SAN ANTONIO — The Aspen Institute named San Antonio College the nation's top community college during a virtual ceremony Tuesday night.
The award is considered among the nation's most prestigious. The Aspen Prize is also among the toughest trophies to earn.
A panel of philanthropists and educators conducted roughly 70 interviews with SAC students and faculty over the course of nearly two years before crowning the school.
"The best institutions don't just teach; they empower," First Lady Dr. Jill Biden said during a keynote address to the finalists. "They meet students where they are and help them get to where they want to go."
The Aspen Institute names award-winners every other year. SAC is the first Texas institution to claim the top prize, which comes with a $600,000 grant.
Schools are judged in six categories: degree plan completion, student transfers to four-year institutions, teaching and learning, success in the workforce, equity for students of color and low-income students, and institutional culture.
The panel commended SAC for boosting its graduation and transfer rate by nearly 20% over the last four years, but noted that Alamo College's commitment to student life beyond the books sets the system apart.
"There's an actual department that will help you get the resources you need that are completely out of the line of education," student Kaysia Williams said. "People in high places that walk past you don't just look at you as a student on their campus; they actually converse with you. They want to know how you're doing and they try to keep up with you."
Williams has six credits left to earn at SAC before she transfers to UTSA to obtain a degree in marketing. San Antonio College-sponsored programs clothed her infant son and provided her family with groceries when she could not afford them.
"These are insecurities people face behind closed doors, and they're coming and supplying for those needs," she said. "I don't think I would've been able to receive that anywhere else."
The programs aim to make education more accessible by eliminating external barriers to success.
The Aspen panelists say this may explain why SAC students overachieve, compared to peers in similar demographics. The school's graduation rate is well above the national average, even though more SAC students are economically disadvantaged.
“It’s a validation point for us that what we’ve been doing over the past few years – focused on student success and student achievement – has really worked,” SAC president Dr. Robert Vela said.