College of the Ouachitas among 10 finalists vying for Aspen Prize

By Wayne Bryan Published September 9, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan / Tri-Lakes Edition

Stephen Schoonmaker, president of College of the Ouachitas, smiles as he tells the faculty that the school is one of 10 finalists for a national award for leading students to success. The award, from the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., gives the winning school a share of a $1 million fund.

— The College of the Ouachitas, a community college in Malvern, has been named one of 10 finalists for a national award that carries a share of a $1 million prize, to be awarded in March.

“We are in very good company,” COTO President Stephen Schoonmaker said. “This is a tremendous honor. Our faculty have a competitive spirit and are proud of what we do.”

Schoonmaker made the announcement before members of the faculty and some students in the school-entrance hallway.

“I get to go places where I am told we do a great job,” he told the gathering. “This kind of national recognition is really a reflection of all of you.”

The college, once known as Ouachita Technical College, was selected from an original pool of more than 1,000 community colleges. A list of 120 top community colleges was revealed in May by the Aspen Institute as being considered for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Now the number has dwindled to 10.

The prize recognizes institutions “for achievements in student learning, college completion, labor market success in students finding jobs after college, and minority and low-income student success,” according to the official announcement from the institute in Washington, a national organization that “encourages new ideas that define a good society.”

Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s college excellence program, praised the Malvern college for its work in the area.

“The College of the Ouachitas is making sure students have the best chance to succeed, both in completing their degrees and getting a good job after graduation,” he said. “Its leadership is listening to both its students and to the needs of local businesses, looking closely at data and consistently improving programs based on what it sees and hears.”

Schoonmaker said Aspen Institute representatives will conduct a site visit to the school Oct. 29 and 30 and will meet with administrators and faculty. Members of the institute will also gather data from the state on graduates’ success in finding jobs and review the practices used at the school.

“This will probably remind many of you about the recent accreditation review done last year,” Schoonmaker told the teachers.

The college president said the honor is a result of the efforts made by the faculty and staff.

“All those extra hours you put into preparing for a class, to update the curriculum, to helping a student who needs assistance, for flaming the sparks of their dreams of getting an education — those efforts you have done are being recognized,” Schoonmaker said.

June Prince, a psychology teacher and former vice president for planning and assessment at the college, said she is excited by the announcement that the school is a finalist for the award.

“This college is one of the best-kept secrets of this community,” she said. “We offer so much here for those seeking a quality education. It took us years to put things in place, and it is very good we have made it this far.”

After the site visits to all 10 schools, a distinguished prize jury, co-chaired by John Engler, president of Business Roundtable, former Michigan governor and former president of the National Association of Manufacturers; and Richard Riley, former South Carolina governor and former U.S. secretary of education, will select a grand-prize winner and four runners-up, to be announced in March 2013.

Schoonmaker talked about the possibility of COTO winning the prize money. He said that last year, the winning school received $600,000, and four other finalists received $100,000 each.

“We would invest in the campus and programs to improve the work we’re now doing to help students be successful employees when they complete their education here,” he said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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