Arkansas community colleges ranked in top 150

The Upper Pond and a walking trail on the campus of the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain are shown from a drone in this undated courtesy photo. (UA Community College at Rich Mountain, facebook.com/UARichMountain)
The Upper Pond and a walking trail on the campus of the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain are shown from a drone in this undated courtesy photo. (UA Community College at Rich Mountain, facebook.com/UARichMountain)


A handful of Arkansas colleges are among the top 150 community colleges in the nation, according to the Aspen Institute.

Arkansas State University-Mountain Home, Ozarka College, Southern Arkansas University Tech, the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, and the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain join the other two-year colleges in the top 150 in competing for the $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, which will be announced in the spring of 2025.

The 25 semifinalists will be announced next spring, with the 10 finalists revealed in June 2024.

It's "remarkable to have two colleges [from our system] in the top 150" nationwide, said Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System.

Making this list "is a tremendous honor that speaks to the intense efforts led by our faculty and staff to be the best possible college for our students," said UA-Rich Mountain Chancellor Phillip Wilson. "Our strategic plan has been a roadmap for us to improve graduation and retention rates, [and] it's nice to see the hard work by the employees and the students" be rewarded with recognition that "change matters."

Brian Shonk, chancellor of the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville, is "so proud to see the hard work and success of our students, staff, and faculty being recognized by the Aspen Institute," he said. "The Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence is the highest honor available to community colleges, and to be selected as one of the top 150 community colleges in the nation and eligible to compete for the Prize is a welcome external validation of the great work we do."

This is the fifth time ASU-Mountain Home has made the top 150 for this list.

ASU-Mountain Home draws students from high school to those in their 60s and 70s, and Chancellor Bentley Wallace feels it's imperative to serve everyone in the community because of the college's relative geographic isolation from other higher education institutions, he said. "We have an obligation, because we are the option."

Enrollment this fall at ASU-Mountain Home is up 3.1% from the same point last year, to 1,286 students, and "I feel good about where we are," Wallace added. The college continues to balance online learning in more general education courses with the growth of technical education and healthcare programs, which require more "hands-on" experiences.

Valerie Wilson, vice chancellor for Academics at SAU Tech, said, "We are honored to again be named to this prestigious list," calling the recognition "a testament to the hard work of our faculty and staff to ensure the success of our students."

The nation has more than 1,000 community colleges, and this list emphasizes achievement in teaching and learning, certificate and degree completion, transfer and bachelor's attainment, workforce success, access, and equity for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, according to the Aspen Institute.

Then-President Barack Obama called the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence "basically the Oscars for great community colleges."

The top 150 have been invited to submit student success data and narratives about strategies to achieve better and more equitable student outcomes as part of the review process that will yield the semifinalists, finalists, and eventual winner, according to the Aspen Institute.

The prize is awarded every two years -- the latest winners were Amarillo College in Texas and Imperial Valley College in California -- and the first winner was Florida's Valencia College, in 2011.

The process of applying for the Aspen Prize is beneficial to schools, as it provides the chance to review processes that can "lead to further improvements in our student success efforts, which is one the college's strategic plan goals, as well as a priority for the college," Wilson said. "We meet our students where they are to help them reach their goals."

The Aspen Prize is "rooted first and foremost in an assessment of whether colleges are walking the walk," Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, said in a news release. "As community colleges face enrollment variations, enroll students with pandemic-related learning loss, and graduate students into a rapidly changing labor market, it is easy to lose track of what matters most. The best community colleges are continuing to focus on advancing the core mission: making sure as many students as possible graduate with credentials that lead to fulfilling careers and reflect the development of diverse talent that communities, states, and our nation need."

"These 150 colleges have achieved high and improving levels of student success for all students, including those who are often failed by our institutions," Wyner added. "We're excited to learn over the coming months how they achieved that success so we can share the most impressive practices with others in the field."

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to igniting "human potential to build understanding and create new possibilities for a better world," according to the institute.

Founded in 1949 with headquarters in Washington, D.C. -- with a campus in Aspen, Colo. -- it "drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve society's greatest challenges."