Valencia College became on Monday the first winner of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, an honor bestowed on the institution mainly due to the strength of its graduation and transfer rates, especially among minority students, as well as its employment rates among all graduates.
The Aspen Institute awarded the prize at the National Press Club here, naming four runners-up: Lake Area Technical Institute, in Watertown, S.D.; Miami Dade College; Walla Walla Community College, in Washington State; and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, in Paducah, Ky.
The competition, which President Obama announced at the White House Summit on Community Colleges in October 2010, was designed to spotlight a sector that doesn't always get accolades. The institute wanted to recognize outstanding academic and work-force outcomes and identify institutions to serve as models to elevate community-college education nationwide, said Joshua Wyner, executive director of Aspen's College Excellence Program.
"Valencia 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," he said.
Valencia, which enrolls 50,000 students on eight campuses around Orlando, Fla., will receive $600,000, while the other colleges will share the remainder of the $1-million prize money.
Sanford C. Shugart, Valencia's president, told the crowd gathered here that it was a privilege to represent his colleagues and "the hundreds of community colleges across the country that have done amazing work for years and years."
"The whole country is looking to us these days, it seems," he said. "The nation has discovered that we have this unique instrument at hand. We are institutions where excellence is not defined by exclusivity."
Nearly half of all college students attend community college, with more than six million enrolling in the nation's 1,200 community colleges each year. Students are attracted by their relatively low tuition and short-term programs, while businesses appreciate their customized job-training programs and agile response to industry trends.
Starting at the Front Door
In selecting Valencia for the top prize, Aspen officials noted that more than half, 51 percent, of the college's full-time students, most of whom pursue associate degrees, complete them within three years of enrolling. That's a graduation rate significantly higher than the national average of 39 percent at community colleges. Valencia offers more than 700 courses a term to its 50,000 for-credit students.
Nearly half of that population is minority students, and many are below the poverty line, the Aspen Institute noted. Still, two-thirds of Valencia's minority students return for a second year, the institute said, and more than 40 percent transfer or graduate within three years, compared with one-third of minority students at community colleges around the country.
Mr. Shugart has said that "all the failure occurs at the front door." To ensure students, once enrolled, succeed quickly, Valencia changed some policies and procedures that peer institutions tend to see as fixed, the Aspen Institute pointed out. The college instituted earlier advising and orientation, and with that shift, earlier application and admission deadlines. It minimized chaos by assigning courses to adjunct professors a year before they were scheduled to begin and by no longer adding last-minute course sections. It examined data showing that students who start classes late struggle and stopped allowing students to register for courses that had already met, except "flex start" sections designed for newcomers.
Valencia has also helped prepare students for transfer. Three in 10 students who enroll at Valencia end up transferring to a four-year college, with four in five going on to the University of Central Florida. Students aiming for UCF get counseling from both institutions, and if they earn an associate degree from Valencia, the university will automatically admit them.
For a long time, Valencia concentrated on "volume," just enrolling students, Mr. Shugart said, but over the years officials began to think more about how to help students succeed. Rising enrollments no longer defined success, he said: "Enrollment became a means to an end."
The Aspen prize is part of the institute's continuing effort to highlight the work of community colleges, which it considers an unsung sector in higher education. The ceremony on Monday included several high-profile guests, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; the community-college educator Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; and Martha J. Kanter, under secretary of education.
"Community colleges aren't just changing lives. They are changing America," Ms. Biden told the crowd. "Community colleges have taken their place alongside our great four-year universities in the battle to compete and win in the 21st century," she said. "We need to be ready for this challenge because the future we want isn't going to be built without us."