It's no secret that the cost of higher education in the U.S. has soared in recent years and that a growing number of students are considering less expensive community colleges to get their degrees.
Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced a proposal to make two years of community college free for responsible students. The proposal acknowledges that today's students need expanded skill sets "to meet the demands of a growing global economy without having to take on decades of debt before they even embark on their career."
At the same time, a new study by personal finance site WalletHub shows many community colleges are shedding their reputations as low-budget, academically inferior educational institutions. In some cases, they're even "outperforming their traditional university counterparts."
WalletHub looked at 670 community colleges and considered four major factors at each school: cost and financing, classroom experience, education outcomes and career outcomes. It also weighed 17 "relevant metrics" and came up with a list of the best and worst community colleges in the nation.
Click ahead for a look at the top and bottom five on that list.
No. 1 - North Florida Community College
Cost and financing rank: 137
Classroom experience rank: 7
Education outcomes rank: 7
Career outcomes rank: 1
Located in Florida just a short drive from the Georgia border, FNCC describes itself as one of the most affordable colleges in the Sunshine State. It also notes its tuition hasn't increased over the past two years. Last year, it says it awarded close to $200,000 in scholarships and grants, while its students received an additional $2.2 million in federal aid.
No. 2 - Diné College
Cost and financing rank: 1
Classroom experience rank: 25
Education outcomes rank: 386
Career outcomes rank: 1
Established in Arizona in 1968 as the first tribally controlled community college in the U.S., Diné College has students that are predominantly from the Navajo Nation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The school had the best score on the WalletHub list when it came to the cost of in-state tuition and fees. It's also the first tribally controlled institution to be accredited as a two-year college.
No. 3 - Chipola College
Cost and financing rank: 65
Classroom experience rank: 76
Education outcomes rank: 24
Career outcomes rank: 86
One of the oldest of Florida's state-supported community colleges, Chipola was originally located on a former Army Air base in the state's Panhandle. In 2010, nearly one-fifth of its degree-seeking students were recipients of Florida's Bright Futures scholarship program. The college also reports its job-placement rates are "consistently" above 80 percent.
No. 4 - Northwest College
Cost and financing rank: 30
Classroom experience rank: 96
Education outcomes rank: 41
Career outcomes rank: 150
This two-year, open-enrollment college in Powell, Wyoming, has seen a spike in enrollment over the past several years. And as oil and gas prices weaken across the regional economy, it could prompt many laid-off workers to return to school. The college also offers credit for life experiences.
"It is important to note that we have regular credit classes that start mid-semester, and non-credit classes that start throughout the semester, for those in transition that need to retrain or upgrade their job skills during the year," NWC President Stefani Hicswa recently told the Powell Tribune. "We know that economic cycles do not necessarily follow the traditional school calendar."
No. 5 - Taft College
Cost and financing rank: 4
Classroom experience rank: 63
Education outcomes rank: 411
Career outcomes rank: 1
Located in California's San Joaquin Valley near one of the nation's largest oil fields, Taft College has focused on getting its students more involved in its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs as they transition to four-year colleges.
No. 666 - Blinn College
Cost and financing rank: 474
Classroom experience rank: 656
Education outcomes rank: 650
Career outcomes rank: 520
Founded in Brenham, Texas, in 1883 by the Methodist Church, the college currently has four campuses and keeps its tuition fees about one-third the cost of comparable, four-year public universities elsewhere in Texas. The school was recently awarded a $1.35 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to double the size of its Technical Education Center.
No. 667 - Baton Rouge Community College
Cost and financing rank: 505
Classroom experience rank: 407
Education outcomes rank: 667
Career outcomes rank: 603
According to the BRCC's website, the school came into being in 1994 following a Desegregation Settlement Agreement between Louisiana and the U.S. Justice Department "in an effort to eliminate remnants of a dual-race system in the state's post-secondary educational structure."
Faculty and staff had expected an estimated 700 students to be enrolled with the college when it officially opened in the summer of 1998, but instead they found nearly 1,900 enrollees waiting. BRCC has been racing to keep up with the demands of a wide and diverse student population, and by the fall of 2012 it had an enrollment of more than 8.200 students.
A recent local news report said out-of-state investigators are looking into concerns that some BRCC students who received credentials for trade jobs may have not met the proper certification requirements.
No. 668 - Calhoun Community College
Cost and financing rank: 610
Classroom experience rank: 666
Education outcomes rank: 516
Career outcomes rank: 614
The largest two-year college in Alabama, Calhoun Community College has around 11,000 students. The school made local headlines recently due to issues with federal funding. According to the Decatur Daily, a 2013-2014 audit found some of Calhoun's students didn't repay their federal grants or loans after dropping out or failing their classes.
No. 669 - College of Western Idaho
Cost and financing rank: 624
Classroom experience rank: 553
Education outcomes rank: 652
Career outcomes rank: 617
Established in 2007, CWI was created to supply nearby Boise with a community college. The school is growing rapidly, with a 40 percent increase in dual-credit students. It expects to double its current enrollment of 20,000 by 2045.
No. 670 - Terra State Community College
Cost and financing rank: 571
Classroom experience rank: 610
Education outcomes rank: 635
Career outcomes rank: 664
An accredited, two-year commuter college in Fremont, Ohio, Terra State is dealing with a tightened state budget and declining enrollment. Earlier this year, Terra State announced it would consolidate administrative operations with those of another community college in northwestern Ohio.