Aspen Institute names San Jacinto College a top 5 community college

03.14.2017 | By Amanda Fenwick

PASADENA, Texas — The Aspen Institute for Community College Excellence today named San Jacinto College as one of the top 5 community colleges in the nation, awarding the College a Rising Star award. The announcement was made today at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.

“I am honored and humbled to accept this Rising Star award on behalf of the entire San Jacinto College community,” said Chancellor Dr. Brenda Hellyer. “This award is for our students. They are the focus of our work and our efforts. We want them to achieve their goals and we want to eliminate barriers that could impede their success. This recognition as one of the top five community colleges in the nation is proof that we are accomplishing those efforts.”

Launched in 2011, the $1 million Aspen Prize is awarded every two years to a community college achieving high marks in student learning, certificate and degree completion, employment and earnings for graduates, and access and success for minority and low-income students. From the more than 1,100 community colleges nationwide, San Jacinto College was first selected among the top 150 last spring. A selection committee then narrowed down those institutions to the top 10, and today named the Aspen Prize winner, two Finalists with Distinction and two Rising Star recipients.

“San Jacinto College is delivering highly-skilled graduates to fuel economic growth and enable social mobility in the Houston region,” said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and author of “What Excellent Community Colleges Do.” “Student completion rates have risen steadily and substantially since San Jacinto College reorganized and began to develop a strong culture where everyone at the college is uniquely focused on and held accountable for student success.” Hear more from Joshua Wyner.

Between 2007 and 2016, San Jacinto College increased the number of certificates and associate degrees awarded by 161.7 percent. Last academic year, 7,019 students earned a certificate or degree from San Jacinto College. This increase is due to a laser focus on student success and the support students receive along their paths from when they first arrive at San Jacinto College through graduation. The College concentrates its efforts on initiatives that show results in student achievement and progress.

“Student success is what we are about,” said Dr. Laurel Williamson, deputy chancellor and San Jacinto College president. “Our entire Collge is focused on student success, beginning with our Board of Trustees. They set the vision for our College. We have excellent faculty and staff who are executing that vision by implementing innovative and new techniques in the classroom and within student services to help more students finish what they started here at San Jacinto College.”


Addressing Outcomes
In selecting San Jacinto College as an Aspen Prize Rising Star recipient, a panel of distinguished leaders in higher education evaluated the College’s efforts in several areas including completion and labor market outcomes. San Jacinto College has developed a number of innovative initiatives that put students on a path to success. For example, San Jacinto College faculty developed a reading first and math re-design for students without college-level reading skills. This course combines developmental reading, developmental math and college algebra into one course, and had a success rate of 71.4 percent in Fall 2015, compared to traditional algebra success rates of 53.7 percent.

Another example is the College’s Integrated Reading and Writing course, an accelerated developmental reading and writing course that moves five courses to two. Students who take the course are succeeding at a higher rate in Composition I than students who took separate reading and writing courses, 66.9 percent to 52.3 percent, respectively.

To ensure students achieve labor market success, San Jacinto College has aligned program learning outcomes to industry standards. The College monitors labor market trends and develops programs in partnership with local industry representatives. Each program maintains an advisory committee comprised of local experts who meet annually with faculty and staff to review student success data, curriculum, facilities and equipment, and job placement.

The maritime and petrochemical industries are two of the strongest in the Gulf Coast region. In January 2016, San Jacinto College opened its fourth campus, one that specializes in maritime training, located along Port Houston. This new campus was a direct response to industry demand, and reflects a true partnership between the College and local businesses who are looking for a local site to train incumbent workers. San Jacinto College is also planning to construct a new technologically advanced Center for Petrochemical, Energy and Technology, another direct response from the region’s industry. Funded through a bond referendum approved by voters in the District in 2015, the new Center will be the region’s hub for petrochemical and manufacturing training, directly supporting the economic engine in the Gulf Coast region and preparing people for careers at all levels.

“Our industry partnerships are crucial to helping us fill the employment pipeline in a number of fields that are thriving in the Houston region,” said Mr. Dan Mims, Chaiman of the San Jacinto College Board of Trustees. “We value these relationships and are thankful for the benefits our students receive from having experts involved in our programs.”


Closing the gap
Another area that the Aspen Institute panel evaluated was around achievement gaps between different groups of students and how San Jacinto College addressed those gaps. To effect a cultural change, in 2009 the College created an immersive two-day training based on Skip Downing’s On Course principles. The training, titled “Success at San Jac” was mandatory for all employees. San Jacinto College also instituted a new faculty academy, new staff orientation and a re-connect program to refresh long-term employees to sustain momentum. These initiatives resulted in an institutional commitment to student success.

“From these faculty and staff initiatives we were able to create and implement a number of student success initiatives and services to support our students as they navigate their first semester at San Jacinto College through graduation,” said Hellyer. “We have seen an increase in our graduation rates of more than 160 percent over the last 10 years, and much of that success is a direct result of how we are helping students earn their certificate or associate degree.”

Some student success initiatives that resulted from the college-wide approach to student success include Aid Like Paycheck and a new Open Educational Resources (OER) degree. Aid Like A Paycheck provides students with financial aid refunds every two weeks, rather than in a lump sum 30 days after the semester begins, which is the methodology for most financial aid students. The result is that students are better able to manage their financial resources throughout the semester so they can stay enrolled and graduate. San Jacinto College provides financial literacy and coaching for students from entry through completion.

The OER degree will be a general studies associate degree program that will provide significant cost savings to students because they will not have to buy traditional course materials such as high-cost textbooks. In lieu of traditional print textbooks that can cost several hundred dollars per copy, students who participate in the new degree program will use digital Open Educational Resources course materials which are accessible online. For a nominal technology fee, San Jacinto College students will be able to utilize these resources, significantly reducing the cost of textbooks that many students face each semester.

San Jacinto College recognizes that achievement gaps exist between minority students and students of all other races and ethnicities. However, the College has been making significant strides in closing those gaps. “Community College Week” ranks San Jacinto College eighth in the country in awarding associate degrees to Hispanic students, and the College was recently recognized by “The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education” magazine as one of the top 10 community colleges for Hispanics. The College has increased the number of certificates and degrees awarded to Hispanic students by 174 percent since the 2008-2009 academic year, and has increased by 109 percent the number of certificates and associate degrees awarded to African-American students.

The College’s Men of Honor and Women of Integrity programs are two initiatives the College has supported to provide its Hispanic and African-American students the support they need to complete what it is they started at San Jacinto College. Community members and San Jacinto College employees serve as mentors in each organization, offering guidance, encouragement and support to Hispanic and African-American male and female students. The goal is to increase retention and graduation rates among the Hispanic and African-American populations, while also providing assistance in finding their educational and professional pathway.

Community colleges today enroll more than 40 percent of all US undergraduates – 6 million students – working toward degrees and certificates. These include growing numbers of lower-income and minority students. Aspen’s Rising Star winners demonstrate that community colleges can dramatically improve the success of students while in college and in completing a degree that leads to well-paying jobs and careers after college.

For more information about the 2017 Aspen Prize Winner, Finalists with Distinction, Rising Stars as well as information and lessons learned from the all of the Prize Finalists listed below, please visit:


2017 Aspen Prize Winner - Lake Area Technical Institute (Watertown, South Dakota)


Finalists with Distinction
Broward College (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)

Indian River State College (Fort Pierce, Florida)


Rising Star Award
Odessa College (Odessa, Texas)

San Jacinto College (Pasadena, Texas)


Anoka-Ramsey Community College (Coon Rapids, Minnesota)

Chaffey College (Rancho Cucamonga, California)

Northeast Community College (Norfolk, Nebraska)

Pasadena City College (Pasadena, California)

West Kentucky Community and Technical College (Paducah, Kentucky)


About the Aspen College Excellence Program
The Aspen College Excellence Program aims to advance higher education practices, policies, and leadership that significantly improve student outcomes. Through the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the Siemens Technical Scholars Program, and other initiatives, 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. For more information, visit


About the Aspen Institute
The Aspen Insitute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit


About San Jacinto College
Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, since 1961. As a fiscally sound institution, the College currently holds bond ratings of AA and Aa2 by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s, respectively. San Jacinto College is a 2017 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence Rising Star Award recipient and an Achieving the Dream Leader College. Approximately 30,000 students each semester benefit from a support system that maps out a pathway for success. The College offers seven areas of study that prepare a diverse body of students to transfer to a four-year college or university or enter the workforce with the skills needed to support the growing industries along the Texas Gulf Coast. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $690 million each year to the Texas workforce.

For more information about San Jacinto College call 281-998-6150, visit or join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.