The email came “out of the blue,” soon followed by a letter, both announcing Clark as one of the top 150 community colleges in the country.
President Bob Knight said he was “pleasantly surprised” with the the unexpected news granting Clark eligibility for a national honor garnished with a $1 million award.
In a Jan. 26 press release, the Aspen Institute named 150 colleges as finalists for the 2017 biennial Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Colleges are judged on “student success in persistence, completion and transfer, consistent improvement in outcomes over time, and equity in outcomes for students of all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Aimed at improving policies and leadership at higher education institutions, Aspen created the College Excellence Program to increase positive student outcomes. As part of the program, the Aspen Prize came out of the White House in 2010 to inspire and boost competition between over 1000 community colleges.
Clark’s placement on the top 150 list is only the first stage of the competition. Institutions were invited to submit an application for the second stage, illustrating what their school has done to achieve and improve their student success rates.
Instead of automatically submitting an application, Knight and college leadership talked with past Washington state Aspen finalists to determine if moving forward would be worthwhile.
“We didn’t want to blindly go into this and spend a lot of effort, and not have it be worth it,” Knight said. “But it’s going to be worth it.”
Aspen will narrow down all stage-two applicants to ten finalists, from which the grand prize winner will be selected.
Knight said he doesn’t expect Clark to make the top ten in its first year of the competition. “It’s kind of like beauty pageants, where the contestants will typically apply a few times,” Knight said “They learn from the first process, and they get better as they go.”
Knight attributes part of Clark’s success to its Running Start program, the largest in the state.
Clark alumni Sarah Burpee said she benefited from Clark’s Running Start program, which enabled her to graduate from high school and college at the same time.
“I will always praise Clark’s running start program,” she said. “I got two years of college for almost nothing, and I get to graduate with my BA early because of it. I hope more people are willing to look into the program because of the award.”
Running Start student Freyja Rostad is looking to become a nurse, and said she would not be as confident and accomplished today if it weren’t for the program.
“During my CNA course, I met a girl who said without Running Start, she wouldn’t be here,” Rostad said. “And she was working to provide for her siblings. It fills me with a sense of wonder because I think everyone deserves an education, and with this program, this girl became one of the best CNAs I know.”
While Knight said the national recognition validates the hard work of Clark’s employees and what the school strives to achieve, he said he sees room for a lot of improvement, specifically among student retention rates.
Allison Mullis began her college career as an undecided major at Clark, but following a loss of passion, she put her schooling on hold to work full-time.
“I don’t plan to return to school anytime soon because there’s no spark or interest to do so,” she said. Mullis would like to see Clark adopt some events to help students explore career pathways and meet professionals working in different areas of expertise.
Knight hopes to require the introductory course College 101 for transfer students. Knight said the class is required at schools across the country and prepares students for college by showing them how to find what they need to be successful.
An educational and policy studies organization based in Washington D.C., Aspen Institute’s mission “is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues,” according to its website.
This is the first year Clark has been named in the top 150. Student retention and graduation rates were analyzed, with emphasis on performance, changes over time and equity, especially among underrepresented minorities and those of lower socioeconomic status.
“We want to continually improve, and we have a long ways to go, but the fact that we’re one of the top 150 is a nice recognition, and we’re very happy to hear about that,” Knight said.