ASPEN PRIZE FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGE EXCELLENCE
Improving community college completion rates is a vital national priority. Their open
access and affordability have benefitted millions of Americans, but now the nation
must get more community college students successfully through to high-wage career
opportunities and further education. In setting America’s sights on retaking the global
lead in postsecondary education, President Obama focused unprecedented attention on
the key role community colleges must play.
In response to the President's leadership on this issue and in recognition of the
education and workforce imperatives facing our country, the Aspen Institute, the
Joyce and Lumina Foundations, and the charitable foundations of Bank of America
and JP Morgan Chase have partnered to launch the $1 million Aspen Prize for
Community College Excellence.
The purpose of the Aspen Prize is to recognize community colleges with outstanding
academic and workforce outcomes in both absolute performance and improvements
over time. By focusing on student success and lifting up models that work, the prize
will honor excellence, stimulate innovation, and create benchmarks for measuring
VISION FOR PRIZE
Community colleges are a critical linchpin in America’s efforts to educate our way to
greater prosperity and equality. If the U.S. is to regain a leadership position in
postsecondary education and economic growth, community colleges must be a big
part of the solution: they account for most of the growth in college enrollment over the
last decade; they disproportionately educate students of color and first-generation
college students who most need higher education to get a foothold in the new
economy; and community colleges are the primary source of skills training for
workers in many sectors of the economy.
Despite their critically important mission, however, community colleges are underrecognized,
under-resourced and many are under-performing. The Aspen Prize for
Community College Excellence is designed to help change the way community
colleges are understood, bolstering effective leaders and enabling institutions to learn
more effectively from peers.
The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence will:
Honor Excellence: Shine a spotlight on outstanding community colleges that
deliver exceptional results in student completion rates and workforce success,
both in terms of absolute performance and dramatic transformation.
Stimulate Innovation: Identify exemplars, document successful practices,
and create opportunities to learn from them, generating momentum for
reform-minded educators, governors, employers, and community college
presidents across the nation.
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Clearly Define Success: Contribute to the development of high-quality, consistent measures and
benchmarks for assessing community college outcomes so prospective students and businesses
can get a clear sense of how effective schools are in helping students – including the most
disadvantaged – learn, graduate, and secure good jobs.
With an annual prize purse of $1,000,000 and the Aspen Institute’s unique ability to elevate issues on the
public agenda, the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence represents an important opportunity to
accelerate transformation in community colleges.
RATIONALE FOR PRIZE
Postsecondary education and training are increasingly essential for individual economic security and
national economic growth. Since 1970, workers with college education have remained in the middle class
or moved up; those without any college have languished with stagnant wages or fallen into poverty.
Despite these trends, supply has not kept up with demand: labor economists at Georgetown University
project that the U.S. faces a shortfall of at least 3 million workers with college degrees (Associate or
higher) and at least 4.7 million workers with postsecondary certificates by 2018.
Political and education leaders increasingly are calling for a concerted focus on student success in
community colleges (and, indeed, across the postsecondary spectrum). President Obama articulated a bold
national goal for the U.S. to regain the international lead in postsecondary education by 2020, and leading
national foundations and nonprofit organizations have embraced similar goals. Clearly, community
colleges will have to play a major role if America is to dramatically boost educational attainment: more
than 6,000,000 students – youth and adult learners – enroll in America’s nearly 1,200 community colleges
But efforts to increase completion rates are stymied by several obstacles. One is a widespread sense that
community colleges are not high-performing institutions. Existing data on community college
performance do paint a bleak picture overall: according to longitudinal data from the U.S. Department of
Education, fewer than four out of every ten community college students completes any type of degree or
certificate after six years. While some students aren’t pursuing credentials or degrees, the overwhelming
majority are -- and such massive leakage in the education pipeline imperils the country’s economic future.
Underneath the averages, outstanding community colleges surely exist but are not recognized for their
A second challenge: the lack of generally accepted measures of student success in the community college
sector impedes meaningful evaluation and comparative analysis of success. This relates to a third
challenge: without clear measures of success, it is hard for community colleges to benchmark against one
another, analyze what field leaders are doing, and emulate the practices of those who are succeeding with
more students. As a result, the accomplishments of the best community
colleges go unnoticed and colleges have few incentives, expectations, or roadmaps for improvement.
A national prize competition for community colleges will help lift up the best community colleges and
galvanize nascent efforts to increase completion rates and improve employment outcomes.
The Aspen Prize will develop a process that respects the vital diversity of community colleges while
prioritizing the most important markers of success – student learning, degree and credential attainment,
transfer, and career and earnings outcomes. In this effort, the Aspen Prize will build on other important
efforts that focus on improving student success rates, including the Voluntary Framework for
Accountability (VFA) led by the American Association of Community Colleges, Achieving the Dream,
and the National Governors’ Association’s Compete to Complete campaign, as well as other state and
PRIZE COMPETITION DESIGN
The Aspen Institute is committed to shaping a world-class prize that is outcomes-based and informed by
the best expertise available from practitioners as well as researchers. The design has been guided by
valuable interviews with several dozen community college presidents, administrators, employers,
researchers, and policy experts. In the past two months, the Aspen Institute has sought additional
feedback from those in the field about the best ways to structure each phase of the competition.
Specifically, it has convened a Data/Metrics Advisory Panel of leading researchers and community
college practitioners to examine available data and advise the Aspen Institute on measures/metrics so that
community college performance and improvement in performance can be measured fairly and accurately.
The Data/Metrics Advisory Panel is helping the Aspen Institute develop an empirical analysis to inform
the process and appropriate analytic frameworks for prize eligibility and finalist selection. As this
develops, a core set of principles will continue to undergird the process.
The prize competition will strive to be:
Fair: Community colleges serve a broad range of students and communities,
with some community colleges facing greater challenges than others.
Prize competition metrics will be designed to account for these
differences to the greatest extent possible, so that apples-to-apples
comparisons are used to identify colleges making the greatest
contributions to student success.
Inclusive: Community colleges with bigger administrative offices and more savvy
in seeking recognition should not be the only ones that are celebrated for
their accomplishments. To help create a level playing field and to reach
beyond “usual suspects,” efforts will be made to minimize the data
collection burden on individual community colleges, and publicly
available data will be used where possible.
and Equity Orientation: Prize selection will consider absolute achievement levels, improvements
over time, and success with under-represented populations. It will not
reward just the top overall performers or just colleges that show big gains
but still have low student success rates, but rather, those which
demonstrate both solid performance and impressive improvements for all
students. This focus will provide existence proofs that community
colleges can strive to exceed in subsequent years, both in terms of overall
performance and dramatic increases in desired outcomes.
Comprehensive: No one or two metrics can fairly or accurately characterize the outcomes
of a community college, especially in light of the multiple missions and
broad range of students they serve. The prize competition will consider
multiple outcomes (e.g., degree and credential attainment, learning
outcomes, and employment/earnings) and multiple types of data will be
examined in multiple ways (e.g., trends over time, absolute performance
levels, performance of different groups of students). Moreover,
professional judgment will complement rigorous data analysis at each
stage of the process to ensure a holistic review of the data.
Practitioners: For the prize to be effective, community college educators have to see
their work and aspirations reflected. To this end, community college
practitioner-leaders will participate in every phase of the process, from
design to selection of winners.
The structure of the prize competition is designed to reinforce these principles. A four-phase competition
will launch in spring 2011 and will offer multiple points of recognition for colleges. The prize will be
awarded annually at a public event that will include elected officials, educators, students, and journalists;
the first prize will be awarded in late 2011. The Aspen Institute recognizes that much of the prize’s
potential impact occurs after winners are awarded and is committed to distilling what works and helping
all community colleges accelerate learning, innovation, and reform.
The Aspen Prize competition has four phases:
Phase 1: Evaluation of Public Data: Guided by the Data/Metrics Advisory Panel, publicly
available data on student outcomes are being analyzed to winnow the field in an initial cut by
determining community colleges that are eligible to win a prize competition because of strong
student completion rates and progress, including among under-represented students. The
Data/Metrics Advisory panel is co-chaired by two expert practitioners with deep experience in
measuring community college performance:
William Trueheart, CEO of Achieving the Dream
Keith Bird, Senior Policy Fellow at the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and
Chancellor Emeritus, Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
Phase 2: Collection of New Data: Eligible community colleges will be invited to compete by
submitting additional data on student learning, completion, and labor market outcomes and
descriptive information about how data are used. A Finalist Selection Committee of former
community college presidents and faculty, along with respected researchers and policy experts,
will review applications and data from each participating community college to select a set of
finalists. In addition, full data reports will be provided back to community colleges that submit
data, conferring a unique benefit for participating in the competition.
Phase 3: Qualitative Data and Expert Judgment: Qualitative research, including a site visit,
will be conducted with each finalist. Along with full analysis of quantitative data, written reports
from the qualitative research will be provided to a Prize Jury of prominent former elected
officials, national business and civic leaders, and former community college leaders, who will
review quantitative and qualitative data to select winners.
Phase 4: Post-Award Knowledge-Sharing: Identifying exemplars is just the start. In addition to
celebrating the winners and finalists, the award event will serve as a launching pad for learning
from leading colleges and networking among education leaders with similar challenges and
concerns. Participating community colleges will generate an unprecedented database of outcomes
across institutions, creating the opportunity for learning and knowledge-sharing. Profiles of the
winning community colleges’ strategies and practices will be released and a media campaign will
be developed to increase public understanding of the work being done in outstanding community
The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence will focus attention and galvanize efforts on the
postsecondary completion agenda. It will create new demand for – and supply of – best practices. It will
inspire and reward those community colleges that are the most effective incubators of successful students
and skilled workers. Most important, it will generate acclaim for the educators whose efforts have been
ignored for too long -- and spur a new generation of leaders to innovate for student success.
For more information or to sign up to learn more, visit www.AspenCCPrize.org.