When SAC President Robert Vela was told via Zoom that SAC was the winner, he put his hands together, closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and smiled, savoring the news for a moment.
“What a journey,” he said, thanking district Chancellor Mike Flores and the college’s board of trustees, faculty, staff and community partners for their contributions and commitment.
“Where we were six, seven years ago is not reflective of who we are. It was our pursuit of excellence to ensure that every one of our students knew what that looked like and felt like,” Vela said, adding: “This award will validate that for them.”
SAC will receive $600,000 from the $1 million purse, with $100,000 going to each of the three Finalists with Distinction — Broward College (Florida), San Jacinto College (Texas) and West Kentucky Community and Technical College — and $100,000 for the Rising Star award, which went to Amarillo College (Texas). The other top 10 Aspen Prize finalists were: Borough of Manhattan Community College (New York), Pierce College (Washington), Tallahassee Community College (Florida), Pasadena City College (California) and Odessa College (Texas).
Awarded every two years since 2011, the Aspen Prize recognizes outstanding institutions selected from a pool of more than 1,000 public community colleges nationwide. Among the previous prize winners, four were from Florida, including 2019 co-winners Indian River State College and Miami Dade College. The award honors institutions with outstanding achievement in six areas: teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer and bachelor’s attainment, workforce success, equity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and leadership and institutional culture.
Aspen noted SAC’s full-range effort to help students, from faculty getting to know each and every student, to advisors guiding students through various systems.
“Throughout the college, leaders, faculty, and staff constantly analyze whether students are getting what they need — whether it’s math knowledge, child care, or useful information about their transfer destination — and adapt programs to meet the needs of their diverse student body. This commitment to continuous improvement yields results: In just five years, SAC’s graduation and transfer rate increased by almost 20 percentage points,” according to a brief about the winner and the four other top finalists.
SAC had a similar jump among its students of color, who comprise two-thirds of its students. Those students saw graduate and transfer rates increase from 25% in 2014 to 45% in 2018, exceeding the national average of 37% in 2018.
Even prior to the Aspen Award, SAC was gaining national attention for its efforts to improve student success. For example, Vela — who is a member of the board of directors of the American Association of Community Colleges — this month spoke at the Education Writers Association’s annual National Seminar. He highlighted his college’s efforts to stay connected with students, such as calling them on the phone, which helped maintain retention rates.
In 2018, the Alamo Colleges District received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The award is the nation’s only presidential-level honor for performance excellence in organizations.
A word from national leaders
The Aspen Prize ceremony on Tuesday included pre-recorded comments by U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. The secretary said community colleges’ work is a critical part of President Joe Biden’s vision to reimagine the economy, address longstanding inequities and unite the nation. He highlighted the range of programs offered to students to help them succeed, including dual enrollment, adult education, apprenticeships, technical certificates and associate degrees.
Cardona said it is no coincidence that community colleges “play a headline role” in the president’s three-part proposal to revive the economy and in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2022.
“Your institutions promote economic development, rewarding career pathways and lifelong learning,” he said. “You create welcoming school cultures and strategies that meet students where they are and support students to persist, complete their coursework and earn industry-recognized credentials.”
Jill Biden followed Cardona, touting students at community colleges but noting that many still struggle to afford going to college and are reluctant to take on too much college debt.
“That’s our goal with the American Families Plan, which would make two years of community college free,” she said.
But affordability is only one component of student success.
“The best institutions don’t just teach; they empower,” Biden said. “They meet students where they are, and help them to get to where they want to go.”
The Aspen Prize recognizes the colleges that are leading the way, she said.
The presentation also included comments from students attending the finalist colleges, from moms and older learners returning to college, to military veterans. They gave kudos to their college teachers and advisers, including the critical resources the colleges provided, such as childcare.