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Aspen names 120 top community colleges

The Aspen Institute has named 120 top community colleges in 32 states that will be considered for the $1 million Aspen Prize for community college excellence.

These colleges already have shown high student success rates, consistent improvement over time and “equity in outcomes for students of all racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

There are 14 Florida community colleges in the top 120, double the total for New York state. None of Tennessee’s highly effective technical training centers made the list; perhaps they didn’t qualify as community colleges.

The Joyce and Lumina Foundations, and the charitable foundations of Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase are helping fund the prize.

It’s “unfortunate” that colleges will have to compete with each other for a paltry $1 million, writes Valerie Strauss on the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet. “Success” can’t be defined clearly for all schools, she argues. And $1 million won’t draw much public attention these days.

Contests and fund-raisers can be fun and they can come with the most honorable of motivations.

But they should never be a substitute for strong, smart policy that provides resources and commitment and attention where they are needed and that does not rely on corporations or nonprofits with agendas for inspiration or cash.

Strauss thinks best practices are no mystery, pointing to Challenges and Opportunities for Improving Community College Student Success, a review of research that discusses “learning communities, dual enrollment and incentive programs, and financial aid reforms.”

These are popular, but not proven, ideas for improving graduation rates.  Excellence is more elusive than Strauss thinks.