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By Paul R. Bradley  /  
2017 March 14 - 04:15 pm

Tiny SD College Captures Aspen Prize

Lake Area Technical Institute Named Nation’s Top College

After nearly capturing the nation’s top prize for community colleges three consecutive times, Lake Area Technical Institute finally claimed it, winning the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

The tiny school in Watertown, S.D. — it enrolls just 1,900 students, most of them enrolled full-time — was praised for continuous improvement in two key areas: teaching students both technical and professional skills needed to succeed in the workplace, and closing the gap between the graduation rates of Pell Grant recipients and others.

“On every measure of community college excellence, Lake Area Technical Institute is firing on all cylinders,” said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. “Its outstanding graduation and job placement rates are a result of its deep commitment to ensure that all students thrive in the classroom and in great jobs after graduation. LATI and all the Prize finalists offer lessons for community colleges across the nation — large and small, rural and urban — on how to improve student success. In the end, the prize-winning colleges provide a blueprint for student-centered reform.”

For winning the prize, LATI receives $600,000 of a $1 million prize pool.

The Aspen Prize, awarded every two years since 2011, recognizes outstanding community colleges. The winner was selected from an original pool of more than 1,000 public community colleges nationwide. The prize assesses colleges in four areas: learning; certificate and degree completion; employment and earnings; and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students.

Aspen named two Florida colleges as finalists-with-distinction: Broward College and Indian River State College. Two Texas colleges were cited for their strong record of improvement and received the “Rising Star” award: Odessa College and San Jacinto College. Each of those colleges will receive $100,000 in prize funds.

LATI three times was named a finalist-with-distinction before breaking through with the top award this year.

The college held a watch party at the college’s Student Center, drawing students, administrators, staff and community members, according to the Watertown (S.D.) Public Opinion. Watch party attendees looked on quietly as the field was narrowed. They erupted in applause when the winner was announced. 

The awards were handed out at an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., by Aspen Prize Jury co-chairs Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, and former U.S. Rep. George Miller. Daniels and Miller led a Prize Jury made up of higher education experts. Their review process included examination of extensive data on performance and improvements in learning, graduation, workforce, and equitable outcomes. The jury visited each of the ten finalist institutions.

The jury found that LATI has a single-minded focus on ensuring that students succeed and are prepared for careers in good, available jobs. The college was praised for its highly structured programs of defined courses and hands-on educational approach, giving students a clear pathway to completion and graduation.

The jury found:

 • LATI has a 74 percent graduation/transfer rate, highest in 2017 Prize Finalist pool. It compares to 39 percent nationally.

  • 99 percent of graduates are employed after graduation.

  • The college has an 80 percent retention rate, compared to 52 percent nationally.

• On average, LATI graduates entering the workforce earn 27 percent more than other new hires in its region.

Previous winners of the Aspen Prize include: Santa Fe College (Fla.) in 2015; co-winners Santa Barbara City College (Calif.) and Walla Walla Community College (Wash.); Valencia College (Fla.) in 2011. Under Prize rules, former winners were not eligible to reapply this cycle.


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