Community Colleges

“Chronicle of Philanthropy” Opinion Piece Highlights Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence

September 25, 2013

The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program recently won praise for its Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in the well-regarded Chronicle of Philanthropy. Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding, Lumina Foundation Chief Executive Jamie Merisotis, and Bank of America Charitable Foundation President Kerry Sullivan wrote an opinion piece showcasing the value and stature of this annual award. The piece was published on September 22, 2013, and can be read in its entirety, below.

A Prize Competition Can Spark Excellence in Community Colleges

By Ellen Alberding, Jamie Merisotis, and Kerry Sullivan

Prizes have often been a very strategic way for donors to achieve big results: Think what the Pulitzers do for journalism and the Nobel Prize for scientific and cultural achievement and even world peace.

Canned food was invented in response to a prize challenge offered by Napoleon. Charles Lindbergh flew the first trans-Atlantic flight to win a prize. In recent years, donors have started challenges to stimulate specific innovations, like the X Prize effort to find new ways to explore space.

But many foundations may wonder whether such prizes really make a difference in achieving their missions — or are even frivolous or faddish. As the principal supporters of a major effort to offer prizes to community colleges, we have learned that they can have a transformative effect in stimulating change.

Community colleges are the training ground for over 40 percent of the undergraduate population in the United States — including many students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. The 7 million students enrolled in credential programs at community colleges around the country depend on these institutions not only to be affordable but to become even stronger engines of student success.

Helping more community colleges achieve exceptional outcomes for students — so they can complete high-quality credentials that lead to good jobs — is important not only for students but also for a national economy seeing an ever-increasing (and sometimes unmet) demand for the kind of well-trained work force that the best community-college programs produce.

But we know that not enough institutions have successfully helped vulnerable students, so we joined forces to spur improvement by creating the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in late 2010.

Running a prize program is very different from the other tools grant makers use when they want to spread a proven idea for change.

Such an approach is not right for solving every problem, and is not as easy to do as one might think. It often requires the careful coordination of panels of outside experts to analyze data and act as impartial judges to select winners.

In general, prizes are great for bringing attention to underappreciated problems or for finding possible solutions when you are not sure where the best ideas might come from.

Prizes often work by identifying and shining a light on existing practices that may be hidden away in the everyday work of organizations or individuals. For this reason, effective prize competitions require careful consideration of how to define and measure excellence, which in and of itself can have tremendous value — especially in a field in which expectations are changing (or need to change).

The whole point of the Aspen Prize is to help change the definition of excellence at community colleges and showcase examples of colleges that meet it.

We start with the idea that we need a definition that goes beyond traditional notions of community colleges as champions of postsecondary access.

Historically, excellence in community colleges has been defined by this commitment to providing an extraordinarily diverse student body broad access to a wide variety of vocational and academic credentials.

Colleges and policy makers have paid less attention to other measures of success, such as the fact that only 40 percent of students at community colleges graduate and go on to get a four-year degree at a college or university.

The Aspen Prize process includes an exhaustive 12-month investigation that starts with more than 1,000 community colleges nationwide, uses both quantitative and qualitative measures, and considers the difficulty of the context in which colleges operate.

Measuring not only overall student success rates but also equity in access and outcomes as well as improvement in student success over time, the prize rewards colleges that do the best they can — and continually do better.

These colleges succeed with students from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in higher education, students who are the first in their families to attend college, and students from low-income backgrounds.

The Aspen Prize competition has identified a wide range of community colleges that achieve remarkable rates of success for their students.

For example, the 2011 winner — Valencia College, which enrolls more than 50,000 students, about half of them black or Hispanic — has increased the number of associates of arts degrees awarded by 96 percent in just seven years, during which time enrollment grew by only 40 percent.

Another example: graduates from rural Washington’s Walla Walla Community College — a co-winner in 2013 — earn an average of $57,000 just five years after graduating, more than 50 percent higher than all other workers in the region. And the other 2013 co-winner, Santa Barbara City College, has achieved exceptional four-year college-transfer rates for its students, who also go on to earn bachelor’s degrees at unusually high rates.

These successes are the result of purposeful work to align curricula and programs to the expectations of employers and strong four-year colleges, to increase academic rigor, to clarify degree pathways, to consistently monitor student success, and to advise students to ensure that they stay on track.

Many other community colleges take similar steps. But few have demonstrated the focused practices and remarkable leadership needed to ensure that such exceptional student success rates are achieved throughout a wide range of college programs.

The broad recognition the prize has brought to a diverse set of excellent community colleges has, evidence suggests, already begun to change the questions institutions ask themselves about their own performance.

About 100 colleges participate in the prize process each year, and they and the other colleges that aspire to win are beginning to ask themselves different questions about student success as a result. That matters, because their improvement is vital to America’s future.

More than ever, our national economy depends on ensuring that more young people and adults attaining postsecondary credentials that will prepare them well for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

There is nothing frivolous or faddish about that. We are proud to support this extraordinarily important effort and are convinced that prize challenges can be an effective part of creative grant makers’ toolkits and worth the investment.

Ellen Alberding is president of the Joyce Foundation, Jamie Merisotis is chief executive of the Lumina Foundation, and Kerry Sullivan is president of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.