Virginians are lucky. They have a choice of 23 community colleges with 40 campuses across the Commonwealth.
You won’t find any of them on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of the best colleges in America, though. It rates four-year colleges and universities, not two-year programs.
Community colleges have assumed a growing number of roles over the last 20 years. They offer great vocational programs that don’t require a four-year degree. They’re ideal for older students and those changing careers or wanting to earn professional certification. In an economic downturn, they provide the first two years of undergraduate education at a cost substantially less than most of their four-year counterparts.
So which are the best ones in Virginia? Because they serve students with so many different goals, the definition of best is bound to vary with each student.
For some, it’s cost. However, the playing field among these Virginia schools is level. According to the Virginia Community College site, all of them charge the same tuition per credit hour. Since community colleges are commuter schools, the cost of dormitories or residence halls is nonexistent and therefore not a variable when attempting to figure the best buys.
Ask any Virginian to name one of Virginia’s community colleges. The answer will always be Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC). For those who believe biggest is best, this community college, one of the largest in that nation, is tops.
The College Surfing site says that during the 2005-2006 academic year, NVCC served more than 60,000 students in credit courses. Another quarter of a million enrolled in non-credit offerings and public service activities. The school has campuses and centers in the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William as well as the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax, Manassas Park and Manassas. It also offers hundreds of distance education courses.
For individuals looking for a specific career program, the community colleges that offer it are at the top of their wish lists. For example, NVCC offers paralegal and veterinary assistant programs not available on other campuses. It even has a medical education campus for students seeking to be part of the health care profession.
Some view the measure of a school’s ranking according to the percentage of students who graduate from its programs. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia reports on these percentages by community college.
The most recent statistics reported are for 2004. Ranking first was Dabney S. Lancaster Community College at Clifton Forge with a 24.3 percent graduation rate. Second was Lord Fairfax, Middletown, VA, at 23.6 percent. Southside Virginia Community College in Alberta placed third at 22.8 percent. Fourth was Danville Community College in the city of the same name, with a graduation rate of 22.6 percent.
Tied for fifth at 22.1 percent were Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands and Wytheville in the town of the same name. The lowest percentage of graduation among the 23 schools was 9.4.
With so many choices, there’s bound to be a best for every Virginian.