Harper, ECC semifinalists for $1 million Aspen Prize for community college excellence
Harper College in Palatine and Elgin Community College are among 25 semifinalists for the 2023 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, officials announced Wednesday.
They are the only two Illinois colleges to make the semifinalist list, which is new this year. Nominees will be whittled to 10 finalists by early June.
The Aspen Institute will award $1 million in prize money to the ultimate winner/winners, to be announced in late spring 2023.
Awarded every two years, the Aspen Prize honors colleges with outstanding performance in five critical areas: teaching and learning; certificate and degree completion; transfer and bachelor's attainment; workforce success; and equitable outcomes for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
No Illinois college has ever won the prize since its inception in 2011.
"To have our commitment to excellence and equity in student success recognized by such a respected organization is a tremendous honor," Harper President Avis Proctor said.
Proctor credits the college's inclusive environment, focus on the student experience from onboarding to graduation and beyond, initiatives and scholarships targeting minority and low-income students, and job placement opportunities as among the reasons for its inclusion on Aspen's list.
One such example is Harper's One Million Degrees program, which provides financial resources, academic support and coaching to low-income students. Graduation rates for the program's Latinx and Black scholars are 70% and 73%, respectively. Program participants also persisted from fall 2019 to fall 2020 at 98%.
Improving students' persistence, retention and completion rates through academic support, tutoring and mentoring are primary areas of focus, Proctor said.
"In our strategic plan, we have committed to reducing equity gaps by 20%, increasing graduation by 10%," she said. "Removing barriers is another one of our student success goals."
ECC has been chosen for a record fourth time among the top 150 colleges considered for the recognition, partly for showing improvement in student performance, particularly among Black and Hispanic students and those from lower-income backgrounds, college spokeswoman Rita Elliott said.
The college-selection process began in October. The Aspen Institute invited 150 community colleges to apply out of more than 1,000 institutions nationwide based on data showing strong and improving student performance in key areas: retention, completion, transfer and equity. A selection committee of 16 diverse higher education experts reviewed the data and applications.
The committee will review interviews with college leadership teams and narrow its finalist selection.
"It's a great day for us," ECC President David Sam said. "We are very proud and humbled by it."
College completion is one area where ECC has made great strides, he added.
"Over the last 15 years we have awarded more degrees and certificates (53.3%) than the previous 58 years of the college's history," Sam said.
The college has awarded a total 66,023 degrees and certificates in its 73-year history.
"It is a salute to what takes place in the classrooms at ECC," Sam said.
Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, said graduation rates have risen more than 6% for all students since 2015, and 5% for students of color.
"We are thrilled to see America's community colleges making meaningful and measurable progress, educating people from all backgrounds and preparing them for good jobs," Wyner said.