• October 23, 2014

Aspen Prize Honors 2 Community Colleges for Students' Successes

Two community colleges, one perched over a coastal city in California and the other nestled in rural Washington, are both winners of this year's Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, Aspen Institute officials announced in a ceremony here on Tuesday.

Santa Barbara City College, with an enrollment of about 29,000, was recognized for its success in preparing students to transfer to and graduate from four-year colleges. And Walla Walla Community College, with 8,600 students, was commended for tracking work-force trends and training students for emerging jobs in fields as diverse as wine making, wind energy, and watershed ecology. Each of the colleges will receive $400,000 from the institute, which started its competition to identify models to elevate community-college education nationwide.

Aspen officials granted two top prizes this year to recognize the diverse missions of community colleges, which educate seven million degree-seeking students, or nearly half of all those enrolled in postsecondary education.

"Just as Walla Walla makes sure its students have jobs, Santa Barbara makes sure they'll finish B.A. degrees," Joshua Wyner, executive director of Aspen's College Excellence Program, said in an interview. "Poverty and lack of preparation are not used as excuses for watering down content."

The Aspen Prize was designed to recognize community colleges with strong records of preparing students for jobs or transfer to four-year colleges, as well as attracting and graduating low-income and minority students. Officials hope that the award will inspire innovation and demonstrate how success can be measured in two-year colleges with missions and challenges distinct from those of four-year institutions.

The prize, awarded for the first time in late 2011 to Valencia College, highlights successes in a sector that is often criticized for low graduation rates and a failure to equip students with the skills employers say they need. Along with giving applause, the institute acknowledges room for improvement. Success rates at community colleges are less than 40 percent, even counting the part-time and transfer students typically left out of national tallies, officials noted at the event here.

Preparation for Transfer

To begin the competition, a committee of higher-education, business, and civic leaders culled about 1,000 institutions, using numbers crunched from a variety of institutional and national data sources. The committee invited 120 colleges to apply for the award, then narrowed that group to 10 finalists, whose administrators were on hand for the ceremony.

The third- and fourth-place finishers—Kingsborough Community College, part of the City University of New York, and Lake Area Technical Institute, in Watertown, S.D.—will each receive $100,000.

A student and a faculty member spoke from each of the two winning colleges.

Edith Rodriguez said that higher education was the furthest thing from her mind in high school, when brushes with drugs and gangs had her in and out of juvenile court.

Ms. Rodriguez, who is 22 and whose parents emigrated from Mexico with fifth- and sixth-grade educations, learned about Santa Barbara City College in a high-school assembly shortly after her release from a juvenile detention center.

She took part in a six-week summer bridge program, and a support group for students interested in mathematics and science sold her on electrical engineering. She now tutors other students and hopes to transfer to a selective four-year university.

Getting in front of prospective students is vital, said Lori Gaskin, president of Santa Barbara. "We reach out to students like Edith even before they set foot on campus, before they realize that college is a potential opportunity for them," she said in an interview. "Our students don't necessarily have role models or cheerleaders at home."

More than half of students who transfer from Santa Barbara earn a bachelor's degree within six years of leaving high school. Over all, 64 percent of the college's first-time, full-time students transfer or graduate within three years, compared with the national average of 40 percent.

Filling Skills Gaps

Walla Walla Community College also posts higher-than-average transfer rates, but what was more striking to officials with the Aspen program was the college's focus on job training. In 2011 its new graduates earned $41,548, or 79 percent more than what other new hires in the region were making.

The college's president, Steven VanAusdle, told the audience that although he was extraordinarily proud, he was not completely satisfied. "We are not winning the talent race in a global context," he said. "We have huge skills gaps that are stifling the productivity of our nation."

Aspen officials pointed out that about two million jobs are going unfilled nationally because employers can't find workers with the necessary skills.

Walla Walla is trying to fill those gaps by working with local businesses to create programs in emerging fields while shrinking programs in others.

Mr. VanAusdle sees part of his college's mission as strengthening the local economy. "People were packing up and leaving because there weren't any jobs," he said. "The college consciously said, 'We need to reinvent ourselves. We don't want to train workers so they have a better opportunity someplace else.'"

Since Walla Walla began its viticulture-degree program, the number of local wineries has grown from 16 to more than 170. Graduates of the program staff many of them, as well as fill new jobs in hospitality and wine distribution.

Beyond the Winners

The success of community colleges should be recognized, and the winners of the Aspen Prize respected for their good work, said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. But the competition, with lists of finalists and winners, she said, looks too much like rankings, which she called "overly simplistic and ultimately foolish."

"The rankings game," Ms. McClenney said, "creates unintended side effects and distortions of effort." She worried that finalists might end up spending more time trying to win the prize than they do serving students.

If each of the nation's community colleges could be recognized for progress toward meeting standards the Aspen Institute considers in awarding its prize, that would spur improvement throughout the sector, Ms. McClenney said. "We don't need one top community college," she said. "We need 1,200 of them."

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, left her class early on Tuesday to meet with the finalists and congratulate the winners.

"As a community-college teacher, I have seen firsthand the tremendous power community colleges have to change lives," she told them.

Other finalists for the prize were Brazosport College, Broward College, College of the Ouachitas, Santa Fe College, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, and West Kentucky Community and Technical College.

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