It’s Valencia College, according to the Aspen Institute, which awarded the first annual Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence today at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the event, as did teachers and students from the ten finalists, which ranged from a 1,400-student technical college in South Dakota to Miami Dade College, the largest single public higher education institution in the country.
As I wrote this morning in a new Chronicle of Higher Education column, the point of the prize is not so much whether Valencia is better than Miami Dade, but rather building the larger notion of community college excellence. Because community colleges are generally indistinguishable along the dimensions we commonly use to distinguish four-year institutions–admissions selectivity, endowment wealth, research productivity, big-time sports–we tend to think of them as interchangeable. That’s crazy; with 1,200 autonomous institutions spread across the nation it’s surely the case that some are much better than others. Washington Monthly tackled the question of two-year excellence in its 2007 and 2010 community college rankings and profiles of high-performing two-years like Cascadia Community College and St. Paul College. Now Aspen has moved the ball further down the road. The universe of available community college information will expand in the future as the U.S. Department of Education acts on the recommendations of the Committee on Measures of Student Success and data from the new “gainful employment” regulations starts rolling in. With that information will come new perspectives on community college performance.
All of which means that in the future there will hopefully be nothing novel about naming a best community college; they will be part of the conversation about excellence along with everyone else with a mission to serve college students.