By Joe Wyatt
Amarillo College, a Top 10 finalist for the 2021 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, was recognized in a virtual award ceremony as one of the Top 5 community colleges nationally and captured Aspen’s Rising Star Award and the $100,000 prize that goes with it.
The $1 million Aspen Prize, awarded every two years since 2011, recognizes outstanding institutions selected from more than 1,000 community colleges nationwide. The top honor, the Aspen Prize itself, went to some fellow Texans at San Antonio College.
However, Amarillo College, which had never before reached Aspen’s list of 125 semifinalists – much less its prestigious list of Top 10 finalists – was lauded during the ceremony as one of higher education’s true Rising Stars while being included among the Top 5 nationwide.
The Aspen Prize assesses performance in six areas: teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer and bachelor’s attainment, workforce success, equity in access and success for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, and leadership and institutional culture.
The Rising Star award recognizes colleges with rapidly improving student outcomes.
“To receive this level of recognition in only our first year as an Aspen finalist is beyond gratifying; for it validates the decisive leadership of our Regents and the Herculean efforts of our faculty and staff, each of whom have ceaselessly striven to love our students to success,” AC President Russell Lowery-Hart said.
“While we momentarily bask in the glow of this great honor, we know it is not the accolade itself that is worthy of celebration but the innumerable Amarillo College student success stories that it represents. That is what we strive for; that’s what we will truly cherish.”
Over five years, the college adopted significant, scaled student success reforms and focused on lifting students out of poverty. In that time, the graduation rate rose from 27 percent in 2014 to 45 percent in 2018, on par with the national average. Over those years, the college’s graduation rate for students of color increased from 23 percent to 43 percent, surpassing the national average, which is 37 percent.
“Amarillo College’s commitment to meeting students’ needs inside and outside the classroom permeates every corner of the college, in profoundly tangible ways,” said Linda Perlstein, a director at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. “The college’s crusade against poverty and culture of caring are made possible through concrete, effective supports and initiatives.”
AC is nationally recognized for its robust web of social services. It doesn’t just offer supports – all faculty and staff understand that it’s their job to look out for students and connect them to what they need. This dedication is also evident in the college’s approach to reform: rapidly scaling up proven strategies, such as changes to developmental education for students with remedial needs, to serve the most students possible.
“Amarillo College no longer sees itself solely as an educational institution, but as a bulwark against poverty…” Hrabowski said at today’s ceremony. “Policies and programs are built with close attention to student voice and student experience.”
In offering congratulations to the Aspen Prize finalists today, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said, “Each of your institutions is helping to transform the lives of a diverse and deserving group of students. … This year’s finalists are an impressive roster of innovative and inclusive institutions that put student success at the core of all they do.”