Eyes on the Aspen Prize

Community colleges get their own ranking with release of Aspen Institute's 10 finalists for $1 million in award money.
September 13, 2011

Four-year colleges won't be the only ones blasting out press releases today to celebrate their latest ranking success. Community colleges have gotten into the action with the Aspen Institute’s release of 10 finalists for the first annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

The simultaneous release of the Aspen finalists and the U.S. News & World Report rankings was a coincidence, says Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen College Excellence Program. But Wyner says he hopes the list's release will help community colleges break into the public discussion around rankings, which is dominated by the pecking order of elite universities.

“Community colleges have been underappreciated and under-resourced for decades,” he says.

The Aspen program, with the help of several advisory committees packed with big names in higher education, picked its top 10 from a group of 120 preliminary “best” community colleges, roughly 10 percent of the nation’s two-year institutions. Of that group, 110 submitted applications to Aspen, including 10 pages of written information and up to 15 pages of data, Wyner says.

Aspen officials and outside researchers selected the 10 finalists (see list below) for being “relentlessly focused on three non-negotiable outcomes – a high bar for learning, a focus on college completion and real attention to preparing their students for 21st century jobs.” Completion records of disadvantaged students were also weighed.

The process going forward includes more data collection, and two-day site visits loom for the finalists. The eventual winner, which will be announced in December, gets a $700,000 share of the $1 million prize pot, with three runners-up getting $100,000 each.

White House Invite

The 10 finalists are geographically diverse, with major players in higher education like Miami Dade College and Valencia College sharing the bill with lesser-known institutions such as Lake Area Technical Institute, which is located in South Dakota.

As is the case with most ranking efforts, the Aspen Prize has had detractors. The initial 120 institutions were selected using an Aspen-devised formula based on information gleaned from the Integrated Postsecondary Education System (IPEDS), which some observers said provides inadequate data to properly compare community colleges.

Officials from the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees have been skeptical of any attempt to rank community colleges, such as a top 50 released last year by Washington Monthly. But the two associations have praised the Aspen effort, arguing that it shines a spotlight on top performers.

"Aspen is to be commended on its efforts to elevate community college efforts to increase student success and completion rates,” J. Noah Brown, ACCT’s president and CEO, said in an e-mail. “The methodology used is appropriate to deepen our understanding of and appreciation for what it takes to move the needle for students."

Pamela L. Eddy, an associate professor of higher education at the College of William & Mary and an expert on community colleges, agrees that the Aspen effort helps the sector by sharing success stories, which is "often a message that’s lost" about the sector.

The challenge with any higher education prize, says Eddy, is defining winners and losers. But Wyner says that’s a conversation he welcomes, because community colleges need more discussion about excellence on their campuses.

"This is not the world’s most developed field of inquiry,” Wyner says. “We’re open to suggestions for improvement.”

Not surprisingly, colleges on the list were thrilled to be there.

Mary S. Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, says the Aspen recognition is a “validation that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Mississippi Gulf Coast got the nod, Aspen officials say, because it has a low achievement gap between underrepresented minority and white students, and a relatively high combined graduation and transfer rate of 53 percent. In addition, Aspen gave high marks to the college for its proportion of full-time instructors — 83 percent of faculty members are full-time.

Graham says the data collection process was labor-intensive, but that the college was already collecting all the information requested.

Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College, says his institution also had the data to apply on hand. But he praised the breadth of the information requested.

“They’re asking the right questions,” he says.

In addition to publicity, the 10 finalists have also earned one coveted reward for being singled out by Aspen: presidents from the colleges have been invited to a meeting at the White House later this month.

Graham, who began as president on her campus in July, says the invitation cites the colleges’ “extraordinary work,” and will be an opportunity for presidents to share notes on success stories.

Aspen's 10 finalists are:

  • Lake Area Technical Institute, Watertown, S.D.
  • Miami Dade College
  • Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Perkinston, Miss.
  • Mott Community College, Flint, Mich.
  • Northeast Iowa Community College-Calmar
  • Santa Barbara City College
  • Southwest Texas Junior College, Uvalde, Tex.
  • Valencia College, Orlando
  • Walla Walla Community College, Walla Walla, Wash.
  • West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Paducah, Ky.


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