RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – North Carolina is home to six of the top 10 community colleges in the nation, according to SmartAsset, an online site aimed at helping people make smart financial decisions.

SmartAsset’s Best Community Colleges in America 2018 Edition asks, “How much is higher education worth?” Using Census Bureau data, it answers its own question with, “Quite a bit.”

The average associate degree holder earns 18 percent more than the average high school diploma holder. That’s a difference of $5,400 a year.

North Carolina has made its community college system a lynchpin in its labor force training for more than a decade. The statewide network of 58 public community colleges enrolls more than 780,000 students a year. It’s the third largest in the nation.

Transforming NC out of old-economy jobs

One of its missions has been to retrain workers from old-economy jobs such as textiles and tobacco for new-economy jobs in such fields as the life sciences and information technology. The state’s BioNetwork program, for example, connects community colleges in the state to specialized training, curricula and equipment, and laboratory services to support the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry.

NC community colleges with biotechnology programs include Wake Tech, Wilson, Edgecombe, Alamance, and Bladen community colleges.

One of the advantages of community colleges, SmartAsset notes, is that they are relatively affordable, costing an average in-state tuition and fees of about $4,300, while public four-year institutions cost 2.3 times as much.

SmartAsset’s analysis is focused primarily on affordability, so some of North Carolina’s largest and most well-known community colleges didn’t make the list.

It cites the following six schools on its list of the top ten:

  • James Sprunt Community College, at second on the list, is located in Keansville, a small Southwestern NC town. SmartAsset said it ranks so well thanks to high graduation rates and low student-to-faculty ratios. Tuition, it points out, is only $2,542 for two semesters, not an amount you spend the rest of your life paying off.
  • Pamlico Community College, in eastern NC’s Pamlico County, topped the 2017 SmartAsset ranking, as one of the best by taking the third spot in 2018. With affordability a major concern for many community college students, Pamlico is tough to beat: two semesters cost under $1,900.
  • Cape Fear Community College, in Wilmington, got SmartAsset’s nod for its graduation or transfer rate of 65 percent and student-to-faculty ratio of 12 to one. It scores in the top 6 percent on both of those metrics nationally.
  • Montgomery Community College in the small Uwharrie National Forest community of Troy was seventh among SmartAsset’s top 10, offering traditional classes in subjects like criminal justice, early childhood education and law enforcement, while also offering classes in atypical subjects like gunsmithing and taxidermy. SmartAsset writes, “It may be a good option for people looking for an off-the-beaten path career.”
  • Roanoke-Chowan Community College, in the Hertford County community of Ahoskie, in the state’s northeastern Inner Banks region, was eighth. It too ranked well in student-to-faculty ratio and graduation rate.
  • Western Piedmont Community College, at ninth, is in the Burke County community of Morganton, a town of about 17,000 east of Lake James State Park in west central N.C. Its graduation and transfer rate and student-to-faculty ratio ranked in the top 15 percent of all community colleges.

Looking at the broader SmartAsset top 25 list, Johnston Community College in Smithfield landed at 15; Blue Ridge Community College in the Henderson County village of Flat Rock, came in at 17; and Beaufort County Community College in the coastal city of Washington was number 22.

(C) N.C. Biotech Center