Posted December 19, 2011 by

Institute Names Top US Community College

Highlighting the need to improve student learning and graduation rates in community colleges — leading to good jobs — the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program recently announced that Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, is the nation’s top community college and honored four “finalists with distinction” from an original pool of over 1,000.  The announcement follows a rigorous, yearlong effort by the institute to assemble and review an unprecedented collection of data on community colleges and the critical elements of student success: student learning, degree completion and transfer, equity and employment/earnings after college.

This is the first national recognition of extraordinary accomplishments at individual community colleges. The prize celebrates these top performers both to elevate the community college sector nationwide and help other institutions understand how to improve outcomes for the seven million students — nearly half of all undergraduates in post-secondary education — working toward degrees and certificates in community colleges.

“Valencia College is a shining example of what really matters in community colleges, and that’s helping students succeed through learning, graduating and getting good jobs,” said Joshua Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “The Prize Jury was especially impressed by how faculty, administrators and staff all take responsibility for success of a very diverse student body. Valencia graduates are employed at higher rates than the graduates of any of the other Aspen finalists despite entering a local labor market with double digit unemployment rates. Valencia’s unique culture of continuous improvement and innovation has a real impact on student outcomes that is amazing to see.”

Community Colleges and the Economy

Community college students constitute nearly half of the entire US undergraduate student population. Out of the 13 million students enrolled in more than 1,000 two-year colleges nationwide, over half are working towards degrees and certificates. With four-year colleges and universities’ tuition escalating at over twice the rate of inflation (and costing up to $60,000 per year per student), community colleges are growing at four times the rate of four-year colleges. They serve as the most affordable option in higher education for millions of people in this country, who are more likely than other college students to be minorities and come from low-income backgrounds.

“Community colleges for too long have been under-appreciated,” said Richard Riley, co-chair of the jury that selected the winners — and former Secretary of Education and Governor of South Carolina. “By 2018, more than 60 percent of American jobs will require some kind of post-secondary qualification, and community colleges are uniquely poised to answer the needs of both employers and students looking for economic security.

“Community colleges share a common and vital purpose in preparing students of all ages, including working adults, for jobs and continued academic study,” added Riley. “For seven million Americans, they represent the most promising path to education and employment. But, for community colleges to fulfill that promise, we need to identify ways for them to boost student success — and that’s what this prize is all about.”

“The job training programs at these schools are incredibly important to America’s employers in search of skilled employees,” said John Engler, jury co-chair, former Governor of Michigan and president of Business Roundtable. “As the winners of the Prize show us, community colleges can help students achieve higher levels of success, translating into job-ready skills after their graduation. If other campuses followed the practices of Valencia and the other top community colleges, it would make a tremendous difference for students, employers and the economy as a whole.”

Valencia, for example, is doing its part to fill a national shortage of laser technicians in the labor market, while linking local residents to well-paying jobs. The school developed a program to satisfy local employer Northrop Grumman’s needs for laser technician jobs that pay over $40,000 upon graduation, for which there is an estimated national shortage of over 2,000 trained workers. Valencia achieves exceptional success for students starting their journey to bachelors’ degrees, academically preparing thousands of students every year for the selective University of Central Florida, which guarantees admission to those who complete their associate’s degree.

While every community college faces challenges, the prize winner Valencia and “finalists with distinction” offer lessons in how all students can graduate, helping other colleges understand how to expand learning, graduation and job placement rates.


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