“Possibilities Realized”at Pierce College

“Recognition is nice, but being a finalist makes us reflect on our work and what we can do to get better,” says Dr. Michele Johnson, Pierce College Chancellor.

That’s the forwarding-looking approach of the college as it was named one of the 10 national finalists for the 2021 $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Finalists were selected from the nation’s 1,000 community colleges after a rigorous process involving more than 30 experts. 

Finalists are expected to develop strategies that propel all students to complete college and then to succeed after graduation. In 2019, the Aspen Institute honored Pierce College as a Rising Star for “exceptional levels of improvement.” That $100,000 prize was donated to the college foundation to benefit the three campuses at Fort Steilacoom, Puyallup and Joint Base Lewis McChord.

Pierce College started with goals of access and open doors, the Chancellor said. Then data showed graduation rates lagging behind enrollment. Trustees and the Chancellor vowed to double graduation rates.

“We really know our mission and strive to measure it,” Dr. Johnson said. “We are not afraid to share data.  We know we have made progress, but it would be bittersweet if we get a top prize and we haven’t closed the student completion gap.”

A careful study of the numbers revealed that the largest groups of students having difficulty progressing to graduation are single parents and African American males. Others facing challenges include Pell grant students with financial challenges, second language learners and students in the LGBTQ community. 

“We had to ask, ‘What’s the lived experience of these students?’ and focus on the whole system to help students have a plan of resources to get to the final place,” Dr. Johnson said. “For us it’s about ‘possibilities realized,’ creating quality educational opportunities for a diverse community of learners to thrive in an evolving world.”

During 2020 the Aspen Institute will send a team of national experts on virtual site visits. A jury will convene in early 2021 to select the winner of the $1 million award.