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Finalists named for $1M Aspen Prize

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Southwest Texas Junior College was recognized, in part, for developing a system to monitor students' academic progress and interject when their perfornance drops. 

Photo: Southwest Junior Texas College

​A national prize to recognize community colleges that have improved their student outcomes has whittled the list of 120 eligible colleges to 10 finalists.

While the selected colleges are relishing the spotlight from the high-profile program in its inaugural year, they are looking ahead to December, when the Aspen Institute will announce the winner and up to three runners-up that will share $1 million.

The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which was announced nearly a year ago at the White House Summit on Community Colleges, was developed as a way to spotlight two-year colleges that have dramatically improved student outcomes. It was also designed to share promising practices among the nation’s 1,200 community colleges.

“The finalists impressed us with their efforts to help students succeed in college, as well as to ensure that their programs would prepare students to compete successfully in the labor market,” according to Cecelia Rouse, a Princeton University professor and former member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors who served as chair of the Aspen Prize selection committee.

And the finalists are….

In its press material, Aspen noted the selected colleges as well as some of their stand-out features:

  • Lake Area Technical Institute has developed strong partnerships with employers in South Dakota. About 98 percent of its graduates find jobs or pursue further education.
  • Miami Dade College (Florida) focuses student retention strategies and evaluating educational effectiveness, and especially serving a diverse student body. 
  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College​ has, in part, zeroed in on teaching, with 82 percent of faculty members serving as full-time instructors, which is an unusually high number for community colleges.
  • Mott Community College (Michigan) has over the past five years increased the number of students earning degrees and certificates. It developed a rigorous system to measure results, identify areas for improvement and make target investments to improve outcomes.
  • Northeast Iowa Community College-Calmar has graduation rates that are nearly 24 percent higher than the national average for two-year colleges. It uses workforce data to forecast where the labor market is headed and then adapts its programs so students are better prepared for those available jobs.
  • Santa Barbara City College (California) extensively uses data to determine how effective its programs are, especially to gauge how well graduates are doing in the local labor market and whether to start new programs that employers need.
  • Southwest Texas Junior College (SWTJC) has over the past five years increased the rates at which students—many of whom arrive unprepared for college-level work—finish their degrees and certificates. The college has developed programs to monitor students’ progress, which allows faculty to response if performance drops.
  • Valencia College (Florida) has, in part, focused on helping students graduate or transfer to other institutions at a rate nearly 12 percent above the national average. It devotes resources to professional development and engages faculty across the college in assessing and improving its programs.
  • Walla Walla Community College (Washington) students graduate or transfer to four-year institutions at a rate that is almost 14 percent above the national average for two-year colleges, even though many of its incoming students are not ready for college-level work.
  • West Kentucky Community and Technical College increased the number of students completing its program by 23 percent over a recent five-year period by using data on student learning and completion, such of focusing on student advising to help student declare a major, which is shown to improve success rates.

The selection process

The 10 colleges were selected by a committee of community college and higher education experts who reviewed the initial colleges eligible to apply for the award.  The panel examined data and practices in three areas: student learning, student completion, and student employment and earning after graduation.

The Aspen Institute is currently gathering additional information on the finalists through site visits and collecting more data. Another committee will review the new and previous data to select a winner—which will receive $700,000—and up to three runners-up, which will each receive $100,000. 

Aspen noted that the program is less about competition and more about raising the bar for all community colleges, especially as they embrace their national role in President Barack Obama’s goal of increasing the number of college graduates by 2020 and other national initiative to improve workforce preparedness.

“Practically everyone can see the link between having a college degree and economic stability,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “Recognizing and encouraging community college excellence is critical to helping more Americans get the skills they need, especially in difficult economic times.”

The White House plans to feature the selected colleges in its Champions of Change program. Presidents from the 10 colleges will be invited to a White House event Sept. 21 to share their ideas on innovation and education. Their stories will be featured on the Champions of Change website.

An appreciated affirmation

Officials from the selected colleges said they welcome the recognition for the efforts to improve student success.

“This is something we can all take great pride in,” said SWTJC President Ismael Sosa, Jr.

“It’s the affirmation of almost 15 years of work,” added Valencia College President Sandy Shugart (See video below), who noted that the award will raise awareness for the work that all two-year colleges do, but it will also raise expectations of them.

The colleges also appreciated that the committee looked carefully at urban, suburban and rural colleges of all sizes.

“Just because we aren’t a giant institution doesn’t mean we aren’t doing some giant things when it comes to serving our students,” said Blaine Bennett, dean of institutional advancement and technology at SWTJC.

Valencia’s Shugart said that his college and others have been working at improving student success for a while, and they’ve done so with a host of partners nationally and locally. Valencia, for example, is one of the first colleges to participate in Achieving the Dream—the national initiative that encourages colleges to use data to drive decisions to improve student outcomes—as well as partnerships with other organizations, such as the American Association of Community Colleges and the League for Innovation in the Community College, and foundations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We haven’t been alone in it,” he said. “We’ve had partners along the way.”

Just the beginning

WWCC President Steven VanAusdle said the Aspen Prize gives additional credibility to community colleges nationally and should make local, state and federal lawmakers and policymakers aware that two-year colleges are a good public investment, especially in terms of workforce preparation. 

VanAusdle, who serves on the Washington Economic Development Commission and is a member of the Council on Competitiveness, noted that the future U.S. economy will require at least 60 percent of workers to have high skills. Unfortunately, there is a skills gap. For every 100 resident hired in the state, another 92 workers are “imported” from other states and abroad because companies cannot find enough skilled workers, he said.

“That’s a problem that must be addressed,” VanAusdle said.

 

 

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