No prize money for COTO, but pride abounds

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published March 31, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 29, 2013 at 10:43 a.m.
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Stephen Schoonmaker, seen here early in 2012 settling into his office as president of the College of the Ouachitas in Malvern, attended a March 19 event of the Aspen Institute to see if his college had been declared the best community college in the United States by the organization. While COTO did not garner that title, the school is rated among the top 10 two-year colleges in the nation.

While there was no $1 million prize, the students, faculty and administration of College of the Ouachitas are proud to be ranked in the top 1 percent of the two-year colleges in the nation.

The college in Malvern was selected in April 2012 from the more than 1,000 community colleges in the country by the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., for the school’s achievements in student success.

In September, the institute reported that College of the Ouachitas had been ranked as one of the top 10 community colleges in the U.S. and was a finalist for a share of a prize award of up to $1 million.

“It is an honor to be included in this group,” Stephen Schoonmaker, president of the College of the Ouachitas, said when the school’s selection was announced. “This is not something you can apply to or get nominated for; it is based on data and performance. It is a result of the work the faculty and staff have done over the last few years.”

The COTO president was in Washington on March 19 for the Aspen Institute event, where the winners would be named.

“The event culminates an amazing year-long journey of data analysis, recognition, self-reflection, inspections and jury deliberations,” he said the day of the event. “I’m honored to lead a top 10 community college in the United States.”

Last October, representatives from the Aspen Institute conducted a two-day site visit to the campus to meet with administrators, faculty and students. The visitors also reviewed data gathered from the state on the success in finding jobs by the school graduates.

Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute college excellence program, said the finalists were judged by a distinguished panel of educators, including John Engler, a former governor of Michigan, and Richard Riley, who had served as U.S. secretary of education and the governor of South Carolina.

“The Aspen Prize judges how these schools help the more than 7 million students at our community colleges learn at a high level, get their degrees and, after they graduate, find good jobs with high wages,” he said. “We want all the two-year schools to understand that open access to a community college and excellent student results are not mutually exclusive.”

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, spoke at the event. She still teaches English at a community college in

Virginia and is now a national advocate of community colleges, calling them “one of America’s best-kept secrets.”

She holds a doctorate in education with a dissertation focusing on maximizing student retention in community colleges.

At the Aspen Institute event, the big prize was split, with $400,000 going to both Santa Barbara College in California and Walla Walla Community College in Washington.

However, back in Malvern, students and faculty at College of the Ouachitas believe that being recognized as one of the top 10 schools in the U.S. puts them in good company.

“The faculty and staff here at the College of the Ouachitas are extremely student centered,” Schoonmaker said. “They genuinely care about what happens to our students, and the students respond well in using the tools we can provide for them.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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