By Paul Bradley. Editor, Community College Week
WASHINGTON, DC —Valenica College was named the top community college in the country today, winning the first Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence by the Aspen Institute.
During a ceremony at the National Press Club which lavished praise on community colleges for taking an essential place alongside four-year institutions in American higher education, Valencia, a 50,000-stduent college in Orlando, Fla., was singled out its high graduation rates and impressive labor market outcomes.
In accepting the award, longtime college President Sandy Shugart said his school is representative of colleges from around the country.
“We are part of something that is much larger than what we are,” said longtime college President Sandy Shugart in accepting the award, which comes with a $600,000 prize and shines a national spotlight on the community college sector. The award, Shugart said, proves that community colleges have come of age and that “excellence (in education) is not defined by exclusivity or expensiveness.”
The idea for the award grew out of last year’s White House community college summit. Valencia was selected from a field of entrants that originally numbered 120 and was narrowed to 10 finalists. That number then was winnowed to five finalists, including Valencia.
The other four “finalists with distinction” each received a $100,000 prize. They are: Lake Area Technical Institute, Watertown, S.D.; Miami Dade College, Miami, Fla.; Walla Walla Community College, Walla Walla, Wash., and West Kentucky Community & Technical College, Paducah, Ky.
The competing colleges were judged on four criteria: completion outcomes, including the awarding associate degrees, one-year certificates and transfer to four-year schools; labor market outcomes, including institutional practices that lead to high rates of employment earning for graduates; learning outcomes, including institutional practices that result in strong levels of student learning both within programs and college-wide; and equitable outcomes, including practices that ensure access and success for African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.
“The Aspen Prize winners offer lessons in how all students can graduate, helping others understand how to expand learning, graduation and job placement rates,” said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “These community colleges are making good on the promise that being poor doesn’t mean staying poor, that college access and success together can fuel the American economy and the American dream.”
Valenica was praised for promoting innovative practices that are grounded on evidence and data. The Institute report said “Valenica College sees itself not as a destination for students, but as the bridge to higher accomplishments – a role it accomplishes by creating strong, clear pathways to careers and higher education.”
More than half of Valenica’s full-time students graduate or transfer within three years of entering the school, a rate significantly higher than the national average of 39 percent, the Institute found. That figure includes 43 percent of underrepresented minority students, some 10 percentage points higher than the national average.
In brief remarks, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged college leaders to build on their historic missions of access and equity by continue their push to improve graduation and completion rates.
“We have to take community college outcomes to the next level,” he said. “This work….is critical to our nation.”
“Community colleges are going to stay at the forefront of this administration’s agenda,” he added.
More information on the Aspen Prize form Community College Excellence is available at www.aspenprize.org.