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Aspen Institute Launches Community College Competition

WASHINGTON – Building on ongoing efforts to focus more attention and resources on community colleges, top Obama Administration officials joined philanthropic leaders on Monday to announce a $1 million prize for community colleges that do an outstanding job of moving students from campus to careers.

The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence is being funded and offered through a partnership between Aspen Institute, the Joyce and Lumina Foundations and the philanthropic arms of Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase. Its purpose is in line with Obama Administration efforts to elevate the stature and increase resources at the disposal of America’s 1,200 community colleges, which educate 40 percent of all students in higher education.

Second lady Jill Biden said the prize builds on the momentum generated by the first White House community college summit that she convened earlier this year.

“People have begun to pay more attention to community colleges,” Biden said at the inaugural event for the prize at the Newseum in downtown Washington, D.C. “Finally, they are watching closely as you work to educate our way to a stronger America.”

Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, said the prize is meant to showcase effective strategies being employed by community colleges to get credentials with labor market value for students.

“In the end we think that the Aspen Prize will enable a much clearer understanding of excellence at community colleges across the country,” Merisotis said. “We view this as an opportunity to accelerate the best practices in community colleges across the country.”

Monday’s event also featured Dr. Martha Kanter, Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education; Jane Oates, Assistant Secretary for Employment & Training at the U.S. Department of Labor; and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and one of his Clinton era predecessors, Richard Riley.

Duncan said community colleges are expected to play an important role in helping the country meet the Obama Administration’s goal to restore America’s workforce to being the most college-educated in the world by 2020.       

” Community colleges will help lead the country where we need to go, and part of that is shining the spotlight on community colleges,” Duncan said. “We can’t thrive again if we don’t do more at community colleges than we ever have.”

Currently, only 40 percent of community college students earn degrees within six years, organizers said.

“We have huge challenges facing us in this country,” Duncan said, resorting to a common Obama Administration complaint about how other countries are “out-educating, out-competing and out-innovating” the United States.

“That can’t continue,” Duncan said. “We have to get better faster than we ever have.”

Secretary Duncan said the $1 million prize represents just a token of appreciation for the work that community colleges do.

Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón said the importance of the prize transcends its monetary value.

“While the money is important, it’s a validation of the work that we do that is important with this prize,” Padrón said. “I cannot say that more clear, more loudly, because for too long a time we have felt very lonely. We have been the Cinderellas of the funding system. What we’re doing today through this prize means a lot to us beyond the money.”

The prize is meant to recognize community colleges that do an outstanding job in three areas: excellence, completion and employment outcomes.

Thus far, 120 community colleges that have been screened by using a federal database known as IPEDS—the Integrated Postsecondary Data System—are eligible to compete over the next two months. A group of 10 finalists will be announced in September, and the top winner will be announced in December.

For round two, the 120 preliminarily eligible community colleges are expected to submit additional data on student outcomes.

Joshua Wyner, Executive Director at the Aspen College Excellence Program, said the prize committee will use a scoring rubric and assess community colleges against each other to develop a list of 10 finalists.

“One of the things we’ll be doing is verifying some of the data that has been submitted,” Wyner said. “But we’ll also be looking at qualitative data, what particular practices have community colleges engaged in” to achieve better results.

For the third and final round, the prize committee will conduct more qualitative research, including a site visit, at each of the 10 finalist institutions.

During a panel discussion at the event, Wyner said currently only about four out of every 10 community college students earn a degree after six years.

Dr. Michelle Asha Cooper, President of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said institutions must focus on completion, not just access, and take a more targeted approach toward developing more effective remedial education courses.

“Effective remediation, without question, is one of the most significant educational challenges that we face in higher education today,” Cooper said.

Assistant Secretary Oates, of the Department of Labor, said it’s important for community colleges to forge more meaningful and productive relationships with the private sector.

” They have to change their way of doing business with business,” Oates said. “Not only be aware of business as an end-user of their product, which is the student, but go to them at the beginning and say what do we have to do to get students specific skills that are needed in the sector.”

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