Community Colleges

What Distinguishes the 2021 Aspen Prize Finalists

June 9, 2020  • Ben Barrett & Rebecca Lavinson

Today, the Aspen Institute announced the ten finalists for the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. We share this news as America struggles with its legacy of racism and an inequitable, damaged economy, and as students and workers experience unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this context, community colleges are more essential than ever. They are crucial to launching students of color who have been historically excluded from opportunity in our country. They are crucial to helping individuals who seek postsecondary credential at a lower cost, educational options closer to home, and new skills for the changing labor market.

Selected from nearly 1,000 community colleges nationwide through a rigorous evaluation process, the Aspen Prize finalists vary in many ways—among them size, location, governance structure, and demographics. They all, though, share something important: Each has developed and scaled strategies to propel more students, regardless of their race or income, toward college completion and post-graduation success.

A Rising Tide

Winners of the $1 million Aspen Prize, which was first awarded in 2011, are selected based on their performance across four domains: student learning, degree completion and transfer, workforce success, and equitable outcomes. On the 50 site visits we’ve conducted so far for the prize process, and through many other College Excellence Program research initiatives, we’ve had the privilege of seeing the excellent practices we learned about in the first few sets of Aspen Prize visits take root across the community college sector.

Community colleges are designing clear pathways toward careers and systems to help students choose the right path and stay on track—including improved advising and an array of supports to address students’ nonacademic needs. They are doing far more to partner with four-year institutions so that students can effectively transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree, and they are developing more sophisticated partnerships with employers to prepare graduates for high-paying careers.

They are going beyond small initiatives to scale what works so all students can benefit. They’re allocating financial resources and developing human capital policies in line with the student success mission. Leaders develop a clear vision for equity in access and success that informs efforts throughout the college. And more and more, they’re taking responsibility not just for seeing students through graduation but for making sure they are successful in their next step, whether a bachelor’s program or the workforce.

So we’re not surprised that we’ve seen improved outcomes overall for the 150 colleges eligible for the Aspen Prize. Over the last two years, while the average three-year graduation and transfer-out rate for community colleges nationwide remained stagnant, at the country’s top 150 community colleges—those eligible for the Aspen Prize—the completion rate rose 3 percentage points, to 52 percent. For students of color at those schools, the rate increased from 44 percent to 46 percent. This underscores what the Aspen Prize is all about: the fact that improvement may not be universal, but it’s always possible.

What it Takes to Be Top 10

The 10 finalists for the 2021 Aspen Prize embody this improvement by embracing the difficult work of scaling and tailoring student success strategies to meet their communities’ distinct needs. They have each built a culture centered on ensuring strong and equitable student outcomes. Underpinning college-wide reform efforts at each institution is a clear vision for student success, shared by leadership, faculty, and staff, that drives not just excellence in the domains evaluated in the Aspen Prize process but also fundamental systems across the college.

Community colleges are crucial to launching students of color who have been historically excluded from opportunity in our country.

Student learning: Aspen Prize colleges commit to improving teaching and learning, and have a strategy for what that means at their institution. They may focus on inclusive pedagogy, active learning, a sense of belonging in the classroom, academic rigor with supports—no matter their specific goals, they achieve them via strong professional development opportunities and structures and incentives that support excellent instruction and effective learning.

Completion and transfer: Aspen Prize colleges lay out a clear path to degrees, from workforce credentials to baccalaureate degrees attained after leaving the community college. They provide—and make sure students experience—strong supports for students, especially those who are most vulnerable, from before they enroll through graduation. They do so not through small initiatives but through significant changes to the student experience that have large-scale impact.

Workforce success: Aspen Prize colleges help students align an academic program with career goals from the first moment they step on campus. They partner with employers and community entities to design programs that launch graduates into successful careers. They teach the specific skills students will need in their careers, on the equipment they’ll use. They connect students to real-world work experience and employment opportunities. And they constantly revisit whether they are preparing students of all backgrounds for high-demand, well-paying occupations, and consider what they can do to bring even more opportunities to their regions.

Equitable outcomes: As inclusive institutions that have long provided an accessible and affordable higher education, all community colleges play a key role in shaping the future of historically underserved populations. But Aspen Prize colleges recognize that it is not enough to remove historical barriers for students of color and low-income students. Day after day, they analyze gaps in student access and success, figure out what barriers are standing in the way inside and outside the classroom, and remove them. They do so for individual groups of students and for students as a whole, grappling in earnest with the legacy of exclusionary practices in higher education.

Culture centered on student success: Excellent colleges aren’t just implementing reforms in individual domains. Every key system is centered around a specific student success vision and strategy—how faculty and staff are hired, developed, and evaluated; how funds are allocated; how data is analyzed and used for improvement; how leaders work with partners in the community and even with each other.

The Current Imperative

The same qualities that make colleges Aspen Prize finalists are those we see in action as they respond to the current crises. They’re prioritizing equity for vulnerable populations and pressing communities to do the same, thinking at every step about how to keep students safe and on track, pivoting quickly to new forms of learning and collaboration, and seeking ways for their colleges to not just get students degrees but, by doing so, solve problems in their communities.

The 10 finalists announced today offer a path forward with their exceptional, student- and equity-focused responses amid great uncertainty and unrest. They don’t shy away from challenges in their communities and on their campuses, whether they were decades in the making or spread in a few short weeks.

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