College Excellence Program


Prize Overview

Prize Rationale

Selection Process


Round 1 Eligibility Questions


Prize Overview

What is the goal of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence?

The purpose of the Aspen Prize is to honor excellence, stimulate innovation, and clearly define what success looks like for community colleges. The Prize rewards community colleges for outstanding performance and improvements over time, and should incent scaling of effective strategies for improved program completion, transition to 4-year institutions, learning outcomes, and employment outcomes.

Specifically, the Aspen Prize will:

  • Honors Excellence: Shine a spotlight on community colleges that deliver exceptional results in student completion rates and workforce success, both in terms of absolute performance and dramatic transformation.
  • Stimulates Innovation:  Identify exemplars, document successful practices, and create opportunities to learn from them, generating momentum for reform-minded educators, policymakers, employers, and community college practitioners across the nation.
  • Clearly Defines Success: Contribute to the development of high-quality, consistent measures and benchmarks for assessing community college outcomes so prospective students and businesses can get a clear sense of how effective schools are in helping students – including the most disadvantaged – learn, graduate, and secure good jobs.

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Who is involved with the Aspen Prize?

The Aspen Institute is the lead sponsor and administrator of the Prize, which was originally designed and implemented in collaboration with the Joyce and Lumina Foundations, the charitable foundations of Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, and the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, and in cooperation with senior officials from the Obama Administration. In year two, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and America Achieves have added major support. The foundations provide financial support, thought partnership during planning and execution, and visibility for the Prize through their own networks and communications channels. The Administration helps shine a national spotlight on the Prize, provides thought partnership during planning and execution, and seeks synergies between the Prize and its own efforts to strengthen community college credential attainment and employment outcomes.

The Aspen Institute runs the competition and efforts to document and disseminate effective practices, working with several key partners along the way, including the national Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and the RP Group.

In addition to these partners, several dozen community college leaders and other field experts, as well as employers, have participated in discussions to inform the design of the Aspen Prize. 

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What is the timeline for the Prize?

The 2013 Prize was being administered in three rounds:

Prize winners will be announced annually thereafter following a similar schedule. 

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How much is the Prize Purse?

One million dollars is awarded, divided as determined by the Prize Jury.  In 2013, Aspen awarded two $400,000 first-place prizes, with a division of the remaining $200,000 among two finalists-with-distinction.

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Prize Rationale

Why is the Aspen Prize needed?

Postsecondary education and training are increasingly essential for individual economic security and national economic growth. Since 1970, workers with college education have remained in the middle class or moved up; those without any college have languished with stagnant wages or fallen into poverty. Despite these trends, supply has not kept up with demand: labor economists at Georgetown University project that, by 2018, the U.S. will face a shortfall of at least 3 million workers with college degrees (associate or higher) and at least 4.7 million workers with postsecondary certificates.

Political and education leaders increasingly are calling for a concerted focus on student success in community colleges (and, indeed, across the postsecondary spectrum). President Obama articulated a bold national goal for the U.S. to regain the international lead in postsecondary education by 2020, and leading national foundations and nonprofit organizations have embraced similar goals. Clearly, community colleges will have to play a major role if America is to boost dramatically educational attainment: More than 6,000,000 students – youth and adult learners – enroll in over 1,000 community colleges in America every year.

But efforts to increase completion rates are stymied by several obstacles. One is a widespread sense that community colleges are not high-performing institutions. Existing data on community college performance do paint a bleak picture overall: According to longitudinal data from the U.S. Department of Education, fewer than four out of every ten community college students completes any type of degree or certificate after six years. While some students aren’t pursuing credentials or degrees, the overwhelming majority of students are – and such massive leakage in the education pipeline imperils the country’s economic future. Underneath the averages, outstanding community colleges surely exist, but are not recognized for their accomplishments.

A second challenge: The lack of generally accepted measures of student success in the community college sector impedes meaningful evaluation and comparative analysis of success. This relates to a third challenge: Without clear measures of success, it is hard for community colleges to benchmark against one another, analyze what field leaders are doing, and emulate the practices of those who are succeeding with more students. As a result, the accomplishments of the best community colleges go unnoticed and colleges have few incentives, expectations, or roadmaps for improvement.

A national prize competition for community colleges helps to lift up the best community colleges and galvanize nascent efforts to increase completion rates and improve employment outcomes.

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How can a prize positively impact the field? 

Prizes, challenges, and competitions can be powerful tools for spurring innovation on key national challenges.  

A prize is an old idea with potential for producing private and social benefits. As early as the 18th century, the revolutionary government in France offered a significant prize for the development of a method of food preservation, producing a solution whose basics are still in place today.  Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic to win the Orteig Prize.

Now, the resources dedicated to prizes are expanding, according to research by McKinsey & Company. For example, the aggregate cash available annually from awards larger than $100,000 has more than tripled since the late 1990s. At the same time, prize sponsors have become more creative in the types of prizes they employ and in the issues they target, creating demonstration cases that increase the potential for impact.

The interest in prizes is not just from the private and philanthropic sectors: the Obama Administration has also been encouraging federal agencies to explore prizes and competitions as tools for spurring innovation.  The President’s 2009 Strategy for American Innovation called on agencies to do so and a 2010 OMB memo laid out guidance for agencies for using prizes. A number of agencies, including Education, Energy, Defense and NASA have sponsored or helped develop prize competitions. 

Prizes can produce significant impact and spur massive innovation efforts. A few examples:

  • The Ansari X PRIZE, awarded in 2004, not only succeeded in putting a reusable vehicle into space twice in ten days, but also mobilized more than $100 million in capital in pursuit of a $10 million prize.
  • The Broad Prize, awarded annually to the most improved urban K-12 school district in the country. The Broad Prize consistently generates attention among educators, policymakers, researchers, and in the mainstream media. Urban school districts were previously seen by many as indistinguishable and incapable of being reformed; the Broad Prize has helped build the idea that excellence is possible even with the most at-risk students. It has also given ballast to reform-minded mayors and superintendants engaged in wrenching transformation efforts. Big city school leaders are now designing long-term reform plans with the goal of winning the Broad Prize.
  • The Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE awarded $10 million in September 2010 to the teams that won a rigorous multi-stage competition for clean, production capable, and super fuel-efficient vehicles that exceed 100 MPG.  Established automakers, startups, universities, inventors, and even a high school were among the diverse group of 111 teams that entered the competition. 

The Aspen Institute has drawn on some of the country’s foremost experts on prizes and challenges, as well as leaders in the community college field, to design the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Its goals – to honor excellence, stimulate innovation by identifying and sharing best practices, and help the field coalesce around high quality performance measures – are ones that both could greatly benefit the community college sector and ones that that other prize competitions have successfully accomplished.

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Why should a community college participate in this competition? What other benefits will this provide to the field, beyond a monetary prize for the winner?

The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence does more than award money to excellent colleges. It attempts to build a community of practice, highlighting innovation and centers of excellence at many colleges.

While the winner receives a monetary prize, all finalists are recognized publicly, and their effective practices are documented and widely disseminated.  The Aspen Institute seeks to foster communities of practice and inquiry among community colleges with similar challenges and concerns, and actively seeks out and creates learning opportunities for interested community college leaders. Finally, Aspen endeavors to provide each finalist with full analysis of quantitative data, making participation a valuable opportunity for benchmarking and strategic development.

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Selection Process

Who are the key decision-makers?

The Aspen Institute is committed to shaping a world-class prize based on student outcomes and informed by the best expertise available from practitioners and researchers. The Aspen Institute convenes three committees of thought leaders and practitioners to administer the Prize process:

Data/Metrics Advisory Panel. Leading researchers and community college practitioners examine available data and advise the Aspen Institute on metrics, so that community college performance and improvement in performance can be measured fairly and accurately. The Data/Metrics Advisory panel is co-chaired by two expert practitioners with deep experience in measuring community college performance:

  • Dr. Keith Bird, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce
  • Dr. William Trueheart, Achieving the Dream

Finalist Selection Committee. Former community college presidents, along with respected researchers and policy experts, review extensive data and applications for each eligible community college to select a set of finalists.

Prize Jury. A jury of former elected officials and other prominent national business, labor, education and civil rights leaders review quantitative and qualitative data to select a winner and up to four finalists-with-distinction. The Prize Jury is co-chaired by two former governors, one who is also a former Secretary of Education, with deep experience in education and the workforce:

  • The Honorable John Engler, Business Roundtable; former Governor of Michigan
  • The Honorable Richard Riley, Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough LLP and EducationCounsel LLC; former U.S. Secretary of Education; former Governor of South Carolina

Affiliations of Prize Jury, Finalist Selection Committee and Data/Metrics Advisory Panel members listed solely for purposes of identification, and do not reflect organizational endorsement of the Aspen Prize.

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How is the Prize structured and what selection criteria are used?

Designed to reinforce the guiding principles  and offer multiple points of recognition for colleges, the Aspen Prize competition employs the following selection criteria:

Round 1:

From over 1,000 to 120 based on national data. In the first round of the selection process, Aspen convenes a Data/Metrics Advisory Panel (Data Panel) which works with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to develop a model for selecting 120 public two-year institutions (out of over 1,000 potential candidates) around the country that have demonstrated the highest levels of performance on metrics in three key areas: (1) student success in persistence, degrees awarded, completion, and transfer; (2) consistent improvement in these areas over time; and (3) equitable outcomes for students of all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

The model was developed using publicly available data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the U.S. Census Bureau. To learn more about the Round I Model developed to determine the eligible 120 institutions, please click here.

Round 2:

From 120 to 10 finalists based on institutional data and practice. In round two, Aspen invites 120 eligible institutions to submit an application describing what they have done to improve student success accompanied by data on completion and progression of students in two cohorts, learning outcomes, and labor market outcomes. To reduce the burden on the field, data definitions are aligned as much as possible with other reporting systems, including AACC's Voluntary Framework of Accountability.

Aspen convenes a Finalist Selection Committee of former community college presidents, respected researchers, and policy experts, to review the applications and select 10 institutions that deliver exceptional student results in terms of completion outcomes, labor market outcomes, learning outcomes, and equitable outcomes.

Prior to the selection of the 10 finalists, Aspen conducts interviews with the leadership teams of approximately half of the institutions that submit applications.

Round 3:

From 10 finalists to one winner and up to four finalists-with-distinction. In round three, teams of experienced researchers and practitioners led by the RP Group, a consulting company focused on community colleges, conduct two-day site visits to each of the finalist institutions to gather qualitative information. During the site visits, teams collect evidence – through interviews with leadership, staff, faculty, students, community partners, and others – about how excellence was achieved in completion outcomes, labor market outcomes, learning outcomes, and equitable outcomes. Then, teams evaluate each institution using a rubric developed by the RP Group and the Aspen Institute.

In addition to information collected during the site visits, Aspen gathers three additional data sets in round three:
• Labor market outcomes (employment and earnings)
• Learning outcomes assessment:
• Four-year transfer and completion outcomes

For more information on these data sets, please see the Aspen Prize selection criteria.

A full analysis of quantitative and qualitative data collected throughout the entire Prize process is provided to a Prize Jury of prominent former elected officials, national business and civic leaders, and education experts, who review the information and select a winner and up to four finalists-with-distinction.

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Post-award knowledge-sharing:

The Prize is awarded at a public event that includes elected officials, educators, students, and journalists; the 2013 Prize was awarded on March 19, 2013.  In addition to celebrating the winners and finalists, the award event serves as a launching pad for learning from leading colleges and networking among education leaders with similar challenges and concerns. Participating community colleges generate an unprecedented database of the characteristics of excellence across institutions, creating the opportunity for learning and knowledge-sharing. Profiles of the winning community colleges’ strategies and practices are released and a media campaign are developed to increase public understanding of the work being done in outstanding community colleges.  In addition, we have produced and will continue to develop a series of action-oriented guides that are  designed to improve community college performance and help our nation meet the increasing demand for a highly educated workforce.

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What are the guiding principles for the Prize?

The prize competition strives to be:

Fair: Community colleges serve a broad range of students and communities, with some community colleges facing greater challenges than others. Prize competition metrics are designed to account for these differences to the greatest extent possible, so that apples-to-apples comparisons are used to identify colleges making the greatest contributions to student success.

Inclusive: Community colleges with bigger administrative offices and more savvy in seeking recognition should not be the only ones that are celebrated for their accomplishments. To help create a level playing, efforts have been made in Round 1 to minimize the data collection burden on individual community colleges, using publicly available data to evaluate student outcomes at as many community colleges as possible.

Progress-Oriented: Prize selection considers both absolute achievement levels and improvements over time.  It does not reward just the top overall performers or just colleges that show big gains but still have low student success rates, but rather, those which demonstrate both solid performance and impressive improvements.  This dual focus will provide benchmarks that community colleges can strive to beat in subsequent years, both in terms of overall performance and dramatic increases in desired outcomes.

Comprehensive: No one or two metrics can fairly or accurately characterize the outcomes of a community college, especially in light of the multiple missions and broad range of students they serve. The Prize competition considers multiple outcomes (e.g., degree and credential attainment, transfer, career advancement) and multiple types of data are examined in multiple ways (e.g., trends over time, absolute performance levels, gaps between groups of students). Moreover, professional judgment complements rigorous data analysis at each stage of the process to ensure a holistic review of the data.

Guided by Practitioners:  For the Prize to be effective, community college educators have to see their work and aspirations reflected. To this end, community college practitioner-leaders participate in every phase of the process, from design to selection of winners.

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Is the selection process fair to colleges that serve students with more barriers to success?

The Prize design explicitly seeks to be fair and inclusive, ensuring that colleges serving students who may have more barriers to success are fairly considered. The criteria for winning takes into account both absolute levels of performance and improvement over time, with special consideration of success for minority and low-income students.  All information about learning, completion, labor market, and equitable outcomes is presented to decision-making committees alongside the context in which each institution operates. Specifically this includes:

• Completion outcomes are considered in the context of variables such as the percentage of students in academic/transfer programs (as opposed to vocational/technical programs), the demographic make-up of the student body, and the percentage of students attending the institution part-time.
• Labor market outcomes are considered in the context of variables such as county unemployment rate and county 5-year job growth rate.
• Learning outcomes are considered in the context of variables such as the percentage of students needing remediation, student language diversity, and the range of programs offered.
• Equitable outcomes are considered in the context of variables such as the percentage of minority and low-income students at the college and in each community college's service area.

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Will the winner of this Prize truly be the best community college in the country?

The Aspen Institute recognizes that community colleges in the U.S. serve a huge variety of functions for immensely diverse populations of students. The selection criteria for the Prize have been designed to be comprehensive and cognizant of that variety, while also defining institutional excellence in a standardized way.  Specifically, the winner of the Prize will be an institution that has demonstrated excellence in both performance and improvement over time, equity in outcomes among all student populations, and a deliberate and sustained focus on using data to guide practice and policy to improve outcomes.  In the end, the comprehensive nature of our three-round process will yield a list of finalist institutions and a winner that have achieved truly exceptional results for students.

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How is this Prize Different from US News and World Report rankings?

The Aspen Prize is fundamentally different from the USNR ranking of undergraduate institutions in several ways.  Most importantly, Aspen (1) includes measures of equity and access at every stage of its analysis, preventing community colleges from winning by seeking to attract better prepared students rather than seeking to improve the performance of students currently enrolled, and (2) examines both absolute performance and  improvement over time, to reward colleges that have engaged in practice that leads to measureable improvement in student success, and (3) considers each performance variable in context to ensure that colleges are not penalized for maintaining a strong commitment to access for underserved students.

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Round 1 Eligibility FAQs

What can I do to make sure my community college gets on the list of eligible institutions in future years?   

As the Prize begins each cycle, the Aspen Institute takes a fresh look at the performance of all community colleges on the key metrics. Because the eligibility criteria take into account change over time, colleges that have made significant gains in student outcomes on these metrics in recent years may rise into the top 120 next year or in subsequent years.

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Why are certain community colleges with national reputations for innovation not on the list of eligible institutions?

The eligibility bar for the Aspen Prize was intentionally set high, requiring strong student outcomes considering several factors: student graduation and retention rates, improvement in graduation rates over time, and success with minority and low-income students.  Many community colleges are doing important work to improve student outcomes in one or more of these areas, but only those with the highest aggregate levels of success considering these factors were determined eligible for the Prize.

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Are minority-serving institutions represented on the list of 120 eligible community colleges?

Yes. There are six Hispanic Serving Institutions and one Tribal College on the list of eligible institutions.  In addition, as part of the eligibility criteria, all institutions were assessed based on their success in ensuring equity in student achievement. The selection process deliberately and explicitly took into account student-body diversity and equity in outcomes for students from underrepresented minority populations.

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Is accreditation standing taken into consideration in order to qualify?

Yes. To be eligible for selection as a finalist for or winner of the Aspen Prize, institutions must have active accreditation.  Probation and warnings are considered on a case-by-case basis.

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How does the methodology for selecting eligible institutions account for the fact that the IPEDS graduation rate does not include part-time students?

The Aspen Institute, with technical support from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and guidance from our Data/Metrics Advisory Panel, has designed the Prize selection process to incorporate a broad and comprehensive range of criteria. The initial selection of leading national community colleges relies on publicly available IPEDS data that, while not including part-time students in their graduation rate metrics, do allow for analysis of part-time students through a degree per 100 full-time-equivalent student metric. Throughout the competition, we also looked at a variety of other metrics, including the portion of underrepresented students and part-time students served by the institutions, as well as the total number of degrees/certificates awarded relative to the total enrollment, taking into account part-time students as well as full-time students. Given limitations in the available data, we have attempted to assess excellence in outcomes with a comprehensive set of data points that look beyond just graduation rates and take into account the varied missions and populations served by community colleges.

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Why isn't remedial education success one of the metrics for eligibility?

There are no nationally available data to measure success with students entering community college with remedial needs.  However, success among students who test into remedial/developmental education are considered in determining finalists and the winner of the Prize. Specifically, the Round 2 Application asks applicant institutions to report those success rates, which the Selection Committee considers as part of its selection of 10 finalist institutions and the Prize Jury considers in awarding the winner.

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