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Aspen Prize Colleges: Well-Equipped When Crisis Hits

Over the past year, a global pandemic forced many of us to live, work, and learn differently. Millions of Americans got sick, wealth gaps were made painfully apparent, and the killing of Black Americans by police forced the country to reckon more directly with its long history of racial injustice.

For the 8 million U.S. undergraduates enrolled in community college, the stressors of the past year were particularly significant. As life shifted online, kitchen tables became offices and shared classrooms for the whole family. For many students, it was overwhelming to juggle work, childcare, and learning during a time of social isolation and societal upheaval.

Throughout, excellent community colleges demonstrated the best of what our country has to offer. They were tested in many ways, including enrollment declines and a large-scale transition to online learning. Yet they educated many of the healthcare workers who cared for those sick with COVID-19. They kept on propelling low-income families into the middle class and retraining displaced workers for new, in-demand careers. They continued to instill in their graduates the skills and ethos to be more active citizens in our democracy.

The best community colleges—including those being honored as finalists for the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence—were especially well-equipped to surmount challenges, because of the student-centered work they’d been diligently doing for years.

Aspen Prize finalist colleges are committed to a vision bigger than just enrolling and graduating students. They are focused on advancing racial equity and social mobility and making sure that students are well prepared to take the next step after graduation, either at a transfer institution or in the workforce. They think strategically and generously about how they can make their communities better. They engage in concrete practices that prioritize student belonging and strong outcomes, and they always work to improve.

In a crisis, these colleges don’t just survive but thrive, because of a deeply entrenched commitment to the students and communities they serve.

Clear Value Proposition

At a time of great economic uncertainty, students at Aspen Prize finalist colleges—which focus on programs in in-demand, well-paying fields—know exactly how their institution will lead them to a great career. Borough of Manhattan Community College, in New York, is one of the top U.S. community colleges for catalyzing economic mobility for students; in partnership with K-12 institutions, universities, and employers, it has committed to preparing students for jobs in pandemic-resistant fields, such as information technology and health care.

The best colleges are forward-thinking and instrumental in helping build a local economy that provides living-wage jobs for graduates. Because San Jacinto College, in Texas, works with regional employers to foster economic development, graduates in several programs find success in dominant industries like aerospace, maritime transportation, and petrochemical technology. Students making decisions in the uncertain context of the pandemic know they can rely on San Jac to connect them with good jobs and to continue to create new opportunities on their behalf.

Student-Centered Culture

Aspen Prize finalists’ success begins with a student-centered culture shared by faculty and staff and backed by concrete expectations. At excellent colleges, everyone knows it’s their job to ensure that students are academically supported and that their life challenges are addressed. College leaders do not leave faculty and staff guessing how they should support students.

At Amarillo College, in Texas, leadership, faculty, and staff actively remove barriers that stand in students’ way. When the pandemic hit, every staff member—from board members to custodians—was assigned a group of students to call weekly, a script to follow, and a template to report back on students’ needs. Students felt comfortable opening up about their challenges, and the college could connect them with supports, because of expectations and relationships built over several years.

Odessa College, also in Texas, has long held staff accountable for what it calls an “all-in” approach to engagement. Faculty adhere to four commitments: learn every student’s name in the first week, meet individually with every student, monitor them and intervene early if they struggle, and set high expectations while being flexible when challenges emerge. Connecting with every student during the pandemic was a natural extension of these commitments—and paid off with a remarkably low 2 percent course drop rate.

Excellent colleges have delivered high-quality online instruction because of thoughtful approaches to professional development already in place. Over the past few years, Tallahassee Community College, in Florida, devoted significant resources to training faculty members in active-learning pedagogy, redesigning classrooms, and providing technology to foster student engagement. Effective online course delivery—with library services and tutoring embedded in virtual classes—was a natural step in the work already underway.

Commitment to Racial Equity

Excellent colleges serve as engines of opportunity for all student populations, and they go to great lengths to understand what students of different backgrounds need to be successful. Through inclusive and culturally competent instruction, data analysis, and close partnerships in their communities, these colleges are on the front lines of closing racial outcomes and income gaps, at a time that structural racism in American institutions is getting long-overdue attention.

Over the last few years, West Kentucky Community and Technical College, in Kentucky, has deepened its relationships with local community organizations like the local NAACP and churches, as well as K-12 systems, to build trust in the college and to recruit more Black and Hispanic students. The college serves as a model of inclusion in its community, and because of this groundwork it will play an important role in building a stronger future for those hit hardest by the pandemic.

For over a decade, Pasadena City College, in California, has made equity a top priority, and the college has concrete goals for closing gaps among student groups. Faculty are highly engaged in a culture of continuous improvement in teaching; they regularly study data to see how students of different backgrounds are doing in their classes and engage in thoughtful professional development to improve their teaching, with a focus on inclusion and cultural competence.

Pierce College, in Washington, which also has long prioritized equity-mindedness and cultural competency—in hiring, professional development, and pedagogy—has recently taken its efforts a step further. The college has adopted a sharp focus on antiracism, hunting for and eliminating practices and policies that stand in the way of success for students of color.

Strategic Resource Allocation

Aspen Prize colleges have clearly established, evidence-based, and student-centered systems to make difficult financial choices. They spend money where it matters most: on student success.

For instance, Broward College, in Florida, revamped its budget system so that all requests must be supported by evidence on how they’ll contribute to improved student success outcomes. Savings from discontinued programs are going to the supports students need, like advising and tutoring—and the campus community is now accustomed to the kind of tough decisions that a pandemic and economic crisis occasion.

San Antonio College, in Texas, aligns all its spending with its strategic, student-centered priorities: advising, academic supports, and nonacademic supports. Every vacancy is filled only if it will advance these priorities; all work-study students have jobs either as peer advisors or tutors; and when the college eliminated part-time positions, it transferred employees to student success-focused jobs where possible.

Each of the 10 finalists for the 2021 Aspen Prize has demonstrated an impressive commitment to students, across a variety of contexts but all backed by strong outcomes. In a time of great uncertainty, these exceptional community colleges provide some confidence that the path forward will be brighter, because of the hard work they began many years ago.

Ben Barrett is a program manager with the College Excellence Program.