April 25, 2016
Leadership & Awards
As part of our series rating the raters of the nation’s best community colleges, we’re going to take a closer look at three personal finance websites that have recently ranked the top 10 community colleges in the nation: Bankrate, SmartAsset, and WalletHub.
Greg Jarboe
Top 10 Community Colleges in the Nation Are All Over the Map

As part of our series rating the raters of the nation’s best community colleges, The Advocate of Affordable College has examined the U.S. News Short List of 10 colleges with the most new transfer students. We’ve reviewed the top community colleges eligible for the Aspen Prize for Excellence. We’ve checked out the U.S. Department of Education’s new College Scorecard, which provides national data on college cost, graduation, debt, and post-college earnings. We’ve even Googled the phrase, “best community colleges for transferring credits,” and analyzed the mixed bag of results that we found. In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at three personal finance websites that have recently ranked the top 10 community colleges in the nation: Bankrate, SmartAsset, and WalletHub.

Bankrate was founded in 1976 as a print publisher of the Bank Rate Monitor. In 1996, the company began moving its business online. In February 2016, Bankrate.com had 7,335,696 unique visitors, according to Compete. SmartAsset was launched in July 2012. The company provides personalized, automated answers to complex financial questions, such as “How much house can I afford?” In February 2016, SmartAsset.com had 645,940 unique visitors, according to Compete. WalletHub was founded in February 2013. It produces research reports and surveys on topics with varying degrees of relevance to personal finance. In February 2016, WalletHub.com had 592,186 unique visitors, according to Compete.

Now, there nothing inherently right or wrong with a personal finance website ranking the top 10 community colleges in the nation. If U.S. News, the Aspen Institute, and the U.S. Department of Education can rank community colleges, then why can’t Bankrate, SmartAsset, or WalletHub rank them, too? The more important questions are: What are their sources of data, what methodology is each one using for their rankings, and have they published articles that:

  • Are written by  experts, advocates, educators, or students who know the topic well;
  • Cover the topics  driven by the genuine interests of readers of their personal finance website;
  • Provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis;
  • Are edited well;
  • Provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic; and
  • Contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious. 

In other words, the devil is in the details. Hey, what did you expect? No one said that it was going to be easy to help more community college students afford and attain a bachelor’s degree. 

So, let’s do a deep dive into the recent articles by three personal finance websites that have identified the top 10 community colleges in the nation. And in order to reach our goal of becoming a high-quality blog that is trusted, provides substantial value, and is recognized as an authoritative source – especially when rating the raters, we will try to practice what we preach and publish a review that not only meets the criteria mentioned above, but also describes all sides of this complex story.

Bankrate’s article on the top 10 community colleges in the US

Starting alphabetically, Bankrate’s ranking of the top 10 community colleges in the US uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics to rank more than 900 public two-year institutions. The data cover full-time freshman students who entered college in fall 2008. Bankrate’s rankings were based on six criteria: graduation rate; student retention rate; the student-faculty ratio; the school’s in-state tuition and fees; the percentage of full-time first-time undergraduates receiving financial aid; and the average amount of grant aid they received from federal, state and private sources combined. Their survey did not include private institutions, schools that did not report information on all six criteria to the National Center for Education Statistics or schools with fewer than 100 full-time students.

Here are the top 10 community colleges in the nation, according to Bankrate’s criteria:

‍*Undergrads are full-time, first-time students. ** Aid includes grants from federal, state, local and institutional sources.

Bankrate’s article was written by Christina Couch, who has been a contributing reporter to Bankrate.com for the past eight years. Couch is also the author of the financial aid guidebook “Virginia Colleges 101: The Ultimate Guide for Students of All Ages.” She is also a freelance writer and her work has been published in Wired Magazine, Discover Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Fiscal Times, The AV Club, and Hemispheres Magazine.

Couch’s article provides original information and reporting in addition to original research. For example, she writes, “Smart students entering college will look for the best value for their buck. Rather than begin their academic career in an expensive private school, they often enroll in a two-year public college before transferring to a four-year university. Others may decide on a career that doesn't require a degree from a conventional four-year institution. For instance, they may wish to learn a trade at a technical school.” 

She adds, “Community colleges serve nearly half of all U.S. undergraduate students and play a crucial role in both workforce development and as a springboard to a four-year education. But few are recognized for just how far they go to serve students.”

Couch also provides 200-word descriptions of each of the top 10 two-year public colleges. For example, here’s what she writes about the East San Gabriel Regional Occupational Program:

East San Gabriel in West Covina, Calif., claims the No. 1 spot on our list because 100 percent of first-time full-time students receive financial aid, the average student receives a grant package topping $3,500, and at 87 percent, the graduation rate for full-time students is more than four times the national average.

East San Gabriel also has an 80 percent to 90 percent job placement rate, in part because internships or practical experience are required for all students, and many of the school's programs are designed to emulate small businesses, says Superintendent Laurel Adler. For example, East San Gabriel's microcomputer repair and maintenance program operates a computer repair shop that serves the local community.

If running your own company is the ultimate goal, this is the place to be. In addition to teaching the basics of starting a company, the school's small-business management program also helps students get off the ground.

"Once they get that degree, the school ... will actually pay for the student's business license and assist them in getting started," says Adler. "In other words, get their cards printed, help them set up their website and literally pay for the business license."

So, when rating the raters, how does Bankrate’s article on the top 10 community colleges in the US rate in my book?

Well, I consider rankings of community colleges to be “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) pages. These are the types of pages that Google holds to the highest standards because they’re the types of pages that can greatly impact a person’s life. This includes financial information pages in the areas of “investments, taxes, retirement planning, home purchase, paying for college, buying insurance, etc.”

And, I think Bankrate’s article passes Google’s test for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness — often shortened to E-A-T – with flying colors. In other words, I asked myself: Is the article lacking in expertise? Does it lack authoritativeness? Does it lack trustworthiness? And I concluded that it didn’t lack for any of the three key things that students, parents, and their advisers should consider when they judge the overall quality of a website or article, particularly for ones that fall into the YMYL category. In fact, I’d give high marks to Bankrate’s article on the top 10 community colleges in the US.

SmartAsset’s article on the best community colleges of 2015

SmartAsset’s ranking of the best community colleges of 2015 uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics and collegemeasures.org to rank 565 public two-year colleges. SmartAsset’s rankings were based on four criteria: the graduation and transfer rate at each school, in-state tuition, the ratio of the average starting salary to the overall cost, and the student-teacher ratio at each school.

Here is a map of the top 10 community colleges in the nation, according to SmartAsset’s criteria:

 

SmartAsset’s article was written by Nick Wallace, who studied economics at the University of Washington, and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. His article provides insightful analysis and interesting information that is beyond obvious.

For example, Wallace writes, “As the cost of attending a four year college or university continues to grow throughout the country, community colleges have assumed an increasingly important role in our higher education system. Tuition and fees at community colleges are one third those at public four year colleges and universities, on average. That means students who attend a community college and transfer to a four year institution can save significantly on tuition and have fewer student loans to pay off when the time comes to graduate.  Likewise, students who exit a community college with an associate’s degree still get a significant boost in the workforce, earning an average of $10,800 more than workers with only a high school diploma or GED, according to U.S. Census data.”

Wallace analyzes the 2015 rankings and observes:

  • Kansas, Arizona schools rate well. “Kansas and Arizona each claim three of the top 15 spots in SmartAsset’s ranking, with Kansas’s Fort Scott CC taking the top overall spot,” he writes.
  • Northeast gets an F. “Only two northeast states have any of the nation’s best community colleges (Maine has three and Massachusetts has one). Notably absent are New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, which boast a number of the nation’s top four-year schools, but no top community colleges,” he adds.

After ranking ninth in the nation in 2014, Fort Scott Community College leaps into the top spot this year. In addition to being the best community college in the nation, Fort Scott is also among the oldest. It was founded in 1919 as the first community college in the state of Kansas.

So what makes Fort Scott Community College so great? The school’s graduation-or-transfer rate is an incredible 87%, double the average for the colleges in SmartAsset’s study. One reason so many students find success at Fort Scott is that the student-teacher ratio is just 12:1.

So, when rating the raters, how does SmartAsset’s article on the top 10 community colleges in the nation rate in my book?

Well, if I hadn’t read Bankrate’s article first, then I might have given SmartAsset’s article fairly high marks. But Couch has more expertise than Wallace, Bankrate’s look at more than 900 public two-year institutions is more complete and comprehensive than SmartAsset’s look at 565 public two-year colleges, and Couch’s 200-word descriptions of each the top 10 community colleges provides twice as much insightful analysis or interesting information as Wallace’s 100-word descriptions. So, I’d put SmartAsset’s article somewhere in the middle of the bell curve.

WalletHub’s article on 2015’s Best & Worst Community Colleges

Finally, WalletHub’s ranking of 2015’s best and worst community colleges uses data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE), the Council for Community and Economic Research, the American Institutes for Research and Optimity Advisors. However, CCCSE responded to Wallethub’s article, saying “WalletHub.com’s rankings in large part were created through misuse of data from the CCCSE website that were combined with other data likely from different time frames…There are so many things about this approach that are statistically inappropriate that it is impossible to overstate how spurious the results really are.”

In order to identify the best and worst community colleges in the U.S., WalletHub compared 670 such institutions across four key dimensions, including: 1) cost and financing, 2) classroom experience, 3) education outcomes and 4) career outcomes.

Here are the top 10 community colleges in the nation, according to WalletHub’s criteria:

WalletHub’s article was written by Richie Bernardo, who is a personal finance writer at WalletHub. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism and a minor in business from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Previously, he was a journalism intern at the European Youth Forum in Brussels, Belgium, a magazine editor, and a reporter for local newspapers. His work has appeared in the Columbia Missourian, The Hattiesburg Post, Vox Magazine, and YO! Magazine, among others.

Bernardo’s article provides some original information and reporting in addition to the original, albeit spurious research. For example, he says, “Across the board… community colleges are slowly stacking up against their traditional four-year counterparts. Schedule flexibility, rigorous coursework and smaller class sizes supply the majority of their appeal to first-time college entrants as well as to university students choosing to transfer to community colleges — an emerging trend that goes against the usual grain of transitioning from a two-year to a four-year institution.”

In addition, Bernardo’s article includes additional expert commentary. However, he asked a panel of leading experts to weigh in with their thoughts of these questions:

  1. Do you think President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community-college tuition free will increase enrollment and graduation rates?
  2. What can policymakers do to improve the quality of education and training at community colleges and the career prospects of graduates?
  3. Should community colleges focus more on preparing graduates for the workforce through career and technical education or on preparing graduates to move to a four-year college?

However, the experts selected to share their thoughts are unrelated to the community colleges which have high rankings. In other words, the resulting “editorial package” is what Seth Godin calls a “meatball sundae,” the unfortunate result of mixing two good ideas.

In addition, there are no descriptions of the top 10 community colleges. So, there’s no insightful analysis or interesting information about why North Florida Community College ranked first.

So, when rating the raters, how does WalletHub’s article on the top 10 community colleges in the nation compare to Bankrate’s and SmartAsset’s articles?

Well, questionable results and lower E-A-T scores put WalletHub’s article at the bottom of the class.

(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)