Modesto Junior College considered for national Aspen Prize

MJC’s services at the east campus Veterans Resource Center, shown here in 2012, are among the supports the college offers to help its diverse student body.
MJC’s services at the east campus Veterans Resource Center, shown here in 2012, are among the supports the college offers to help its diverse student body. Modesto Bee file

Modesto Junior College is in the running for a $1 million prize, one of 150 community colleges in the nation being considered in a biennial contest that chooses its own candidates.

President Jill Stearns declared herself “delightfully overwhelmed” by the news that MJC is in the running for the 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. She credited reforms meant to best serve the college’s diverse student body for the recognition.

“Our institutional commitment to student access, success and equity is leading to improvements grounded in research-based practices,” Stearns said by email Friday. “It is wonderful to have national recognition of the great work by the faculty, staff and leaders of MJC that positively impacts the experience and success of our students.”

Selection from among the nation’s 1,047 public community colleges is based upon review of publicly available data in three key areas: student outcomes, improvement over time and equity in student achievement.

I was delightfully overwhelmed!

Jill Stearns, MJC president

The Aspen selection committee looked at data such as the number of students receiving financial aid and the number of students of different groups graduating. MJC students tend to be poor, with more than half depending on Pell grants and almost all (97 percent) qualifying for state fee waivers. About 6 out of 10 students are minorities.

These are the students the prize was designed to help, according to the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that partnered with the Joyce, Siemens and Kresge foundations to fund the prize.

“Community colleges are a critical linchpin in America’s efforts to educate our way to greater prosperity and equality,” notes the Aspen Institute. “(Community colleges) account for most of the growth in college enrollment over the last decade; they disproportionately educate students of color and first-generation college students who most need higher education to get a foothold in the economy; and they are the primary source of skills training for workers in many sectors of the economy.”

The recognition comes as the college has received a major humanities grant and is moving forward on a number of collaborative efforts to help ease the road to and through college for students. Here is a rundown of some of them:

NEH grant: A nearly $100,000 humanities-initiatives grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, called “The Search for Common Ground: Culture in California’s Central Valley,” will give two years of training to MJC faculty members and fund new curriculum developed with the University of California, California State University and the National Steinbeck Center.

Career education: MJC worked with the Stanislaus Alliance Worknet to develop the First Manufacturing Academy, an educational program to meet local plant needs for workers proficient in skills such as machining, welding, pneumatics and hydraulics. Patterson Unified is working with the college to align its logistics and warehousing courses with MJC programs in another effort.

Option One: A team of specialists works to increase retention by helping students over the ruts and past the roadblocks that get in the way of sticking to studies. That includes checking in on academic needs and offering financial aid information for existing students, and a more seamless entry for incoming students.

Veterans services: A $500,000 grant, one of only 15 given nationwide, helps fund the MJC Center of Excellence for Veteran Student Success and provides support in academic and mental health counseling, mentoring, and job training.

English learners: The MJC English Language Learner Welcome Center will open this summer, funded through the adult education collaborative involving MJC and area school districts. The center will bring together a one-stop shop to apply, register, and get assessment tests and orientation. The grant also covers textbooks and workbooks based on financial need.

The college will be asked to submit more information and statistics for the second round of the Aspen Prize contest. Ten finalists will be chosen from among the 150 schools. The winner is expected to be announced in March 2017.

“It was an honor just to make this list,” said Joan Smith, chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District. “I’m just really proud of where the district is and where we’re going.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin