Measuring Excellence: The Aspen Community College List

With recent increases in community college enrollment numbers, making sure that our two-year schools are quality institutions has become increasingly important. In order to encourage excellence in community colleges, the [...]

With recent increases in community college enrollment numbers, making sure that our two-year schools are quality institutions has become increasingly important. In order to encourage excellence in community colleges, the Joyce Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and the Aspen Institute have developed the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, along with some senior officials from the U.S. Department of Education, Department of Labor, and the White House. In fact, the whole thing was inspired by President Obama’s declaration that community colleges are the future of higher education in this country. The prize is set to be awarded in December 2011, when the final winners will be announced. But how are they to be determined? Is this process a true representation of excellence in our educational system? We took a closer look to find out.

About the Award

The eventual winner of this award will receive $700,000 in prize money, which is a huge windfall for a community college given the current budget crisis. Runners-up also receive prizes, with the total prize money adding up to $1 million. Given the size of the potential winnings, it’s probably no surprise that the selection process is quite lengthy and rigorous. It’s broken into three rounds, which work as follows:

Round One

Only 120 Community Colleges made the eligibility list in the first round, which was released in April, 2011. Eligibility was determined based on three basic criteria:

  1. School performance: student scores and graduation rates were the primary factors here. Essentially, this point is looking for schools that have low drop-out rates because they encourage their students to finish and get a degree or certificate.
  2. Improvement: the award is intended to help schools improve even further, so colleges that show stagnation don’t qualify. In this case, excellence means always looking for ways to be better.
  3. Equity: colleges that only accept and serve middle or upper-class students tend to have better test scores and graduation rates, but that practice could be conceived as discrimination. To encourage schools to reach out to impoverished and disadvantaged students, the Aspen Prize requires that colleges have high completion rates for poor, minority or learning-disabled students.

The 120 eligible colleges were measured against this criteria in the first round by the Data and Metrics Advisory Panel, which worked with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to sort through the 1,030 candidates. Data on the schools was collected from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the Census Bureau. The three above categories were weighted equally, though scores were adjusted for schools with a disproportionate number of minority or part-time students in order to avoid punishing them for reaching out to disadvantaged student populations. Additionally, the number of selected schools in each state was limited to half of the schools existing within that state, so that no one location would be disproportionally represented.

Round Two

Currently, the selection process is in the second round, during which the Finalist Selection Committee (made up of education researchers, policy experts, and former community college presidents and faculty) will narrow the 120 eligible schools down to only 8-10 finalists. Their decision will be announced in September 2011, and it will be based on the following criteria:

  1. Completion Outcomes: Ensuring that students are encouraged in a direction that will earn them useful qualifications, such as an associate’s degree, relevant certificate or transfer to a four-year college.
  2. Labor-Market Outcomes: Ensuring that the college not only provides certifications that improve the student’s chances of employment, but also keeps track of graduate employment rates and uses that data to improve future outcomes.
  3. Learning Outcomes: Ensuring that the university actively seeks out new and better ways to educate its students, based on student census data and assessments.

The 120 selected colleges are not automatically entered for consideration in this round. They have to apply to be included, which can be done online. This is the first part of the process that colleges have participated in directly, as the first round was done entirely with data provided by other sources.

Round Three

In the last round, the 8-10 finalist colleges will be scrutinized the hardest. This section is based entirely on qualitative data, which will be collected when researchers from the RP Group visit each campus and evaluate them on site. Data will be collected through student, faculty, administrator and community partner interviews, then recorded on a rubric. All of the information will then be submitted to the Prize Jury, made up of former elected officials and other business and educational leaders, who will select the winner and the three runners-up. The winners will be announced in December 2011.


Though the Aspen Prize has support from the U.S. government, there has also been quite a bit of criticism from the peanut gallery as the process moves forward. Inside Higher Ed, one of the premier online news sources for higher education, asked the question: Whose Top 10%?, arguing that “the selection process unfairly attempts to rank and compare community colleges using data systems that are inadequate to the task.” The argument mostly focuses on the quantitative measures of “learning outcomes” and “labor-market outcomes,” neither of which are areas that have been successfully measured in the past, mostly due to the difficulty of defining success in either category.

Community College Spotlight also chimed in, pointing out that while recognizing college excellence is a noble goal, ranking schools ultimately only causes problems among those who don’t get recognition. Similar debates have always arisen around college rankings, such as the controversy around Washington Monthly’s Top 50 list, first created back in 2007 and re-released in 2010.


Tameka Echols

I think that going to school online was the right choice for me because of the circumstances in my life. The main piece of advice that I would offer others is to make sure you are committed to finishing your degree before you sign up. It is very important that you are committed to doing this because you are investing in your future.


Seth Stapleton

I interact with my professors through e-mail, and I feel that we are able to maintain a strong professional relationship through online communication. For instance, I have co-founded a business, and my professors are very interested in hearing about its progress. In fact, I have added several of my professors to my LinkedIn network, and they are helping me to build connections.


Roy Cato

When you are focused on learning, your mind is growing. Just like a muscle, you are exercising it. You are not just memorizing, you are actively thinking.


Nicole Gonzales

I did a great deal of research on online programs, and Phoenix had the best feedback from students, the best website and the best success rate for graduates.


Natalee Harp-Blakley

The broad-based nature of the program provided me with skills and knowledge that are applicable to many different areas of business. I feel that this versatile collection of courses has improved my employment opportunities.


Monica Elam

I wanted to earn my associates degree partially online because I needed a way to juggle work, family and school. The way of the world is that adults work because we all need money to live, and I don’t complain about that. But it seemed like there weren’t enough hours in the day to attend to all of my responsibilities, so a blended computer networking program allowed for greater flexibility.


Lori Jessing

The most important factor for students who are considering a degree in the health industry is to ensure that your school’s program is properly accredited by the American Health Information Management Association. That accreditation acts like an official endorsement of the validity of the program that you are applying to, so you know you can trust it.


Laura Turner

The 2 biggest factors that went into my decision to pursue my associates degree online were time and convenience.


Kameka Bausley

The biggest strength of my program is the high quality resources available to students. The program provides students with the option to join a study group, work with a certified accounting tutor or access the online math center to review homework problems.


Jeannette McCay

The general education courses in my human services management program provided me with the educational foundation that I needed in order to succeed.


Eleanor Decker

And in order to stay engaged in your online classes, it is important to stay focused on your long term goals. As you work, continue to look towards the future and remind yourself of your goals.


Brooke Siever

The best advice I could give to you as an online student is to be your own advocate. Take advantage of every opportunity and be proactive in clearing up misunderstandings.


Brandi Wesley

Make sure that your support team is doing its job. If any of your advisors is not providing the guidance necessary for you to succeed, seek another.


Audra Coon

I have actually had a better experience with my online professors than with my on-campus professors. Online students often come to class with a lot of life experience, which professors respect, whereas on-campus students are often right out of high school. Professors respond to them differently.


Angela Kish-Wolf

I appreciated the ability to revisit course material when I studied online. There is no chance to mishear a professor during a lecture. You will always get the information right.


Adrian Hammerle

If you want to find employment in the information technology field, you should plan to get a bachelors degree and to keep on learning throughout your career. Programming and web design and development are always evolving as new technology arises. You will need to keep current so that your skill set does not become outdated.