Top Five Community Colleges Announced

Top Five Community Colleges Announced
The final results are in for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. We’ll report on the top five community colleges in the country and how they made the grade.

After a full year of carefully assessing community colleges around the country, the Aspen Institute has recognized the top five performing schools with acclaim and hefty financial prizes. The awards were announced at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., where educators, business leaders, and lawmakers were all in attendance. These five schools represent a broad base of institutions of higher education, in terms of demographics, location, and areas of specialization.

About the Aspen Institute Award

The Aspen Institute began their quest for the top community college with a shortlist of 1,000 community colleges across the country. According to the Aspen Institute website, colleges were assessed on the following criteria:

  • Student Learning
  • Degree Completion and Transfer Rates
  • Equity in Education
  • Employment and Earning Potential after College

Improvement was also an area of careful scrutiny, particularly in regard to completion rates. With these factors in mind, the Aspen Institute was able to narrow the initial list of 1,000 schools to 120 by this past spring. From there, the organization chose 10 finalists to award prizes; one top school was awarded $600,000, four runners-up each received $100,000, and five additional schools each received a glass trophy for their efforts.

In this video, The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program Executive Director Josh Wyner explains the most compelling ways he's seen community colleges accomplish learning and labor market goals.

The Focus on Community Colleges

The role of community colleges in higher education has long been underestimated, but President Obama breathed new life into these institutions when he set an ambitious goal of graduating eight million more students from college by 2020. To achieve that goal, the President has said time and time again that community colleges will need to take on an active role in the process. In addition, the President hosted the first-ever community college summit at the White House in October 2010, which is where the search for the Aspen Prize was originally launched.

With the increased focus on community colleges, as well as more students enrolling in these schools since the economy slowed, schools around the country are finding innovative ways to handle growing student populations in the wake of smaller budgets. The community colleges recognized by the Aspen Institute have found ways to spend their limited funds wisely, giving the students that attend these institutions the best possible odds for success. The recognition these schools received highlights to the rest of the country the significant role community colleges can play in the future workforce of this country. The awards also focus on models of higher education that have been proven effective in offering solutions to other community colleges nationwide.

This video from The Aspen Institute features a panel discussion about community colleges, and what local, state, and federal governments could do to improve programs offered by these schools, as well as the benefits of partnerships between public community colleges and private industry.

“This is community college’s day in the sun,” Arne Duncan, Education Secretary and attendee of the prize presentation was reported saying at the Miami Herald. “All of you are winners,” Duncan added before the prize was announced. “I don’t care who gets the Aspen Prize. Community colleges are the answer for people trying to take the next step up the economic ladder.”

Runners-Up Include Washington School

Walla Walla Community College in Washington was one of the schools to receive a $100,000 award. According to the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, about 100 students and staff from the school took part in the awards presentation in Washington D.C. via the podcast that was broadcast in the Student Activity Center on the college campus. This school, which was once highly focused on agricultural programs, made major adjustments to its degree programs in recent years to accommodate the changing job market. As a result, the Aspen Institute website reports that Walla Walla boasts earnings that are more than twice the wages of other new entrants into the local job market.

And the Winner Is…

The grand winner of the Aspen Prize this year is Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida. According to the Aspen Institute website, despite the fact that more than half of the student body at this community college is made up of underrepresented minorities, and many are low income, the school boasts a graduation or transfer rate of 50 percent in three years. That figure compares with the national completion rate averages of just 40 percent.

Specifically, Valencia Community College developed a laser technician degree program that meets the employment needs of Northrup Grumman, a local company. The students that graduate from the laser technician degree program at Valencia can go into entry-level positions at Northrup Grumman, making a starting annual salary of $40,000. In addition, the training they receive through Valencia can potentially get their foot in the door to more than 2,000 laser technician positions nationwide. In addition, the community college academically prepares thousands of students every year for bachelor-degree programs at the University of Central Florida. The university currently guarantees entry to all students who complete their associate's degree at Valencia.

“Valencia Community College is a shining example of what really matters in community colleges, and that’s helping students succeed through learning, graduating and getting good jobs,” Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, stated in a press release on the think tank’s website. “The prize jury was especially impressed by how faculty, administrators, and staff all take responsibility for the success of a very diverse student body. Valencia graduates are employed at higher rates than the graduates of any other Aspen finalists despite entering a local labor market with double-digit unemployment rates. Valencia’s unique culture of continuous improvement and innovation has a real impact on student outcomes that is amazing to see.”

In this video, President Obama announces The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence during the White House Community College Summit in 2011.

According to Inside Higher Ed, funding for the Aspen Prize came from the Lumina Foundation for Education, the Joyce Foundation, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan. In addition to the cash, Valencia and the other finalists can now market themselves as the top community colleges in the country.

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