$1 million prize recognizes outstanding community colleges from across the nation
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today the Aspen Institute named San Jacinto College one of the 10 finalists for the 2023 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence — an honor that follows the College's recognition as an Aspen Prize Finalist with Distinction in 2021, Aspen Prize Finalist in 2019, and Aspen Prize Rising Star in 2017.
The $1 million Aspen Prize is the nation's signature recognition of community colleges that are achieving high and equitable outcomes for students. The 10 finalists represent the amazing potential of the more than 1,100 community colleges across the country as engines of prosperity and social mobility. San Jacinto College has distinguished itself in innovative instructional and student support strategies and leads the nation in Hispanic student degrees, the use of data collection and analysis, and workforce and economic development.
"It is truly an honor to again be recognized by the Aspen Institute as a top 10 finalist for the Aspen Prize," said San Jacinto College Chancellor Dr. Brenda Hellyer. "These past two years have been unlike any we have ever seen in education, and I am proud of the hard work and dedication of our faculty, our staff, and our administration. They never lost sight of our goal to support students from entry to completion of credentials. The goals for our graduates are that they earn family-sustaining wages in careers or transfer to a university with no loss of credits. This recognition speaks to the commitment of everyone at San Jacinto College to ensure our students have every opportunity to complete their education goals."
San Jacinto College was recognized by the Aspen Institute for its support of students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within one week, the College moved to altered operations, shifting most courses to an online format with all employees working remotely. The College was uniquely positioned to move quickly to a fully remote operation because of work on instructional continuity and recovery due to Hurricanes Ike and Harvey. Lock boxes were placed at strategic locations so students could drop off documents. Capacity for counseling was increased as students juggled the school/work/life balance. Laptops were distributed to students who had significant needs for them, and Wi-Fi hotspots were created in College parking lots for those who did not have access at home. The food markets, a collaboration with the Houston Food Bank, increased their production and provided a drive-through option for students. Faculty and staff were provided with professional development to help them as well.
"We leaned in to our prior experience in this area to move our entire catalog of classes online when the pandemic hit," said Dr. Laurel Williamson, San Jacinto College deputy chancellor and College president. "It was a complete team effort from every faculty and staff member to ensure a seamless transition from in-person to online courses so that students could complete the semester on time."
The Aspen Institute also recognized San Jacinto College for its work around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
"There have been several events in our country that prompted a need for us to take a deeper examination of our current practices, attitudes, and actions," added Hellyer. "As a result, we revised our College values and annual priorities, while adding additional staff to focus on faculty and staff development, hiring processes, and engaging external stakeholders in our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. This has become a true commitment for San Jacinto College."
College-wide discussions around equity began in late October 2020 and continue today. Guest speakers and lecturers have joined San Jacinto College in these discussions, equity chats were held with all College employees, and a Chautauqua Lecture Series was initiated to provide in-depth information and responses to questions that came up in the equity chats. A deep dive into College data has occurred to identify achievement gaps among cohorts of students. These have all led to a focus on instructional and student support strategies that address the challenges students face and set them up for success.
Another point that the Aspen Institute contributed to San Jacinto College's top 10 finalist recognition is its commitment to making higher education accessible to all students. In May 2021, San Jacinto College received the largest gift in school history — a $30 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and her husband, Dan Jewett.
"This gift was transformational for San Jacinto College and our community," said Hellyer.
The donation came during the pandemic, a time when many families were struggling due to illness, job loss, and other challenges. San Jacinto College used a portion of the donated funds to create the 21 Forward Scholarship, providing every 2021 high school graduate in the College's taxing district an opportunity to attend college for up to three years debt-free. The remainder of the funds are being used to establish the Student Success Endowment to fund Promise @ San Jac Scholarships.
Three years ago San Jacinto College launched Promise @ San Jac in conjunction with three high schools in Pasadena ISD. With the Scott donation, the College can expand the Promise Scholarship to every high school senior who lives in the taxing district regardless of income or high school GPA.
"With the pandemic revving its gears, I had financial concerns about my college experience because no one knew what would happen next," said Promise Scholar Cynthia Jennings. "That's when the Promise @ San Jac Scholarship was introduced to me. It was a sense of stability in an ever-changing world."
Jennings went on to be accepted into the San Jacinto College nursing program, and she has made the dean's list every in each semester. She is now actively involved in Phi Theta Kappa Mu Omicron, where she went from secretary to her current position as vice president.
"The success of our students truly is at the heart of everything we do here at San Jacinto College," added Hellyer. "I look forward to continuing to work with the Aspen Institute to showcase the critical work that is happening here."
Next steps in the Aspen Prize selection include multi-day site visits to each of the 10 finalists to gather insights about effective practices, a review by a distinguished jury to select the Aspen Prize winner, and a late spring 2023 announcement of the Aspen Prize winner.
"We're grateful to all the experts who have helped Aspen identify these impressive colleges," said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. "We can't wait to dive in to learn more about how they have achieved these measurable student outcomes so we can share what we learn with the field."
The 10 Aspen Prize finalists represent the impressive diversity of community colleges across the nation. No matter their size or location, excellent community colleges, like San Jacinto College, are defined by their focus on outcomes and how they develop the talents of their students in ways that strengthen their regional economies and communities.
The Aspen Prize selection process began in October 2021, when the Aspen Institute worked with an expert data panel to craft a formula to assess student outcomes at nearly 1,000 community colleges in key areas such as retention, completion, transfer, and equity. Based on those data, Aspen invited 150 top community colleges to apply and received 109 applications. A selection committee of 16 higher education experts reviewed applications, including extensive data and narratives on student success strategies. From the 25 highest ranking colleges, announced as semifinalists in April, the committee met in May to choose the 10 Aspen Prize finalists.
The Aspen Prize finalists are:
The Aspen Prize is generously funded by Ascendium, the Joyce Foundation, JP Morgan, and the Kresge Foundation. Previous winners are:
The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program aims to advance higher education practices, policies, and leadership that significantly improve student outcomes, especially for the growing population of low-income students and students of color on American campuses. For more information, visit the Aspen Institute website and follow@AspenHigherEd on Twitter.
The Aspen Institute is a community-serving organization with global reach whose vision is a free, just, and equitable society. For 70 years, the institute has driven change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the world's greatest challenges. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the institute has offices in Aspen, Colorado, and New York City, and an international network of partners. For more information, visit www.aspeninstitute.org.
About San Jacinto College
Surrounded by monuments of history, evolving industries, maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has served the people of East Harris County, Texas, since 1961. San Jacinto College is among the top five community colleges in the nation as designated by the Aspen Institute for Community College Excellence, and was named an Achieving the Dream Leader College of Distinction in 2020. The College spans five campuses serving approximately 41,000 credit and non-credit students annually, and offers more than 200 degrees and certificates across eight major areas of study that put students on a path to transfer to four-year institutions or enter the workforce. San Jacinto College's impact on the region totals $1.3 billion in added income, which supports 13,044 jobs. The College is fiscally sound, holding bond ratings of AA and Aa2 by Standard & Poor's and Moody's.