Around the Institute

Welcome Remarks: Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence Ceremony

April 20, 2023  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the below welcome remarks at the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence ceremony on April 20, 2023 at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, DC. Follow him on LinkedIn.

Good afternoon, everyone. It’s wonderful to be here together today. I’m Dan Porterfield, President, and CEO of the Aspen Institute. We are a nonprofit organization that works in many ways and places to support people who are driving change that matters for our country and world.

We do that in a range of areas—from educational excellence at the pre-college level, to public health, to leadership development, to empowering Native American and opportunity youth, and so much more. 

The work happening here in the College Excellence Program is both exemplary and representative of the quality of work we try to do in partnership with others around the country. It gives us pride to be partnering with you and the communities you support and lead. 

We are so grateful to our co-chairs this year, Michael, and Jane, who make the Aspen Prize possible. We are grateful to our funder community. We are grateful to the intellectual and practical leadership of Josh Wyner and his team.

Josh is the social entrepreneur who made it possible to develop a process, framework, and community where we could recognize transformational leadership in aligning curricula with job opportunities, facilitating strategies for educational excellence and values, and launching students effectively into the world. And we are grateful to the work that all of you do to strengthen your communities.

The College Excellence Program supports a body of practice that leads to greater results in countless communities and helps to build a new narrative about the critical role that community colleges play. It wasn’t that long ago that there was a very different narrative around those critical institutions.

With more than one thousand community college institutions, no single narrative captures it all. But our shared narrative, which combines deeds and words, actions and messages, is galvanizing support all across the country for greater investment, for students having greater confidence in the education they are pursuing, and for funders realizing this investment in students is one in community, business, the economy, and the American people.

Nearly half of all American undergraduates begin their journey in community college, and countless women and men come back to community colleges to improve their career options and intensify the lives they are seeking to live. America has many natural assets, but the greatest is our people and the many cultures and identities they comprise – and community colleges represent one of our most impactful investments in our people.

Looking at the economy, we see three significant, interrelated challenges for which community colleges are a major part of the solution. First, tens of millions of people worry that they and their children will not be able to find good, family-sustaining jobs that come with health insurance and help with the costs of childcare, which are a foundation to a life of upward mobility and fulfillment. America has to offer that pathway to prosperity. 

Second, many employers lament about the lack of workers and the sustainability of the regional economies in which their enterprises are embedded.

And third, many are starting to worry that with today’s rapidly accelerating tech-fueled pace of change, today’s jobs and businesses are just going to fizzle away and automation will put human intelligence on the sidelines.  

A universally effective community college sector that is deeply connected to both the private sector and our four-year institutions, and that is supported with ample public and private investment, is a big part of the solution.  

That’s because today’s workers need the education that gives them usable skills today and the intellectual foundation to be able to upskill or re-skill tomorrow when the job they start in is disrupted.

It’s community colleges that can help our business community find the employees with the agility and creativity to help those enterprises evolve to meet the challenges of disruption and sometimes drive it.  

And third, a universally effective community college sector, robustly supported by both the private and public sectors, will then contribute to a larger American narrative about how we adapt to the great opportunities provided by technological change and move the country forward—riding that wave, not becoming engulfed by it.

That has been the story of the 20th century in America: that the power of American education at the pre-K-12 levels and at the college levels gave our population the ability to optimize our response to the technological changes that defined the post-war era all the way through the early part of the 21st century. That was our critical national advantage—our people were better prepared to compete, grow, and develop with every technological shift of those decades. Now, such tech-powered shifts are coming faster, and the community college sector may be one of our greatest resources given those challenges.

I’m not just giving voice to hope when I say this. Our leading community colleges and college systems are advancing our community and country right now as they prepare students to succeed today and tomorrow and thereby help businesses compete and grow today and tomorrow.

A few weeks ago, I got into a ride-share car in New York. I asked the driver, an immigrant from Korea, why he drove. He told me this: “Well, the first time I got into an Uber, it felt like I was living in the future.”

Living in the future. That is what it is like to go to a great community college—to any of the 10 finalists for the Aspen Prize.

Our students are living in the future, one that they will surely help to further create.

2023 Aspen Prize finalists, you are an inspiration and a source of hope. You show what’s possible when leaders and colleges commit to evolving creatively to meet the challenges and opportunities of a fast-changing world.

Thank you all for the exceptional leadership.

Now, please welcome Pascale Charlot, Managing Director of the College Excellence Program, to kick off today’s program.