Co-winners of the 2023 Aspen Prize

Leaders of Imperial Valley College (California) and Amarillo College (Texas) accept the 2023 Aspen Prize at Thursday's recognition ceremony in Washington, D.C. (Photos: Matthew Dembicki/AACC)

And then there were…two.

Two community colleges on Thursday were named the co-winners of the 2023 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence: Amarillo College (AC) in Texas and Imperial Valley College (IVC) in southern California.

At Thursday’s recognition event in Washington, D.C., Aspen Prize jury co-chairs Michael Sorrel, president of Paul Quinn College, and former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, named the finalists down to the last two and teased who might win, with Swift championing AC and Quinn arguing for IVC. Quinn observed the California college’s “tiny homes” on campus for its homeless students and students who came from foster care. He cited the college’s dual-enrollment program and its strong partnership with local K-12 systems that have directed many students to the college — 60% to 70% of local high school graduates enroll in the college.

Swift countered with AC President Russell Lowery-Hart’s “loving students to success” approach, which focuses on supporting students’ basic needs as well as their academic needs. She cited the college’s composite student “Maria,” who is an example of a typical Amarillo College student (first-generation, part-time Latina who holds two part-time jobs and is raising children) and puts into context the college’s efforts to help students. She also mentioned AC’s focus on offering eight-week sessions and providing proactive tutoring for students.

After some back and forth, they agreed that both colleges should win. And so they did.

“These are two extraordinary candidates that deserve to be celebrated,” Quinn said.

On two other occasions since the first Aspen Prize winner was named in 2011 have two colleges shared the top award, which is presented every two years. In 2013, it was Santa Barbara City College (California) and Walla Walla Community College (Washington), and in 2019 two Florida colleges, Indian River State College and Miami Dade College, shared top honors.

AC and IVC will both receive $500,000. The other eight finalists recognized on Thursday were:

More from the winning colleges

Aspen noted that this year’s winners both serve large rural areas with high rates of poverty and low rates of educational attainment. But the colleges’ myriad efforts to support students have yielded amazing results in graduation rates and post-graduation success. For example, AC saw an 8 percentage point increase in those rates in just four years; IVC saw a 12 percentage point increase over the same period from 2015 to 2019.

An accompanying profile booklet all the finalists noted more strategies used to increase student success, from academic pathways and streamlined transfer processes with local four-year institutions, to close ties with local business and industry to determine their workforce needs.

Lennor Johnson (left), superintendent/president of Imperial Valley College, and IVC board member Romualdo Medina.

Lennor Johnson, superintendent/president of IVC, thanked the college’s faculty, staff and administrators for their efforts to raise the bar for students at the college.

“You are the innovators in the classroom, you are the support outside the classroom and you are the mentors who inspire students every day,” he said.

Johnson also joked about being a “thief,” as he planned to adapt some of the approaches of the other finalists as IVC strives to continue with improvements.

“You can never stop this great work; it only gets better because our students deserve it,” he said.

Amarillo College President Russell Lowery-Hart and AC board chair Anette Carlisle.

AC’s Lowery-Hart encouraged college leaders, supporters and others to keep the goal in mind, which may be difficult as some try to bring politics into the mix of what colleges do. The strength of community colleges is that they accept everyone and support them to reach their personal goals. And they can help mend some of the divides that are growing across communities, he said.

“We can glue our communities together because that’s what we do every day in our classrooms, in our tutoring centers, in our advocacy and resource center, in our teaching and learning centers,” he said. “Education is the solution to most of the challenges that are tearing our communities apart.”

“Love times learning equals success,” he added.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.