By Paul Bradley
WASHINGTON — Two West Coast community colleges with different missions but common goals share the second Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the nation’s signature recognition of achievement and performance among the country’s community colleges.
“Santa Barbara City College and Walla Walla Community College offer outstanding models for achieving exceptional levels of student success at a time when our nation needs community colleges to do even more than they have in the past,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program.
The colleges triumphed in a yearlong competition aimed at identifying promising educational practices that can be shared and scaled up across the country.
Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges, including large numbers of low-income and minority students. Community colleges enroll more than 13 million students, and the institutions are being called upon to boost graduation rates, improve the nation’s turgid recovery from the recession, even as government at all levels disinvest in higher education.
“Doing all of these things is hard work,” Wyner said. “And it’s getting more complicated every day.”
The two top colleges have distinct missions, but each focuses on student success and achievement.
Walla Walla Community College, a rural college in southeastern Washington with an enrollment of 8,635, focuses on training students for jobs and helping to drive growth in the regional job market. Of all the degrees and certificates it awards, 64 percent are in vocational/technical areas.
The college maintains strong relationships with employers to assess whether what students are learning is aligned to specific job needs. It adds new programs and trims others based on which programs will provide the best opportunity for employment and good wages, helping students obtain degrees that translate into genuine opportunity in areas from nursing to wine-making to wind energy. It has helped transform regional wine-making from a sleepy curiosity into an economic powerhouse.
“We learned how to partner,” said college President Steven L. VanAusdale. “That was so important.”
Santa Barbara City College’s primary focus is helping students transfer to four-year colleges. It’s a large, urban campus on the Pacific Coast, with more than 28,000 students enrolled. Just 24 percent of its degrees and certificates are awarded in technical fields.
The college boasts specialized support programs for historically under-achieving students. SBCC has a large and growing number of Hispanic students — more than 30 percent of the student body — who graduate and transfer at rates significantly above the national average.
SBCC has built a strong culture that consistently drives to improve student success, paying special attention to ensuring that courses and programs align to the academic standards of four-year schools. The result: well over half of the students who enter SBCC and transfer to four-year colleges attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of leaving high school.
College President Lori Gaskin said her college’s Aspen Prize is one shared by all community colleges.
“We are the institutions of second chances,” said college President Lori Gaskin. “We are the institutions of third opportunities. We are the institutions of hope and opportunity.”
The awards ceremony was held in downtown Washington at the Newseum, the media museum located on Pennsylvania Avenue a short distance from the U.S. Capitol and the White House. It was supposed to feature a speech by Second Lady Jill Biden, but she was a no-show. Organizers said the late-arriving Biden — herself a community college teacher — would meet in private with the prize winners and other eight finalists.