College Excellence Program

How the Winner is Chosen




From over 1,000 to 150 based on national data. In the first round of the selection process, the Aspen Institute convenes a Data Metrics Advisory Panel (Data Panel), which works with the National Center for Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to develop a model for selecting 150 public two-year institutions (out of over 1,000 potential candidates) around the country that demonstrate 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. Final adjustments were made to the model to ensure that the top 150 colleges represent the full range of diversity and richness in the sector, from vocational to technical mission, small to large in size, and commitment to high levels of access and success for low-income and minority students.

The model was developed using publicly available data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the U.S. Census Bureau.To learn more about these metrics, please see the Round I model description. You can also download the 2017 Round I data here.



From 150 to 10 finalists based on institutional data and practice. In round two, the Aspen Institute invites the 150 eligible institutions to submit an application describing what they have done to improve student success on their campus. Multiple data sets and descriptive information are examined to assess performance levels and improvements in learning, graduation, workforce, and equitable outcomes. To reduce 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 outcomes in the following four areas:

  • Completion Outcomes: Institutional practices and policies leading to high levels of completion of associates’ degrees, credentials at least one-year in duration, and/or transfer to four-year colleges. 
  • Labor Market Outcomes: Institutional practices and policies aligned with labor market needs and student labor market success, resulting in high rates of employment and earnings for graduates. 
  • Learning Outcomes: Institutional practices and policies that result in strong and improving levels of student learning in courses, within programs, and college-wide. 
  • Equitable Outcomes: Institutional practices and policies that ensure access and success among students who are often underserved, including students from three underrepresented racial/ethnic groups—African American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian—and low-income students. 
Prior to the selection of the 10 finalists, Aspen conducts interviews with the leadership teams of approximately half of the institutions that submit applications.


From 10 finalists to one winner and up to four finalists-with-distinction. In round three, teams of experienced researchers and practitioners 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, labor market, learning, and equitable outcomes.

In addition to the information collected during the site visits, the Aspen Institute gathers three additional datasets in round three:

  • Labor market outcomes (employment and earnings): In partnership with NCHEMS, Aspen collects state-level data on the employment rates and earnings of graduates from each community college at different points in time (immediately after graduation, one year after graduation, and five years after graduation), as well as the regional unemployment and job growth rates for each community college.
  • Learning outcomes assessment: Measuring whether and what students learn is not standardized across community colleges, preventing easy quantitative comparisons. Aspen partners with NCHEMS to collect and evaluate standardized information concerning each institution’s efforts to assess and improve learning.
  • Four-year transfer and completion outcomes: Aspen works with the National Student Clearinghouse to collect and analyze data on four-year transfer and completion for three cohorts of first-time students.









A full analysis of quantitative and qualitative data collected throughout the 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. Information on student outcomes is presented alongside the context in which each institution operates. Specifically:

  • 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 count five-year job growth rate.
  • Learning outcomes are considered in the context of variables such as the percentage of students need 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.