2020 Best Online Community Colleges
Millions of students each year start their higher education journey at a community college. Some are looking to enter an occupation requiring an associate degree. Others are seeking an affordable way to take general education courses before transferring to a bachelor's degree program. Along the way, many of them learn useful and marketable skills and gain an important credential.
For many students, online education provides a convenient way to learn. In 2018, nearly two million community college students took at least one distance education course, with almost 15% taking online courses exclusively. For applicants considering an online degree, we've ranked the best online community colleges below, based on retention rate, number of online associate degrees offered, and percentage of students enrolled online. We've also provided an overview of community colleges and information about the online learning experience, costs of an online degree, and career outcomes for graduates.
|# 1||Foothill College||$3,555||Los Altos Hills (CA)|
|# 2||Sussex County Community College||$5,200||Newton (NJ)|
|# 3||Bismarck State College||$5,499||Bismarck (ND)|
|# 4||Georgia State University-Perimeter College||$4,050||Decatur (GA)|
|# 5||North Dakota State College of Science||$4,484||Wahpeton (ND)|
|# 6||Marshalltown Community College||$5,696||Marshalltown (IA)|
|# 7||Florida Gateway College||$3,099||Lake City (FL)|
|# 8||Southeast Technical Institute||$8,415||Sioux Falls (SD)|
|# 9||Seminole State College of Florida||$2,393||Sanford (FL) (and 3 others)|
|# 10||Bucks County Community College||$5,115||Newtown (PA)|
|# 11||Georgia Highlands College||$2,850||Rome (GA)|
|# 12||Cochise College||$3,616||Douglas (AZ)|
|# 13||Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College||$4,807||Shell Lake (WI)|
|# 14||Richmond Community College||$2,584||Hamlet (NC)|
|# 15||Lake Superior College||$5,653||Duluth (MN)|
|# 16||Wallace State Community College-Hanceville||$3,930||Hanceville (AL)|
|# 17||Southwest Virginia Community College||$5,329||Richlands (VA)|
|# 18||Cowley County Community College||$3,565||Arkansas City (KS)|
|# 19||Eastern Oklahoma State College||$4,947||Wilburton (OK)|
|# 20||Alexandria Technical & Community College||$5,970||Alexandria (MN)|
|# 21||Snead State Community College||$3,483||Boaz (AL)|
|# 22||Arkansas Northeastern College||$2,430||Blytheville (AR) (and 3 others)|
|# 23||Lakeshore Technical College||$4,095||Cleveland (WI)|
|# 24||Hillsborough Community College||$2,654||Tampa (FL)|
2020 Best Online Community Colleges by State
|#1||Hillsborough Community College|
|#2||Florida Gateway College|
|#3||Seminole State College of Florida|
|#1||Hudson Valley Community College|
|#2||Herkimer County Community College|
|#3||Cayuga Community College|
|#1||Cincinnati State Technical and Community College|
|#2||University of Cincinnati-Clermont College|
|#3||Sinclair Community College|
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
2020 Best Online Community College Ranking Details
Overview of Online Community Colleges
The U.S. is home to over 1,400 community colleges. Most are publicly funded, with the goal of serving their local communities. They usually offer two-year associate degrees, which can help graduates qualify for certain technical or vocational fields or serve as the foundation for a bachelor's degree. Many community colleges also offer certificates, which are skill-based credentials that can improve a student's employment prospects in their field.
Because of the localized history of community colleges, only a dozen of these institutions are exclusively online and feature no campus offerings. However, hundreds of schools with physical campuses also offer fully online or hybrid associate degrees. This allows students around the country to enroll in especially attractive or affordable programs, and it grants flexibility to local students with work or family responsibilities that prevent them from attending class sessions at given times.
Do Most Community Colleges Offer Online Courses and Online Degrees?
With the rising popularity of online learning, students may wonder what their online options will be at community colleges. Although recent data is scarce, 92% of U.S. community colleges offered at least one online degree program in 2016. There is anecdotal evidence from around the country that community colleges will offer more online courses in the future than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prospective students may wonder which states have the most options for online community college. The most populous states tend to have a higher number of community colleges, which usually means that these states have more available online programs. For example, California offers thousands of online courses through 115 schools in its community college system, including classes for 21 associate degree programs.
Accreditation indicates that a school's quality has been independently verified, so it's important for prospective students to check a school's accreditation status. Colleges usually list their accreditation information on their websites.
Community colleges earn accreditation by passing a review by a national or regional accrediting body. Once a college is accredited, its students can apply for federal financial aid and transfer credits to other schools. Credit transfer is especially important for associate graduates who want to pursue a bachelor's degree — many regionally accredited colleges don't accept transfer credits from schools that aren't also regionally accredited.
Regional accreditation is the most rigorous form, and the agencies that accredit community colleges are typically the same as those that accredit four-year colleges.Only the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) has a subdivision that accredits community colleges in its region, called the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). If you attend a community college that is primarily online, the Distance Education Accreditation Commission (DEAC) will also certify your school.
What Is It Like To Pursue Community College Online?
Online degree programs deliver classes through internet-based learning platforms, such as Blackboard or Canvas. Most programs are primarily asynchronous. This means that faculty post recorded lectures, assignments, and discussion questions, and students log in at convenient times to complete coursework. Some courses and degree programs feature synchronous lectures or video discussions among classmates, and many colleges offer hybrid programs that mix in-person class sessions with online work.
Online degree programs deliver classes through internet-based learning platforms, such as Blackboard or Canvas.
Colleges usually maintain that the quality of education is equal between their on-campus and online programs, with the same curriculum, course materials, and learning outcomes. Many distance courses are even taught by the same faculty as in-person classes, and these professors hold virtual office hours for students in online sections. In most cases, online students can also access library resources over the internet and schedule phone or video appointments with librarians or academic advisers.
However, there are definite differences in the online and in-person learning experiences despite the identical curriculum. Students can't ask questions or interact with classmates during asynchronous lectures, and they may lose some informal networking opportunities by not being physically present on campus. Lab work for STEM students may also differ. Rather than work with their classmates in a campus facility, students may need to work in another lab approved by faculty, or even at home using a lab kit.
Should I Attend Online Community College?
There is no absolute answer to this question, because everyone's circumstances are different. Individuals have different job and family responsibilities, educational and career interests, and learning styles. However, community college has given an affordable leg up to many alumni as they enter the workforce or transfer to another degree program.
One of the key reasons students attend community college is the generally low cost, which can help reduce future debt by allowing students to take about half a bachelor's degree course load at a lower tuition rate. Another reason students attend is the variety of careers that they can embark on with an associate degree in hand.
If you intend to enroll at a community college, then it may be worth researching available distance-learning options. If your local college doesn't have the particular degree program you're seeking, it's possible that another one will. If you choose another community college in the same state, you can still take advantage of state-based financial aid programs to help reduce your costs.
I'm Ready to Apply to an Online Community College - What Do I Need To Know?
Prerequisites and Admissions
Community colleges are intended to serve as inclusive educational resources, so they operate on an open-access principle that guarantees admission for most applicants. Applicants may need to take placement tests to determine their level placement in certain subjects, but these tests aren't meant to exclude students entirely.
Applicants to degree and certificate programs usually need a high school diploma or equivalent. The equivalent can be:
- a GED,
- a home-school diploma,
- or a passing score on an approved ability-to-benefit test that demonstrates the educational competence of a student who doesn't have a diploma.
Some high-demand degree programs have caps on the number of students. In these cases, the application process is selective and admissions officers may consider a student's GPA, placement test scores, record of extracurricular activities, and general fitness for the program.
Prospective students generally fill out an online application and submit official high school transcripts and scores from college-placement tests. Transfer students will also send transcripts from any postsecondary institutions they've attended.
Applicants usually pay a nonrefundable fee that covers the work of processing the application. Many colleges waive this fee for applicants who demonstrate financial need; check with the admissions office for more information. Most community colleges accept applications at any time, so students can begin whenever the first class in their program is offered.
Choosing a Location
Most community college students attend a school near their home, because the majority of students attend at least partially in person, even though only a tiny percentage live on campus. It's possible for a fully online student to enroll anywhere in the U.S. if a particular program is appealing or not available near their home. However, students will forgo financial aid programs offered by the state where they live, which are awarded only to that state's residents if they attend an in-state school.
Other Factors To Consider
When applying to community colleges and deciding where you'd like to go, there are some important factors to consider in addition to location. Studies suggest that community college students enrolled in campus programs perform better and complete courses at a higher rate than online students. The reasons aren't always clear, but the researchers recommend that schools prepare students for the challenges of online learning through special orientations, stay on the lookout for students at risk of dropping out, and offer more and better technical support and academic advising.
Before deciding to pursue an online degree, prospective applicants can research how well a community college has adopted these three recommendations. They can make a list of questions to determine how invested a college will be in their success, including:
Can I speak to an academic adviser before committing to the school?
How do the college's admissions officers describe the level and quality of technical support that students receive?
What do the school's graduates say about their experiences?
How Much Does Online Community College Cost?
Tuition and fee rates at community colleges can vary, but they're designed to be more affordable than other education options. For example, the schools on our list range from $2,393 to $8,415 in annual tuition, with a median cost of $4,072. This compares favorably to the rates we've manually collected for both online bachelor's degrees and online associate degrees as a whole (from both two-year and four-year colleges).
- The median annual tuition for an online associate degree is $8,300 and the median cost per credit is $268.
- The median annual tuition for an online bachelor's degree is $13,919 and the median cost per credit is $449.
Because most community colleges are public institutions funded by property taxes, the cost structure often has three tiers:
- In-district tuition is lowest, designated for students whose legal residence is near the school.
- Out-of-district tuition is for students who live in the same state but out of the college's community.
- Out-of-state tuition is for students whose legal residence is in another state.
Tuition and fee rates at community colleges can vary, but they're designed to be more affordable than other education options.
Non-resident online learners won't always pay the out-of-state rate, because some colleges offer online tuition at either the in-district or out-of-district rate regardless of residency. Community colleges may also be subject to a tuition reciprocity agreement, whereby students from a neighboring state pay less than the out-of-state rate. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrations (NASFAA) lists the largest reciprocity exchanges, but check your state's higher education agency if you don't see your state listed.
Community college students will need to pay fees in addition to tuition, which vary by school and may be different for online and in-person students. Students must also buy books and supplies. Very few enrollees pay on-campus housing costs, though some pay for a meal plan. Fully online students can avoid transportation costs that commuters must consider.
Community college students are eligible for many of the same types of financial aid as students in four-year schools. These include scholarships, grants, work-study programs, and loans from government or private sources.
The usual first step in applying for financial aid is to complete the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA), which is the gateway to all federal and most state and institutional aid programs. A completed FAFSA details an applicant's personal or family financial situation, including their level of need and the amount their family is expected to contribute toward their education.
No matter how much a student contributes toward their own degree, they should first exhaust all possible sources of gift aid, which doesn't need to be repaid. Below are a few categories of grants and scholarships that can help reduce a student's costs and future debt burden:
State grants. Many states provide need-based funding to eligible residents attending community college, with awards differing by state. Examples include Florida's Student Assistance Grant Program and Washington's College Grant.
Scholarships. Schools, organizations, and private donors endow scholarships to be awarded based on academic merit, community service, program of study, or representation of underrepresented groups. Examples include the American Indian College Fund's Full Circle Scholarship, which fully funds a year of study, as well as the $1,000-2,5000 Hispanic Scholarship Fund Scholarship for students who intend to transfer to a bachelor's program after graduation.
Career and Salary Outcomes
Completing a program at a community college can have a positive effect on employability and earnings. Students learn knowledge and skills relevant to their field and start to build a professional network of people with the same goals and interests, all of which can help their careers.
Completing a program at a community college can have a positive effect on employability and earnings.
The median annual salary for an associate-degree holder is $46,124, which is about $7,300 more than what workers with a high school diploma make. Below are some fast-growing careers that associate degree alumni can potentially pursue, with data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
- Medical diagnostic technicians operate complex imaging machinery to help doctors make diagnoses. Their pay varies by imaging specialty, and most specialties require a special certification to work in the field.
- Nuclear medicine technologists administer radioactive medication that allows for certain diagnostic images that help doctors treat their patients. These technologists earn median annual wages of $80,000 and require certification.
- Occupational therapy assistants help patients relearn daily activities after illness or injury. They earn a median $61,000 per year and enjoy a very rapid 32% rate of job growth.
- Physical therapist assistants help therapists who treat their clients' pain and improve their mobility. PT assistant jobs pay a median of $50,000 annually and the field is expanding very fast, with 29% job growth projected through 2029.
- Radiation therapists use radiation-emitting technologies to treat disease, including cancer. They earn a median wage of $87,000 per year and must be certified or licensed, depending on the state they practice in.
Although associate degrees can provide great career benefits, prospective students may wonder about the stigma associated with earning a degree online. There are some lingering negative associations that stem from online learning's early days, when it was mainly offered by low-quality for-profit schools. However, there is good news:
- Research indicates that online learning's cachet is improving with HR and business leaders.
- Most employers won't know that an applicant earned a degree online, because nearly every school issues identical diplomas and transcripts to both online and on-campus students.