By Caleb Remington
Whatcom Community College is currently in the running to receive the nationally-esteemed Aspen Prize in 2015. The Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization located in Washington D.C., awards the Aspen Prize every two years to a community or technical college that shows exceptional rates of student success.
Whatcom is among the 150 finalist schools recognized by the Aspen Institute as well as one of six schools nominated from Washington state for the $1 million award.
According to the Aspen Institute’s website, the Aspen Prize’s purpose is to “honor excellence, stimulate innovation, and clearly define what success looks like [in colleges].”
The Aspen Institute is dedicated to promoting leadership and aims to “foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues,” according to its website.
The nomination for the Aspen Prize is based on a variety of factors that measure a school’s level of student success.
Graduation rates, first-year student retention rates, and transfer rates are all considered, as are levels of minority student success and a school’s improvement over time in these categories, Whatcom’s Dean for Instruction Ed Harri said.
First-year student retention rates are the number of first-year college students who complete their first year and return the next year. Whatcom has roughly a 70 percent first-year student retention rate, Harri said.
Whatcom currently has a three-year degree completion plus transfer rate of 45 percent, he added. The three-year degree plus transfer rate is both the percentage of students who receive a degree or certificate within three years (32 percent) and the students who transfer but still complete a degree within three years (13 percent).
Whatcom has seen “some sizeable increases” in these areas over the last few years, Harri said.
Whatcom provides a variety of free student services as well as unique courses to help students succeed, including the math and writing centers, the library and the student access lab, Harri said. He added that the college tries to keep as many services available for students as possible.
Student success courses, such as Educational Planning 100, are offered at Whatcom for first-time college students. Educational planning is a class designed to help students who “really don’t know anything about the structure [of college] and don’t know anything about financial planning, degree planning, all of those things,” Harri said. “[It is] a course to help those students be prepared.”
The 2013 Aspen Prize co-winners were Santa Barbara City College and Walla Walla Community College.
Walla Walla Community College used part of its winnings to hire “completion coaches,” Harri said. These coaches work with students struggling to find motivation or encouragement to complete their degree, he explained.
If Whatcom wins the prize, “I would hope the money would benefit both students that are just walking in the door and students that have been here for a while and just need a little help to get over the final hump to completion,” Harri said.
The selection process for the winning school goes through three phases.
The first phase was selecting 150 schools from the over 1,000 eligible schools from around the United States.
Whatcom’s recognition among the 150 schools is impressive, said Whatcom’s Director for Marketing and Communication Mary Vermillion. “The recognition itself is significant, it’s a valuable measure of the good work that’s being done by the people here at the college and so that, in of itself, is great,” she said.
To select the first round of finalists, the Aspen Institute puts together a data panel that takes information provided by the National Board of Education along with census data and combines it with demographics of the school’s area.
In Whatcom’s case, the board considered the median income and minority population of Whatcom County and compared these numbers with the number of people with degrees in the community and the employment rate, Harri said.
After the 150 finalist schools are chosen, each school is invited to submit an application stating how they have improved student success along with data and statistics backing their claims.
The application explains how the school is working to improve success rates and what “you do specifically as a college to support low-income students and students of color,” Harri said.
A Finalist Selection Committee is then formed to narrow the 150 finalist schools down to one winner and up to four “finalists-with-distinction.” The committee is made up of former community college presidents, policy experts, and researchers.
The Aspen Prize winner will be announced in March 2015.
“If we won, we could do all kinds of amazing things with the money that furthers the good work that we’re already doing [here at Whatcom],” Vermillion said.