San Antonio takes the prize

By Matthew Dembicki

More about the winner of the 2021 Aspen Prize.

San Antonio College (SAC), which is one of five colleges in the Alamo Colleges District in Texas, is the winner of the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

When SAC President Robert Vela was told via Zoom that SAC was the winner, he put his hands together, closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and smiled, savoring the news for a moment.

“What a journey,” he said, thanking district Chancellor Mike Flores and the college’s board of trustees, faculty, staff and community partners for their contributions and commitment.

“Where we were six, seven years ago is not reflective of who we are. It was our pursuit of excellence to ensure that every one of our students knew what that looked like and felt like,” Vela said, adding: “This award will validate that for them.”

SAC will receive $600,000 from the $1 million purse, with $100,000 going to each of the three Finalists with Distinction — Broward College (Florida), San Jacinto College (Texas) and West Kentucky Community and Technical College — and $100,000 for the Rising Star award, which went to Amarillo College (Texas). The other top 10 Aspen Prize finalists were: Borough of Manhattan Community College (New York), Pierce College (Washington), Tallahassee Community College (Florida), Pasadena City College (California) and Odessa College (Texas).

Awarded every two years since 2011, the Aspen Prize recognizes outstanding institutions selected from a pool of more than 1,000 public community colleges nationwide. Among the previous prize winners, four were from Florida, including 2019 co-winners Indian River State College and Miami Dade College. The award honors institutions with outstanding achievement in six areas: teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer and bachelor’s attainment, workforce success, equity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and leadership and institutional culture.

Proven results

Aspen noted SAC’s full-range effort to help students, from faculty getting to know each and every student, to advisors guiding students through various systems.

“Throughout the college, leaders, faculty, and staff constantly analyze whether students are getting what they need — whether it’s math knowledge, child care, or useful information about their transfer destination — and adapt programs to meet the needs of their diverse student body. This commitment to continuous improvement yields results: In just five years, SAC’s graduation and transfer rate increased by almost 20 percentage points,” according to a brief about the winner and the four other top finalists.

SAC had a similar jump among its students of color, who comprise two-thirds of its students. Those students saw graduate and transfer rates increase from 25% in 2014 to 45% in 2018, exceeding the national average of 37% in 2018.

Even prior to the Aspen Award, SAC was gaining national attention for its efforts to improve student success. For example, Vela — who is a member of the board of directors of the American Association of Community Colleges — this month spoke at the Education Writers Association’s annual National Seminar. He highlighted his college’s efforts to stay connected with students, such as calling them on the phone, which helped maintain retention rates.

In 2018, the Alamo Colleges District received the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. The award is the nation’s only presidential-level honor for performance excellence in organizations.

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Matthew Dembicki

edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.