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By mid-April, community college leaders will know if their institution has a shot at the $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a four-phase competition that has generated much excitement since it was announced at the White House Summit on Community Colleges last October.
An advisory panel is looking at publicly available data on student outcomes at community colleges and winnowing down the contenders, according to Josh Wyner, the program’s new executive director, who previously served with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and Complete College America.
The 100 or so community colleges that program officials will select to advance to the second phase will have delivered exceptional student results in three areas—credential completion, improvement in credential attainment over time, and minority and low-income student success, Wyner said.
The goal of the program is to identify data that are tied to student outcomes and to share that with all community colleges and stakeholders and to “help change the way community colleges are understood,” according to the institute.
William Trueheart and Keith Bird are co-chairs of the program’s Data/Metrics Advisory Panel, which is advising on which colleges should make the first round. Trueheart is CEO of Achieving the Dream, which is recognized for its efforts to use data to drive decisions at participating community colleges. Bird is a senior policy fellow at the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and a former chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
“We really want to make sure that this is a very open and transparent process and takes into account a lot of different weighting,” Bird said.
Currently much data regarding community colleges comes from the U.S. Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, but there are limitations. The data available vary among community colleges and do not always provide an overall or accurate picture of a college’s outcomes, according to two-year college advocates.
Bird said he hopes that the competition will prompt better collection systems and encourage colleges to consider what data they submit.
But, for now, “we have to start somewhere,” he said.
“We’ll learn as a result of this first year’s efforts,” Trueheart said.
By having the panel do the legwork during the first round, the burden of data collection is taken off the colleges.
“We’re trying to be sensitive to the demands on the colleges, while making every effort to be fair,” Trueheart said.
During the next rounds, there will be more focus on other metrics. The selected colleges will be asked to provide additional data on outcomes and on three areas—student learning, completion and post-completion success in the labor market. Each college will also receive a site visit.
This process will not only help the panel identify a prize winner but also identify institutions that can serve as peer coaching institutions for other colleges, Trueheart said.
More than the money
Program officials still have to decide whether the prize will go to one college or shared among several winners. But officials stressed that the competition will benefit all community colleges. The promising student outcomes and campus practices achieved by some community colleges will be highlighted and broadly disseminated, “allowing every community college to share in the recognition that will come from demonstrated excellence within the sector,” Wyner said.
The program also aims to define the elements and measures of excellence in the two-year college sector.
“Our hope is that these measures help coalesce community colleges around a common, more comparable definition of excellent outcomes which, in turn, will facilitate more productive conversations about what works to improve student success,” Wyner said.
The third outcome is ensuring that the successful practices of the finalist institutions are “broadly understood,” giving community colleges better information to use for improving their own outcomes and practices.
“There is a remarkable amount of great work being done at community colleges,” Trueheart said. “This prize is one way of recognizing that excellence and saying to the rest of the world that good work is being done there.”
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges