Pierce Pioneer

Pierce College in the Aspen top ten

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Pierce College in the Aspen top ten

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A remarkable achievement

Founded in January 2010, the Aspen College Excellence Program has developed from a single project to a multi-aspects award in order to influence college and university practice. Once every two years since 2011, the Aspen Institute awards a $1 million prize to the nation’s highest performing community college. Pierce College Fort Steilacoom has been selected as a nominee to win the prize in 2019.

The process of achieving the Aspen Prize is extremely competitive, especially when the scale of this competition spans the entire U.S. From 1000 community colleges throughout the United States, the Aspen Institute looks at national data given by institutional performances, then works with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to select 150 candidates that are eligible for the second round. 

On May 15, 2018, the Aspen Institute announced the 10 finalists for the 2019 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Next, Aspen began working with educational experts to visit and collect more data and information about the 10 selected colleges. 

In April 2019, the Aspen Institute will decide which school will receive the $1 million prize. Two or three finalists with distinction and a “Rising Star” prize for exceptional levels of improvement will also be awarded. Among the selected finalists, Pierce College is one out of three colleges that are first-time contenders.

Nick Nelson / Staff Photo

This prize is given based on four areas: 

  • Student learning 
  • Certificate and degree completion
  • Employment and earnings, and high levels of access and success for minority 
  • Low-income students

According to Holly Smith, Pierce College Dean of Arts and Humanities, being a first time finalist is not an easy achievement. It is a great honor which the college shares with nine other colleges. 

The fact that Pierce is able to be on the same page as the other finalists, most of which have been finalists in the past few years, is a reflection of the hard work the college has been doing for its students. Many colleges were selected, but one of the reasons Pierce was selected is due to the population and diversity.

Another reason Pierce has to be proud is that it focuses completely on students’ success, and therefore offers a variety of resources to help more and more students succeed. According to Smith, all faculty members are passionate about continuing the spirit of moving forward, dedication to hard work and making changes to benefit students.

The Aspen Institute also considered Pierce College for the prize because the college acknowledges that there is more innovation and work that needs to be done. 

“You’ll never be done improving. When one challenge is solved, another one comes up,” Smith said. “Those of us here are committed to that long-term continuous improvement, just like our students are.” 

She said, “We have come to believe that we have the power to change things. Many challenges come up since we create them, so then we can fix ourselves as higher education institution, so we can offer better services to students, rather than saying, ‘the students need to be fixed’.”

Michele Johnson, Pierce College Chancellor and CEO, thinks being a top 10 finalist is an outstanding success. She also thinks it was achieved through the population and diversity of students studying at Pierce.

The college has boosted the number of students who are being retained; those who are fighting for the goal – which is seeking for degrees – and who either continue on to transfer schools, or go directly to work. 

Personally, Johnson believes that is why the Aspen Committee is impressed with the process that Pierce College is conducting as well as its willingness to improve. 

Even though she does not have a clear idea on how the money will be distributed, the Chancellor said that if the criteria allow, the majority of the prize money will go into the Student Success Campaign. The Chancellor emphasized that Pierce College has gained many valuable experiences by being more focused on students and students’ success. 

In addition, the college gets the chance to improve its quality every single day. However, Johnson said, “We are not looking to be too ambitious about the prize. Even if we don’t win the money, the fact that Pierce College is a first-time top 10 finalist, and has been able to advance in many aspects, that is one of the greatest successes we have ever had.”

For more information about Aspen finalists: www.aspeninstitute.org/news/press-release/2019-aspen-prize-finalists/

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