Pierce awarded Top 5 community college in nation

Alec Jensen


The white banners on campus billow with every gust of the crisp autumn breeze. They hang from the light posts, displaying a message also on posters, stickers, shirts and advertisements on the campus televisions. This message?

“Pierce College Awarded Top 5 Community College In The Nation.” Accompanying the statement is a blue ribbon that reads “Aspen Prize For Community College Excellence” along with the specification of “Rising Star Pierce College Fort Steilacoom.”

Running Start student Adelyn Jackson shares the same sentiment with many students,staff and faculty when recalling if she has ever seen the advertising for The Aspen Award. She shares the brief and concise answer: “On every door.”

With the immense number of advertisements for The Aspen Award, one would be hard pressed to find a student who knows what the honor truly entails for Pierce College. Put up without much explanation, students are left passing the white banners and posters not knowing what being a “Rising Star” means.

Awarded every two years, TheAspen Institution’s “Aspen prize” is given to the top community college in the nation.

According to Aspen’s website, colleges are assessed in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion (including of a bachelor’s degree after transfer), employment and earnings and high levels of access/success for minority and low-income students. The process of finding a winner begins with Aspen selecting 150 eligible colleges from a pool of more than 1,000 schools. Of those 150 eligible institutions, 10 will be designated as finalists.

The 10 finalists are vetted once again, going through another process that looks at the colleges in areas like institutional data on completion, labor market outcomes and learning assessment, as well as descriptions of how institutions have achieved and improved student outcomes. In the third and final round, the Top 10 colleges are visited by a small team from Aspen. The college’s success data will then be reviewed once again.

The top prize winners, this year being Indian River State College and Miami Dade College (both from Florida), received $350,000 each along with the designation of being the No. 1 community colleges in the nation. Although Pierce didn’t receive the top prize from Aspen, Pierce College was acknowledged as a “Rising Star,” an award given to colleges that have shown strong and quick improvement of the areas covered by Aspen.

Pierce was one of three “Rising Stars,” the other two being Odessa College and Palo Alto College, (both from Texas). Aspen cited Pierce’s “improved student retention and completion over time, a commitment to equitable outcomes for students, and a dedicated focus on helping them overcome obstacles” as the reasons for Pierce’s inclusion in the “Rising Star” category.

Aspen also cites Pierce College’s completion percentage of 59%, 20 percentage points higher than the national average, as proof of Pierce College’s focus on success.

“I think it signifies that the institution, the faculty and staff, is committed to equality,” Pierce College Puyallup President Dr. Darrell Cain said.

“With regards to the award and what it means to me, I think the award really helps demonstrate that the work that we’ve been doing is work that is heading in the right direction. That we’re really focused on the right thing,” said Dr. Matthew Campbell, Pierce College Puyallup’s vice president for learning and student success.

Campbell also says that the college’s priority of equality for all students is something the district continues to work toward. With the understanding of what the Aspen Awards are and why Pierce College was ranked in the top five community colleges in the nation, some students shared a sentiment of reassurance.

“I’m a Running Start student, so I’m scared to be here in the first place because it’s a big college,so knowing Pierce is in the top five for being open and helping kids is very reassuring,” said Elizabeth Russell.

For other students, like John Whithius, the award is more of a solidifier of his choice to attend Pierce.

“I mean, not particularly, not to me at least, but it does solidify my choice in coming to this college,” responded Whithius when asked if the award mattered to him.

As reassuring as a national award can be for some students, a conspicuous specification, that being the “Pierce College Fort Steilacoom” in the blue ribbon, may leave some students wondering why Pierce College Puyallup isleft out of the conversation.

“Aspen looks at colleges individually and it looks at the demographics of each institution as well, so Pierce College Fort Steilacoom is a more diverse college, so we can see those differences more clearly at that institution,” Dr. Campbell explained.

Campbell said that the Pierce College district functions as one entity in multiple locations.

“So when we get accolades for what we are doing with in our curriculum we’re actually doing those things district wide,” said Campbell.

Both colleges are reflected in the award. Even with an award that highlights Pierce’s dedication to equality, improved retention rates and a dedicated focus on helping students overcome obstacles, many people on campus (students, staff, faculty and admin alike), all agree that improvements are still in need at Pierce College Puyallup.

“(We need) more vegan options. I’m vegan,” Adelyn Jackson suggested.

“We need better parking,” John Whithius said.

Student Success Coach Kaytie Ohashi agrees.

“We have issues with space. That’s something we are all very transparent about, that there is not enough space for parking, not enough space for all of the classrooms needed to fit all of the bodies that are on campus at this time,” Ohashi said.

Ohashi went on to say that the situation will take time and money to build the proper buildings and spaces for students. Ohashi also mentioned that there’s very little land to build on. According to data recorded by the school, Pierce College Puyallup and the Graham campus at Graham-Kapowsin High School made up for 7,045 students in 2017- 2018. Compared to Fort Steilacoom’s attendance of 5,925 students along with Fort Steilacoom’s campus being set on 140 acres of land compared to Puyallup’s 85 wooded acres, space is a concern that Puyallup will continue to have.

Bobby Garcia, nighttime supervisor of the library, cites the preferential treatment the campus has toward daytime students over nighttime students. In his eyes, this is an area the campus needs to improve on.

“A lot of the stuff that I’ve seen is geared to the day time students. At night there is less resources. The daycare is closed… students will run out of notebooks, scantrons, stuff like that, but the bookstores closed. Even if they’re having trouble with their laptop, I can only do so much in the library, so I send them over to the computer lab because when I call the help desk is closed.At night, we don’t have many resources available, so maybe extending hours for certain departments or having resources for them at night.”

Garcia shares an idea that both he and reference and instruction librarian Kate Cofell had when discussing solutions to supplies being a rare commodity to find on campus when the bookstore is closed.

“Kate and I were talking the other night and she was mentioning they have vending machines where you can get Scantrons, get pencils… it’s just like a soda machine. You swipe your credit card and get what you need,” Garcia said.

He believes the vending machines would be a good idea on campus, he just doesn’t know where to go with the idea. Small improvements on campus, like more parking and more resources for all students, could be a solution for issues students and faculty see on campus. Areas The Aspen Institute looks at also have room for improvement.

“We can’t become complacent. We must recognize that we must continue to move forward, to advance the mission of the college and we must improve our retention and completion rates as well,” said Cain.

“We turn on a dime,” said Campbell, as he put on a smile and exclaimed: “Hey! We’re a top five college! But by the way, we have a lot of work to do; our graduation rates could be higher, we still have gaps between students of color and white students, between men and women, and we need to figure out how and why those exist and be more intentional, more action oriented to help close those gaps so all students can achieve their goals.”

Pierce College Puyallup is still working toward improvements in the fields that The Aspen Institute highlights. The shared sentiment among the staff, faculty and administrators who were interviewed is that of satisfaction by knowing the school is headed in the right direction. That being said, the staff, faculty, and administrators interviewed all shared the opinion that they would still be striving for equality and retention even if it wasn’t highlighted by The Aspen Institute.

“Winning the award is something nice to have on the trophy case, but the emphasis is about what we’re doing for our students, for our community,” Cain said.

He followed that with a quote he remembered from NBAChampion MichaelJordan on continuing off of success.

“The first championship is difficult, however, the greatest challenge is to repeat.”

With a focus on continued improvement in areas of diversity, retention and equality, Pierce College Puyallup will continue to strive—to prove why the message on the white banners at the entrance of the campus say.

Pierce College is a top five community college in the nation.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

Alec Jensen

Pierce awarded Top 5 community college in nation

by Alec Jensen time to read: 6 min