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Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn., among top community colleges

Ridgewater College is eligible to compete with other U.S. colleges for a $1 million 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence after being chosen as one of the top 120 community colleges in the nation. Courtesy photo

WILLMAR -- Ridgewater College has been chosen as one of the top 120 community colleges in the nation by the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program.

The selection makes the college eligible to compete with the other colleges for a $1 million 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

The Aspen Institute chose the colleges -- 10 percent of those in the nation -- using a formula that assesses performance and improvement in graduation rates, degrees awarded, student retention rates and equity in student outcomes.

Ridgewater President Douglas Allen said the recognition from the Aspen Institute "really validates the hard work our faculty and staff do."

Colleges do not apply to be included on the list, he said.

The Aspen Institute has developed its own criteria to choose the colleges. "By their estimate, there are 1,200 community colleges in the country," he said. "To be in the top 10 percent is pretty darn nice."

The first Aspen Prize was awarded to the 70,000-student Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., in December 2011.

Allen said he doesn't think the award is based on the size of a campus. Last year's winner would dwarf Ridgewater, which serves about 5,500 students on its Willmar and Hutchinson campus, according to its website.

Allen pointed out that all of the Minnesota schools on the list are in rural areas and are smaller schools. "We have a pretty good class of students here," he said.

A year-long research process into how well students learn, complete degrees and get jobs with competitive wages after graduating will determine the final recipient of the $1 million award.

About seven million students enroll in America's nearly 1,200 public and private community colleges every year, according to the institute.

"The success of our nation's community colleges is more important than ever before," said Aspen Institute College Excellence Program Executive Director Josh Wyner in a news release.

Ridgewater and the other schools will be asked to submit an application containing detailed data about the success of its students.

The program will choose eight to 10 finalists in September and make site visits to each of them in the fall. A prize winner and four runners-up will be announced in March 2013.

The Aspen College Excellence Program seeks to identify and replicate campus-wide practices that significantly improve college student outcomes, according to the release. The College Excellence Program works to improve colleges' understanding and capacity to teach and graduate students, especially the growing population of low-income and minority students on American campuses.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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