Aspen Prize

Aspen Prize Nominee: Imperial Valley College

By Sarah Asp Olson

Students at this rural California college succeed, thanks to high-touch programs and faculty support.

The Aspen Institute recently announced 150 community colleges eligible for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. The prize recognizes community colleges that have achieved strong student outcomes in four primary areas: certificate and degree completion; student learning; employment and earnings; and success for minority and low-income students. While each eligible institution has proved its all-around excellence, the following series looks at member colleges with outstanding performance in one of the above areas. Here is the fourth installment, which focuses on success for minority and low-income students.

California’s rural Imperial Valley lies on the southernmost edge of the state, about 20 miles from the Mexican border. It’s a desert area with a significant migrant population, and one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Imperial County also has the highest percentage of English-language learners in the state of California: More than 40 percent of K–12 students in the county are not proficient in English.

As the county’s only community college, Imperial Valley College (IVC) serves a population with significant disadvantages, with exceptional results.

“Because of the conditions and the barriers many of our students face, it’s exemplary that we’re able to provide unique one-to-one student services to our students — whether you’re talking about counseling, tutoring, basic-skills workshops — that really assist students in succeeding in academic endeavors,” says IVC president Victor Jaime, himself an IVC grad.

IVC’s commitment to caring for students on an individual level is not just lip service. The college is seeing results in the form of increased completion, particularly over the past four academic years.

From the 2012–2013 school year, the number of degrees and certificates awarded to IVC students has increased by more than 38 percent. In fact, this year IVC will need to split up its graduation ceremony to accommodate all of the graduates and their supporters.

“That’s not because our enrollment has changed,” says Jaime, “but more of those enrolled are completing in a much quicker pace and more successfully.”

What’s the key to IVC’s success? Here are several areas in which IVC is excelling:

Getting to students early. About 60 percent of high school graduates from the Imperial Valley attend IVC, and it’s no accident. IVC staffers meet with students from eight feeder high schools during their senior year to help with everything from financial-aid applications to preparation for assessment testing.

High school students in the Imperial Valley also benefit from the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO programs, including Upward Bound and Talent Search, that are designed to help low-income Americans overcome barriers in order to “enter college, graduate, and move on to participate more fully in America’s economic and social life.”

Academic and emotional support. About 58 percent of IVC students are the first in their families to attend college. Even students who excel in high school and graduate at the top of the class often have trouble if they leave the Imperial Valley for college. “Many are right back in the spring,” says Jaime. “It’s not because they’re not academically prepared, but because they’re not emotionally prepared.”

IVC has made it a mission to prepare students both academically and emotionally to enter the workforce or successfully transition to a four-year institution. In addition to student support services and TRIO programs like tutoring, outreach, counseling and career services, IVC faculty and staff make it a point to work together and really get to know their students.

“The partnership between our teaching and nonteaching faculty looks at the whole student and provides an opportunity for intervention early on,” says Jaime. “[Students] are also very comfortable with our faculty. They know them. Being in a small community, they see them at the grocery store and so they establish long-term relationships. It’s more personalized, and that has helped our students become more successful.”

Partnerships for continued success. IVC has developed partnerships with four-year institutions like San Diego State University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona. Satellite campuses in the Imperial Valley offer seamless transitions to baccalaureate programs in high-demand fields like nursing and administration of justice, particularly for students who can’t leave the valley due to family obligations or other constraints.

IVC is also the first community college in the country to establish a partnership with a university in Mexico. CETYS University in the border city of Mexicali offers IVC graduates a number of fully accredited engineering programs leading directly to employment opportunities in Imperial Valley.

Sarah Asp Olson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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