By Jeff Harris
The recently launched College Excellence Program will be hosting an event on April 25, with Dr. Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to announce the top 120 community colleges eligible for the first $1 million Aspen Prize. The following is a Q & A with College Excellence Program Executive Director Josh Wyner on the upcoming announcement, the future of the program, and what brought this work to the Institute.
1) In heading up the newly formed College Excellence Program, what are some of the top things you hope to accomplish?
Improving student outcomes in college has in recent years become a significant national priority, and for good reason. Every year, more jobs in our increasingly knowledge-based economy require the skills and training post-secondary education provides. To meet that demand, our nation’s colleges are going to have to ensure that students learn as much as possible and complete their degrees as often as possible. Colleges will also have to connect what students learn and the degrees they complete to students’ lives thereafter, which for most college students means preparing them for good jobs with wages adequate to support a family. The College Excellence Program will work to identify the practices and leadership on college campuses that lead to exceptional student results along each of these lines: student learning, degree completion, and labor market outcomes. Our aim will be to work with colleges, higher education systems, and others to replicate those practices that demonstrably lead to better student outcomes.
2) The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence seems like it is the major focus of the Program right now. Where do things stand now in that process and what are the next steps?
The first $1 million Aspen Prize will be awarded in December 2011. We have spent the past three months focusing on three things. First, we are working with an exceptional advisory board to identify the top 120 community colleges to apply for the award and to craft the definition of excellence we will use to select a winner from among those institutions. Second, we have been working to recruit our prize jury, a group of 10 prominent Americans dedicated to highlighting and rewarding exceptional practice at our nation’s best community colleges. Finally, we have been working to raise awareness about the prize and its goals, presenting, for example, at each of the four Department of Education regional community college summits and the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.
3) You will soon be releasing a list of the top 120 community colleges. What is it about the community colleges on this list that makes them stand out?
These 120 community college have achieved strong student success rates on two metrics: degree/certificate completion and retention. We looked at student outcomes at more than 1,000 community colleges in the main federal higher education database, and selected 120 eligible institutions based on their performance, improvement over the last five years, and results for minority and low-income students. What stands out on this list is, in fact, that no one type of institution stands out. There are rural and urban community colleges, small technical institutions serving 1,000 students as well as large comprehensive ones serving tens of thousands. In other words, some community colleges of all types are seeing strong student results.
4) How do you hope this work helps shine some light on the importance of community colleges?
For many decades, our community colleges have served a critical function: providing open-access, affordable higher education to millions of Americans. For too long, that work has remained under the radar. In the past few years, a long-overdue recognition of the importance of these institutions has begun. Policy makers, business and labor leaders, and many others have come to understand that the future of our population’s social mobility and our nation’s economic strength rests on the success of these institutions. The Prize seeks both to elevate this recognition further by making a large award to the best community college each year and to help define excellence in the sector based on student outcomes.
5) You previously founded an organization called DC Appleseed Center. What did you do there and how does that influence the work you are doing now?
Appleseed worked to improve government operations and policies in the Washington region. Our greatest successes included resolving a $5 billion unfunded pension liability for DC and revamping the structure of the DC School Board. These and other successes (as well as a few failures) helped me understand that getting things accomplished required several things: an open mind regarding potential solutions, defining specific and achievable goals, tapping the expertise and influence of partners who knew how to get things done, and relentlessly following through.
6) Throughout your work in education, what are some of the issues that have had the most meaning to you?
Ensuring equal and high-quality educational opportunities is what drives me. Our economic system sorts people aggressively into jobs that have radically different sets of demands and rewards. Unless we do everything we can to provide highly effective educational opportunities to everyone, we are in essence predetermining who gets access to which sets of jobs. There are lots of educational challenges facing our country; I am drawn to those that move us toward the twin goals of equity and excellence.
7) Why is the Aspen Institute the right place for the College Excellence Program?
What drew me to the Aspen Institute was its strong reputation for taking on tough issues in open-minded and non-partisan ways and getting things done. The colleagues I have found here — in and out of the education space — are the main reason why it has earned that reputation. They are the main reason why this is a great home for the College Excellence Program.