San Antonio College won the top prize Tuesday from The Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program based on the school's recently improved graduation and transfer rates and its changes to student advising. The award comes with $600,000.
The Aspen Prize, which is awarded every two years, highlights community colleges that have developed practices that improve student success and can be adopted by other institutions.
Three other community colleges — Broward, San Jacinto and West Kentucky Community and Technical colleges — were named top finalists. Amarillo College also won an award for rapid improvement. The four schools will receive $100,000 each.
The Aspen Institute selected San Antonio as its top winner because of its work in recent years improving student services and adopting guided pathways, an approach that aims to raise retention and completion rates through intensive advising and highly structured programs.
Ruth Williams-Brinkley, president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of the Mid-Atlantic States, applauded San Antonio's advising model during a broadcast of the award ceremony Tuesday, noting that a single adviser sticks with a student throughout their education and supplies them with "crystal clear maps" of which classes to take.
San Antonio has created 1,000 transfer advising guides with around a dozen four-year colleges, according to an op-ed by an official with the College Excellence Program. The guides detail which courses students must take in order to transfer with junior standing into the major of their choice.
These efforts have translated into improved student outcomes at the college. More than half of students (52%) graduate or transfer from San Antonio within three years, an improvement of almost 20 percentage points within five years, said Williams-Brinkley, who co-chaired the prize jury.
"It's overwhelming," San Antonio President Robert Vela said during the broadcast. "Where we were six, seven years ago is not reflective of who we are."
Another college in Texas, Amarillo, won the Rising Star award, which recognizes schools that made rapid improvements in their student outcomes.
The institute called out the college's efforts to help prevent poverty from being a barrier to student success. Amarillo offers an array of on-campus resources for students, including a food pantry, a clothes closet, childcare assistance and help applying for public benefits, according to a 2019 report from The Hope Center.