columbia College (Longview)

Founded as a junior college in 1934, Lower Columbia College became a comprehensive state institution in the 1960s. More than 4,000 students take courses here each year, with most attending in-person on the campus in southern Washington. Approximately half of students are enrolled in at least some online study.

Students at LCC can choose their degree from a list of 15 subject areas that includes engineering, criminal justice and pre-professional study of medicine and law. Registered nursing programs are the most popular study plans here by a wide margin, followed by business management and early childhood education.

The city of Longview, located just north of the border with Oregon, features numerous city parks and a short drive to the Pacific Ocean. It's got a resident population of around 38,000 -- a great size for a college town.


Big Bend Community College (Moses Lake)

Big Bend Community College offers around 40 associate degree and certificate programs to students in central Washington. Most programs come from one of six areas of study that include industry, manufacturing and trades; business; healthcare; and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

If you're fascinated by flight and flying machines, BBCC offers a range of degree and certificate programs that can help you turn your passion into a career. Associate of Applied Sciences (A.A.S.) degree programs are available for aspiring commercial pilots and aircraft mechanics, as well as a certificate in unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

BBCC also has a quirk to its scheduling approach that students busy with work or their home lives might find especially welcome. During the oil embargo of the 1970s, the institution chose to lengthen individual classes and shorten the overall instructional week to just four days.


Bates Technical College (Tacoma)

Founded in the basement of a local elementary school way back in 1940, Bates Technical College has one of the longest histories of any of the top Washington community colleges. Today, the career-focused institution operates three campuses in the Tacoma area and educates approximately 7,000 students each year.

Adult students who want to learn new skills in their current vocation or work toward a new career are likely to feel right at home on the Bates campus. More than half of enrolled students remain employed while in school, and the median age of students here is 32.

Degree program offerings at Bates include a wide range of programs recognized by accrediting organizations in their specific industries, such as the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The early childhood education, diesel and heavy equipment technology and practical nurse programs see the highest enrollment each year.

CTE in Washington

The top community colleges in Washington offer a variety of career technical education programs. These degrees and certificates teach skills for a specific occupation or industry. Students enrolled in CTE programs can typically go straight to the workforce after graduation and don't need additional education.

While CTE is often associated with hands-on careers like nursing and automotive technology, career technical education can be found in virtually every sector. In fact, CTE in Washington covers 16 different career clusters ranging from arts, audio/visual technology and communications to transportation, distribution and logistics. Within each career cluster are pathways outlining the education and skills needed for specific occupations related to that field.

The following are among the initiatives designed to make it easier for students in Washington to pursue these pathways and complete a career technical education.

  • The Worker Retraining Program provides tuition assistance for unemployed workers who want to return to school and learn new skills.
  • Career Launch programs give students real-world experience either through an apprenticeship or a work-based component of their degree program or certificate curriculum.
  • The Career and Technical Education Dual Credit program lets high school students learn advanced CTE skills and earn college credit early.

Each of the best community colleges in Washington can have more information about its CTE programs on its website. You can also learn more about the topic, in general, through the following resources.

  • Career Clusters - Visit Washington Career Bridge to see all 16 career clusters as well as information about the skills and occupations found in each one.
  • Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction -This government website provides comprehensive information about CTE in Washington, including details about career clusters, pathways and links to other resources.

Transferring Credits in Washington

You may already know that you can save money on your first four semesters of a bachelor's program by first enrolling in a community college program, but that may not be the only reason to start your college journey at a two-year school. According to a report recently cited in The Seattle Times, community college transfer students at Washington universities are more likely to finish their bachelor's degrees than their counterparts in any other U.S. state.

The Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) acknowledges two statewide transfer agreements for community college students seeking university enrollment:

  • Direct Transfer Agreement (DTA)
  • Associate of Science-Transfer (AS-T)

DTA plans are the more flexible of the two, focusing on general education courses and including around 30 credits of major-specific electives and prerequisites. AS-T plans contain fewer general education credits to allow for additional math and science classes.

The state also has more than a dozen major-related programs (MRP) -- course plans in individual subjects of study that fit within either the DTA or AS-T framework. Check with your advisor for tips on how to conduct your own transfer process as smoothly as possible.

For additional insight into education in the state, check out the top universities in Washington. Don't forget to also check out our guide on how to transfer schools for more information on the transfer process.

Resources for Community College Students in Washington

Washington State Community and Technical Colleges - The state system of community colleges offers students a wealth of information on how to register for college, pay for education and start a new career.

Washington Student Achievement Council - This government agency promotes higher education attainment in the state and provides information on financial aid and education initiatives.

Washington Career Bridge - Managed by the Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board, Washington Career Bridge helps residents explore careers, view job trends and find training opportunities.


Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we generated a list of colleges and universities that met the following criteria:

  • Level of institution is either "At least 2 but less than 4 years" or " Less than 2 years (below associate)"
  • Data is reported for all 14 ranking variables listed in the Methodology section

We ranked the resulting 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 data points:

  1. The published in-district tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
  2. The published in-state tuition and fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
  3. The in-district per credit hour charge for part-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
  4. The in-state per credit hour charge for part-time undergraduates, National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
  5. Percentage of students receiving financial aid, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016
  6. Percent of students that transferred to a 4-year institution and completed within 8 years, College Scorecard, 2017
  7. The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
  8. Full-time student retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
  9. Student-to-faculty ratio, National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
  10. Percentage of students enrolled in distance education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
  11. Flexibility, based on the following data points from the National Center for Education Statistics, 2018
    • 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.
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