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CAEL Pathways Blog

CAEL Members Sweep 2023 Aspen Awards

The Aspen Institute recently presented the biannual Aspen Prize, and, much like CAEL, decided there was too much merit among its finalists for just one winner. As a result, CAEL members were doubly distinguished during the 2023 awards ceremony, with Amarillo College and Imperial Valley College sharing the achievement.

The Aspen Prize, inaugurated in 2011, recognizes community college excellence according to impact in six areas. They include 'teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer to four-year institutions, workforce, equitable outcomes for students of color and low-income students, and equitable college access.'

A two-year selection process winnowed a field of nearly 1,000 institutions to a cohort of 150. Deliberation began with a quantitative assessment of criteria including completion, retention, transfer, equity, and labor market outcomes.

These results, along with application responses and leadership interviews, further narrowed the field. Ten finalists hosted expert practitioners for two-day site visits.

Finally, an independent jury weighed the aggregate findings to determine a winner. (Or, in this case, two winners.)

There was broad agreement, however, that the triumph wasn't about besting rivals, but about exemplifying best practices. 'It's not a competition, it's a prize,' said Daniel R. Porterfield, president of the Aspen Institute, during the award presentation.

He hailed an impact that transcends even the $1 million award that accompanies the prize: a framework and a community where best practices are shared and transformational leadership is recognized, especially in critical areas like aligning curricula with job opportunities.

Several best practices that helped propel Amarillo College and Imperial Valley College to the Aspen Prize reflect the same commitment to adult learning evidenced by their CAEL membership.

Flexible Scheduling Earns Accolades for Both Colleges.
All Amarillo College students are required to use its highly praised tutoring service at least once during a semester. Tutoring also becomes mandatory whenever a student is struggling in a class mandatory for graduation.

But offering - or even requiring - a resource is one thing. As many adult learners can confirm, accessing it is another. Recognizing this, Amarillo College maintains inclusive operating hours at its tutoring center. It remains open until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Imperial Valley College consolidated scheduling functions within a new system that ranks student needs atop all the factors that determine the timing and frequency of classes. The new schedule features more weekend and evening courses to better serve adult learners.

At Amarillo College, data showed that students who didn't complete a class faced their greatest challenges at the midpoint of a 16-week semester. It implemented eight-week terms. About one quarter of students opted for the compressed schedule. Their completion rate improved by about 12%.

Student Support
But it doesn't matter how often a classroom is open for students if other barriers prevent them from even stepping through the door. Both institutions were recognized for attacking such challenges.

Amarillo College took on a goal of eliminating at least one poverty-based obstacle for each enrolled student. Its investments in student support include a child care center, on-site social workers, a food pantry, mobile WiFi service to mitigate the loss of library services during COVID, emergency aid, and mental health counseling.

The college has personified this commitment in a student archetype it calls Maria. Functioning as a data-informed muse, it keeps student-centric thinking top of mind. 'You can feel it on the campus as well as see it in the results,' said one award presenter.

Imperial Valley College also hosts a food pantry, and it offers subsidies to its own meal service. Also noted by the award process were its clothing resource, daycare, and veterans center.

Perhaps most unique among the wraparound services highlighted were the 26 tiny houses it hosts. The college erected them to address homelessness and other housing insecurities students face.

Linking Learning and Work
Work-relevant programs were also a distinguishing factor for the winners. Imperial Valley College has worked to instill awareness of education-employment pathways beginning with its growing K-12 partners. It places advisors in area high schools to encourage dual enrollment.

The effort has paid off. The college enrolls 60-80% of local high school graduates, a rate that one presenter said could be the highest ever recorded by Aspen and its partners.

Once they arrive at Imperial Valley College, students work with counselors to develop a comprehensive education plan. Its scope includes not only associate degree completion but also navigating the education and employment pathways that follow it. The college has forged productive articulation agreements with multiple four-year institutions. The partnerships are strategically aligned to support workforce and other community imperatives that depend on student success.

These efforts may have an outsize and welcome impact on the college's service area. The 4,500-square-mile border region faces some of the country's most challenging educational attainment and poverty trends. Transfer rates at Imperial Valley College increased 12 percentage points between 2015 and 2019. More than half of transfer students earn a bachelor's degree within six years, a rate comfortably above the national average.

Much like Imperial Valley College, Amarillo College serves communities facing socioeconomic challenges where equitable systemic workforce solutions hold much promise. Its service area includes both low-wage urban areas and a 26-county rural region. The Aspen Institute notes that 'The college student body is just about half students of color, and 39 percent of first-time, full-time students are Pell grant recipients.'

Praise for Amarillo College's career pathways support included recognition of Innovation Outpost, a program that helps to expedite student placement among regional growth occupations. Following a 10-week 'sprint' through the program, students are prepared for well-paying roles in areas that include software development, cybersecurity, technical project management, and data analytics.

According to the Aspen Institute, 'Programs like Innovation Outpost build on a strong baseline of excellent workforce programs that deliver jobs with good salaries: Amarillo College graduates earn, on average, $11,000 more one year after graduation than all new hires in the region.'

The college has also focused on partnerships with other postsecondary institutions. West Texas A&M is the destination of 80% of the college's transfer students. Accordingly, after a year of strategic partnership work, 'the two institutions are now better aligning course expectations, improving faculty and program leader relationships, and collaborating on advising strategies and student communications.'

Through another institutional partnership, it has helped address the rural nursing workforce shortage. Overall transfer rates are up eight percentage points in the past four years.

In accepting the Aspen Prize, both college presidents emphasized that their institutions' success was the product of community collaboration. 'We are a small rural community,' said Dr. Lennor M. Johnson, superintendent/president for Imperial Community College District. 'But we work together as a family.'

'Community colleges are uniquely situated to glue our communities together,' said Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College. He stressed that during tumultuous times, the college's focus remains on its community, its students, and, ultimately, on Maria. (Who just so happens to be an adult learner.)

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