These 10 community colleges achieved excellence during pandemic

San Antonio College earns top prize from the Aspen Institute for its 'extraordinary systems' that help fuel student success.
By: | May 20, 2021

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the honorees at the 2021 Aspen Prize For Community College Excellence ceremony an “impressive roster of innovative and inclusive institutions that put student success at the core of all they do.”

The best of the bunch and winner of the $600,000 top prize – given every two years by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program – was San Antonio College, a finalist for the first time that is truly providing a diverse and supportive environment for its 35,000 students.

Among the accomplishments, the Alamo Colleges District institution has seen its:

  • Four-year transfer rate and six-year completion rate surpass the national average by eight and nine points, respectively.
  • Graduation rate jump by almost 20 points in four years to 48%
  • Graduation rate for students of color – where the makeup of the college is two-thirds Hispanic, Black, or Native American – rise by eight points.

“At San Antonio College, there’s a family feeling, a pervasive understanding that it’s everyone’s job to make sure students succeed,” said Linda Perlstein, a director at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. “The college has built extraordinary systems to advance this culture — constantly analyzing whether students are getting what they need to learn, progress, and achieve their goals after graduation, and adapting accordingly as an institution. San Antonio College is truly an exemplar for continuous improvement in higher education.”

The Institute recognized four other community colleges for their exemplary work – including efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic – in “teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer and bachelor’s attainment, workforce success, equity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and leadership and institutional culture.”  Finalist with Distinction honors went to Broward College in Florida, San Jacinto College in Texas, and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, while Amarillo College in Texas was named a Rising Star. All received $100,000 for the efforts.

“The best institutions don’t just teach, they empower, they meet students where they are and help them to get to where they want to go,” First Lady Jill Biden said during the virtual ceremony. “That’s what the Aspen Prize is all about, recognizing the schools that are leading the way, showing us that all students can learn, achieve, and thrive, if only they have the opportunities and support they need.”

Why they were chosen

Broward College, a three-time finalist, was honored for its “guided pathways, designing clear, structured paths for students through to a bachelor’s degree, and aligning advising and other systems to make it hard to fall through the cracks,” said Ruth Williams-Brinkley, president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, during the ceremony. Each year, Broward College annually awards more than 12,000 degrees and certificates, including more than 8,000 to students of color.

San Jacinto College has been one of the best in nation at ensuring strong student outcomes because Williams-Brinkley said they are “rigorously self-reflective … and ambitious about scaling reform.” Its associate degree holders in applied science, for example, make almost $17,000 more than other new employees.

Like San Antonio College, West Kentucky Community and Technical College has been leading the way on graduation, transfer rates and ability to serve low-income students. All of their rates have eclipsed the national average by double digits.

Amarillo College, too, has seen its graduation and transfer rates soar, by “two thirds in four years”, according to the Institute.

“Every employee [at Amarillo] knows that it’s their job to help students surmount the real-life barriers of poverty, and there’s an unusually robust and coordinated system of social services,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Five other colleges that were highlighted for their work and made the top 10 were the  Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York, Odessa College in Texas, Pasadena City College in California, Pierce College in Washington, and Tallahassee Community College in Florida.

During this challenging year in higher education and especially for community colleges, the need for student focus and providing strong career pathways for all has been paramount.

“More than ever, this pandemic has taught us that we all need to be continuously learning, and evolving, and pushing forward — on public health, on race, on the economy and technology,” Hrabowski said. “The community colleges we honor are at the forefront of that evolution.”