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Valencia College President Sanford Shugart accepts the Aspen Prize on behalf of the college.
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Florida’s Valencia College—where over half of full-time students graduate or transfer within three years of entering the college—has received the inaugural Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which comes with a $600,000 award.
Community college supporters from government, foundations, businesses, associations and the colleges themselves attended a high-profile event on Monday in Washington, D.C., for the announcement of the prize winner and the "finalists with distinction"—which included Walla Walla Community College (Washington), Miami Dade College (Florida), West Kentucky Community and Technical College, and Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) in South Dakota. The four finalists will each receive $100,000.
Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, gave kudos to Valencia College and its president, Sanford Shugart, as well as all the colleges that participated in the initiative as a way to collectively improve their efforts to serve students.
"Valencia College has long been identified with innovative thinking and a laser-focused commitment to student success," Bumphus said. "The Aspen award recognizes that singular commitment and exceptional leadership, but as President Shugart so generously noted, his college represents community colleges nationwide that daily help students acheive more than they ever thought possible."
Jobs, jobs, jobs
The event and prize was a chance to highlight community colleges' exceptional work in helping their students succeed, both academically and in training for jobs—as well as finding and keeping those jobs based on their skills. Given the nation’s high unemployment rate and economic struggles, many of the comments at Monday's event focused on workforce development and jobs. Speakers such as Second Lady (and community college professor) Jill Biden, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and a community college business partner all noted the importance of two-year colleges in workforce and economic development.
Scott Lawler, a manager at 3M in South Dakota, said that his company looks to LATI specifically because of its high-caliber graduates. He even helped to create an internship program for LATI students to give them practical, hands-on work experiences at 3M. It also allows 3M to gauge prospective employees. In fact, four of the five craftsmen the company recently hired attended LATI, Lawler said.
Finalists named for $1M Aspen Prize
The connection between companies and economic growth—both locally and nationally—was also noted in a 34-page publication from the Aspen Institute that highlights some of the selected colleges’ successes. In one example, it noted a Northrop Grumman manager in Orlando, Fla., who at one time spent half a year on the road looking for qualified workers to hire. Over the last several years, the company has focused on working with its local community college, and 3M has hired almost every laser technician who has come from Valencia College.
“It’s very important that we have this local source for employees,” company manager Jim Lipscomb said in the publication.
That mantra was woven into many speakers' comments. During his acceptance speech, Valencia's Shugart said community colleges have had great success in providing access, and now they must serve as the “vanguard” to student success.
“It’s time to transform from volume to value,” he said.
Many colleges have already started to do just that, and President Barack Obama’s call to significantly increase college completion by 2020 has prompted other colleges to re-examine what they do and focus on the “student experience,” Shugart said.
“It’s the only thing that counts. And we have just begun that journey,” he said.
A culture of assessment promotes student success
The Aspen Prize, which was announced a little over a year ago at the White House Summit on Community Colleges, was developed as a way to spotlight two-year colleges that have dramatically improved student outcomes. It was also designed to share promising practices among the nation's 1,200 community colleges.
The prize is funded by Lumina Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges