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Aspen Institute Honors Top Community Colleges With Prize

The winners of the first Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence were announced in Washington this afternoon.

Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., won the top honor and $600,000. The college, which has 70,000 students on eight campuses, was recognized for its high completion rates, employment of graduates, commitment to low-income and minority students, and the best record of transfers to four-year schools than any other college in the country.

The Aspen Institute recognized four finalists with distinction, awarding each $100,000. They are: Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D.; Miami Dade Community College in Miami, Fla.; Walla Walla Community College in Walla Walla, Wash.; and West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, Ky.

The competition was first unveiled in October 2010 at the White House Community College Summit. The original pool of 1,200 community colleges was narrowed down to 120 in April by an advisory committee. The evaluators considered learning outcomes, retention, graduation rates including transfers, and degrees and certificates; improvement of completion performance over time; and equity, based on institutional records for completion outcomes for disadvantaged students

The other five finalists in the competition were Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in Perkinston, Miss.; Mott Community College in Flint, Mich.; Northeast Iowa Community College-Calmar in Calmar, Iowa; Santa Barbara City College in Santa Barbara, Calif.; and Southwest Texas Junior College in Uvalde, Texas.

The 10 finalists were selected by a nine-member Finalist Selection Committee, comprised of former community college presidents, researchers, and policy experts. The prize jury that determined the final winners was co-chaired by John Engler, former Michigan governor and current president of the Business Roundtable, and Richard Riley, former U.S. secretary of education and governor of South Carolina.

At the awards ceremony today, Engler applauded the winners. "Valencia College both excels at and strives to improve every aspect of what really matters," he said. "If it can be done in the community college setting, it's being done at Valencia and being done very very well."

Valencia President Sandy Shugart said while the college had a long commitment to access, it is transforming its promise from "volume to value." The emphasis is on graduating more students, through rigorous programs so they are prepared not just to serve, but lead in the workplace, he said.

Student performance improved once the administration let go of its assumptions about the way the institution should run and focused on the perspective of students, said Shugart. "The college is what the students experience, period. That's the only thing that counts," he said, after accepting the prize.

At the Aspen event, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan added to the call for community colleges to maintain access and push for success. "It can't just be about getting in the door; it has to be about completion," he said. "All of you are winners. You have to continue to lead and drive the country to where we have to go."

The prize was funded by Aspen, in partnership with the Joyce and Lumina Foundations and the Charitable Foundations of Bank of American and JPMorgan Chase.

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