Nice Money, But How Do You Get It? The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence

Approximately 40 percent of all students who go to college attend a community college. But as the Joyce Foundation points out, “The nation’s community colleges are under-recognized, underappreciated, and undervalued—and many are also underperforming.” To show its support for community colleges around the country, the Joyce Foundation a few years back helped create the $1 million Aspen Prize to community colleges that stand up for their students and stand out in the crowd.

The inaugural winner of the Aspen Prize for Community College excellence went to Orlando, Florida’s Valencia College in 2011. Valencia took $600,000 of that grant money, while four runners-up took $100,000 each. Santa Barbara City College and Walla Walla Community College received Aspen Prizes in 2013. A $1 million prize is awarded every two years to community colleges that excel in student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings, and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students. The Joyce Foundation is joined by the Aspen Institute, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation to fund each Aspen Prize.

“Community colleges represent a uniquely American idea – that if you work hard and get a good education, you can get the skills you need for a good job and build a better life for you and your family,” wrote Second Lady and community college instructor, Dr. Jill Biden when the last prize was announced. “Community colleges are often unsung heroes in their work to expand opportunities, offer intensive preparation for careers, and provide an affordable and effective option for many students.”

Support for community colleges aligns with the Joyce Foundation’s Industry Training Partnerships initiative, which is actually part of the employment grantmaking program, not the education program. Joyce’s education program focuses on much younger students, the K-3 demographic, and teacher quality in K-12 education. On the flip side, Joyce’s employment program aims to boost occupational education for underprepared adults in the labor market. A significant part of this strategy is to build partnerships and create certifications between community colleges and industry associations. Proposals can be emailed to the Joyce staff at, but keep in mind that Joyce’s employment program does not accept proposals that support direct service programs. The program’s geographic focus is the Midwest, and target metropolitan regions are Chicago, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Aspen Prize judges winnow approximately 1,000 potential candidate community colleges down to 150 based on criteria like student success in persistence, degrees awarded, completion, transfer, consistent improvement in these areas over time, and equitable outcomes for students of all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Ten finalists are selected in round two, and one winner and up to four finalists-with-distinction are chosen in round three. For the 2015 prize round, the Data Metrics Advisory Panel, which works with the National Center for Education Management Systems, has already picked the top 150 prize contenders. To learn more about the prize, check out The Aspen Institute’s Community College Excellence Program.