Aspen Award-Winning Community College Presidents Discuss Institutional Excellence, Economic Development

Aspen Award-Winning Community College Presidents Discuss Institutional Excellence, Economic Development​The presidents of the 2013 co-winners of the prestigious Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence shared their institutions’ success stories during the 2014 USA Funds® Symposium.

Lori Gaskin, president of Santa Barbara City College, and Steven VanAusdle, president of Walla Walla Community College, spoke on “The President’s Role in Growing the Economy and Creating Tomorrow’s Jobs.”

The fabric of institutional excellence

More important to institutional excellence than individual programs, Gaskin said, is the institution’s culture and fabric. At Santa Barbara City College, she said, that fabric is “a culture of inquiry, action and innovation.”

The college celebrates its role as an open-access institution that enrolls “the top 100 percent of students.” Gaskin said the institution “embraces as scholars from the day they enter the college” its diverse student population. That  population includes first-generation students, returning  veterans, dually enrolled students, students with no family support, those with limited English skills, high school dropouts, household heads re-entering the workforce, the newly unemployed, and former foster youth.

Among the threads of Santa Barbara City College’s fabric, Gaskin cited the following:

  • Distributed leadership. “Everyone is a leader; everyone has a voice,” she said. “That voice is very powerful when you’re creating innovation, when you’re encouraging action and you’re empowering inquiry.”
  • Intrinsic urgency. “We know what is good and effective practice. And we want to do it, and we want to scale it. And we want to touch 25,000 students, and nothing is going to hold us back,” she said.
  • Student engagement and connection to the institution. “We married long ago academic and student affairs,” Gaskin reported. “They’re not siloed at all. They are very much integrated, both in our leadership as well as our programmatic aspects.”
  • Structured pathway. “We’re very focused on programs that structure the on-ramp to college for that first-year experience, but even before the first-year experience,” the Santa Barbara City College president said. “Structure the on-ramp and structure the pathway, so that it’s very prescribed, very purposeful and very deliberate.”
  • Importance of college readiness. Gaskin noted that the college provides every ninth-grade student in the four unified school districts it serves a semester-long course that results in a 10-year academic and career plan. The plan is updated in each subsequent year of high school.

Community college as economic development agent

VanAusdle stressed the important role that postsecondary institutions can play in promoting local, regional and national economic growth.

“Our vision is to be a catalyst in transforming the lives of our students and also transforming the communities we serve,” VanAusdle said. “So we’re stepping up and saying we are, in our area, a leading agency in economic development. And only if we do that will our students have opportunities.”

VanAusdle cited several examples of how Walla Walla Community College has both enhanced student opportunities and contributed to economic and environmental success stories in the region it serves.

  • Through its Center for Enology and Viticulture and related initiatives, the college played a central role in reinventing the agricultural community of the region to become a leading winemaking area.  “As a result of this center and what else was going on, we created over 6,000 jobs,” VanAusdle said. “We anticipate that to be about 9,000 by 2020, and it’s had about a $230 million impact on the functional economy that we identified.”
  • Through its water and conservation center, the college has contributed to recovery of salmon in the region. “We had 800 miles of spawning beds in our district, absolutely blocked to salmon,” VanAusdle reported. “We created education and training programs, working with the confederated tribes [of the Umatilla Indian Reservation] and attracted the money to come into the region and remove that barrier. So now for the first time in a hundred years, you have salmon coming into these spawning beds.”
  • Agricultural students are incubating a new business that VanAusdle reported is “going to revolutionize how we test water quality and do soil analysis.”
  • The college created the concept of innovative partnership zones, where colleges come together with business and industry to create a shared vision for the region to foster a healthy economy and healthy environment.
  • The college enrolls 1,600 students through two comprehensive programs it offers at correctional institutions. The school used private funds to start the programs, and the college now is able to track inmates as they leave the institutions to enroll in college and seek employment.

“I want you to think about this as you do business on your campus,” VanAusdle told the gathering. “You have some opportunities to reach beyond your campus, stretch your mission and your interest in your students.”