WASHINGTON — It was a high-profile day for a low-profile local institution: the community college, with ten community colleges around the country honored Monday at the National Press Club as part of the competition for the first $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.
Valencia College of Orlando, Fla., was the big winner, with a $600,000 award. Four other finalists each received $100,000: Miami Dade College of Miami, Walla Walla Community College of Washington state, West Kentucky Community and Technical College of Paducah and Lake Area Technical Institute of Watertown, South Dakota. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and four other finalists received glass trophies.
Jill Biden, wife of the vice president and a community college instructor, joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Aspen Institute chief executive officer Walter Isaacson at the luncheon event.
"Community colleges are the best kept secret in America," Biden said. "As a teacher, I am fortunate to be in the classroom every week and able to see firsthand the tremendous impact community colleges have on so many students."
"This is community college's day in the sun," said Duncan, who said President Barack Obama's goal of having 8 million more U.S. college graduates by 2020 relies heavily on community colleges to graduate 5 million.
"All of you are winners," he said before the prize was announced. "I don't care who gets the Aspen Prize. Community colleges are the answer for people trying to take the next step up the economic ladder."
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College president Mary Graham accepted the trophy and, asked whether she was disappointed not to win a prize with award money, said, "No, I'm not disappointed at all. Just to be part of the process was quite an honor. It catapults the role of the community college to the forefront."
According to the school's citation: "This college is a national model for linking its degree programs with the workforce needs of Gulf Coast employers, and for taking special care to serve America's war veterans and their families." The college is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Miami Dade College, which is the largest educational institution in the country with 174,000 students across eight campuses, was recognized for graduating more Hispanic students every year than any other college.
"Statistically speaking, I should not be here," said Miami Dade freshman Angie Flores, 19, who spoke on a panel at the event. She noted that 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school and that of 3.2 million young people ages 16 to 24 years old, 2.2 million do not go to college. Flores also introduced Biden.
The colleges were judged by former Secretary of Education and former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley and former Michigan Gov. John Engler.
The Aspen Institute, an independent think tank, sponsored the award after a year-long review of 1,000 community colleges and determined the finalists on four criteria: student learning, degree completion and transfer, the number of minority and disadvantaged students that study at an institution and employment/earnings after college.
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