A journey to the top

Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) in South Dakota is the 2017 Aspen Prize winner, after being a finalist for the award every time since the first winner was announced.

Despite being so close in 2011, 2013 and 2015, LATI didn’t rest on its laurels and used the Aspen Prize process to continually refine itself, said President Michael Cartney. “It helped us see what we needed to improve,” he said Tuesday at the awards presentation in Washington, D.C.

For LATI, that meant redefining student success as job placement and not just graduation, Cartney said. Based on data from the class of 2015, 99 percent of its graduates are employed or are continuing their education six months following graduation.

Cartney credited the success to a team effort, from local stakeholders, such as employers, to the college’s faculty, staff and students.

“Every employee at Lake Area Tech is part of our students’ success,” he said.

The college will receive $600,000 as winner.

Strong showing

Broward College and Indian River State College earned Finalist with Distinction, continuing Florida’s strong showing in the Aspen Prize. (Florida’s Valencia College won the inaugural award and Santa Fe College received the top honor in 2015.)

Two Texas colleges — San Jacinto College and Odessa College — were recognized as Rising Star colleges.

All four colleges will receive $100,000 each.

The other finalists were: Anoka-Ramsey Community College (Minnesota); Chaffey College (California); Northeast Community College (Nebraska); Pasadena City College (California); and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, which also has been a four-time finalist.

In the details

Prior to the announcement, the audience at the event heard personal stories from community college students and staff. Chelsea Hartshorn, a single mother of two, is studying electrical trades at Central New Mexico Community College, championing green energy and serving as a model for younger women interested in STEM careers. Upon graduation, she hopes to work for herself as a journeyman electrician, with a specialty in green energy.

Lake Area Technical Institute President Michael Cartney receives the 2017 Aspen Prize on behalf of his college.

Kevin Cooper, dean of advanced technologies at Indian River State College, works to tie education and job training to local industry needs, whether working with small or large companies. He highlighted two efforts which he says illustrate how a community college-industry partnership can serve students. His college has a digital media program that pairs students with local companies. A capstone project allows students to succeed, but it also teaches valuable lessons when they fail, often in areas of scope, scheduling and budgeting.

Another effort Cooper is proud of is Indian River’s push to include more African-Americans in its power plant program. The college revamped its math requirements — which were an impediment for these students — and now embeds specific, job-related math skills into the classes.

Next steps

Joshua Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, noted that comprehensive college reform is taking hold at community colleges, many of which offer integrated services such as developmental education, financial aid and guided pathways. The effort has moved the needle from access to completion, he said, but he added that for many students there’s still another stage in the process, whether attaining a job or pursuing a four-year degree. That’s an area that requires more work, Wyner said. About 80 percent of community college students indicate they want to attain a baccalaureate, but only about 20 percent of them do so, he said.

Broward College was highlighted for its success in helping students transition to a four-year college. Former Broward student Rachelle James is almost done with her communications baccalaureate at Florida Atlantic University. She plans to become an academic adviser on her career path to become a college president. Brown noted that Broward staff did an excellent job acclimating her for a larger institution.

“It’s very easy to get lost in the transition,” she said.

Developing a relationship with students from day one is important, said Broward teaching counselor Todd Westerfeld. That includes helping them individualize an academic plan, as well as guidance and mentoring along the way.

“That’s the kind of relationship we try to build, from orientation to graduation to transfer,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily.