Community college leaders generally eschew and resist all manner of rankings, believing their institutions are simply too diverse, their missions too different, to lend themselves to a qualitative analysis.
But voices of dissent were few and far between when the Aspen Institute embarked on a yearlong quest to identify the nation’s top colleges and reward them with a total of $1 million for their exemplary work. Community college experts pored over applications, analyzed reams of data and conducted site visits. A prize jury of former elected officials, education experts and civil rights advocates reviewed the data and selected the winners.
When the analysis was done, Valencia College, which educates more than 50,000 students a year in Orlando, Fla., won the top prize and $600,000. Four other colleges were named “finalists with distinction”: Lake Area Technical Institute (S.D.); Miami Dade College (Fla.); Walla Walla Community College (Wash.); West Kentucky Community & Technical College (Ky.).
More than heaping praise on community colleges, the awards served notice that open-access community colleges, too, can achieve excellence and distinction just like four-year universities. It was a chance for colleges of all stripes to bask in the national spotlight.
Indeed, the colleges that were honored are as diverse as the sector itself: Lake Tech, for example, is a college of just 1,400 students with a minority student enrollment of just 2 percent; Miami Dade, is the nation’s largest public college, with nearly 100,000 students, 87 percent of whom are members of underrepresented minority groups.
Yet all of the schools have managed to exceed national averages on graduation rates, transfers to four-year colleges, job placements and learning and equity outcomes. They are training the next generation of nurses, laser technicians, teachers and small business owners. They are demonstrating how a combination of actions can improve student success, the institute said.
For elevating the discussion of community colleges from access to success, the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence tops Community College Week’s list of the Top Ten Community College Stories of 2011. (Read more.)