Northeast Iowa Community College was named one of the nation's top 10 community colleges by the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program.

This finalist award qualifies NICC to compete for a $1 million prize fund that will be awarded in December in Washington, D.C., to the first-ever national winner and up to three runners-up.

The competition began earlier this year when the Aspen Institute studied federal data submitted by all of the nation's nearly 1,200 community colleges. From this data, Aspen selected the top 10 percent, or 120 colleges, to compete for the grand prize. NICC was named to this select group earlier this spring and was invited to complete an application and submit additional data. From this application, a nine-member Finalist Selection Committee, comprised of former community college presidents, respected researchers and policy experts, identified NICC for its exceptional and improving graduate completion rates, labor-market results and student learning outcomes.

As part of the competition, the Aspen Institute conducted an on-site visit at the college's Calmar campus on Sept 1-2 to gather additional data and research that will inform its selection of the grand prize winning college.

Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence program, and a member of the four-person team to visit the college, stated, "Northeast Iowa Community College listens to what the labor market is saying, and adjusts accordingly. NICC works really hard to offer job-relevant degrees, and does it better than almost anyone else. Especially in a rapidly changing economy, other community colleges could learn a lot from this college's approach."

Not only is NICC's graduation rate nearly 24 percent higher than the national average for community colleges, but it makes sure that the degrees students earn have value after they graduate, according to the Aspen Institute. The college effectively uses workforce data to determine where the labor market is headed, and adapts its programs so that its students are more likely to find employment. NICC also continually reviews all academic programs for their graduates' job placement rates to ensure that programs are viable, and after students graduate, the college stays in touch to learn more about how it has prepared students for their careers and what the college might do better.

"This is extremely gratifying to be listed among the nation's elite community colleges," stated NICC's interim President Liang Chee Wee. "We have worked really hard not only to ensure we have quality programming that meets workforce needs, but also that our students have the tools they need to be successful and graduate. It is tremendously rewarding to be recognized in the top one percent of all community colleges nationwide for this effort."

This is the first national recognition at individual community colleges, and follows on the April project launch and a previous White House Community College Summit that attracted participation and endorsement from President Obama, as well as luminaries in American education, labor, business and civil society.

Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges, with more than six million students - youth and adult learners - enrolling in America's nearly 1,200 community colleges every year. Community colleges are also educating rapidly growing lower-income and Hispanic student populations, and for millions of Americans, represent their most promising path to education that leads to professional employment.

In addition to NICC, the Aspen Institute named the following community colleges as finalists in the competition: Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Miami Dade Community College (Fla.), Walla Walla Community College (Wash.), West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Mott Community College (Mich.), Lake Area Technical Institute (S.D.), Santa Barbara City College (Calif.), Southwest Texas Junior College and Valencia Community College (Fla.).

The grand prize winner and runners-up will be selected by a "prize jury" co-chaired by John Engler, former Michigan Governor and current President of the Business Roundtable, and Richard Riley, former U.S. Secretary of Education and Governor of South Carolina.

The purpose of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence is to recognize community colleges with outstanding academic and workforce outcomes in both absolute performance and improvements over time. By focusing on student success and lifting up models that work, the prize will honor excellence, stimulate innovation and create benchmarks for measuring progress.

Successful community colleges like NICC are critical for job retraining, providing educational opportunities for dislocated workers who want to change careers or earn a college degree, and in preparing the high-tech workforce American companies need. Aspen's Wyner emphasized that this competition offers an unprecedented opportunity to spotlight and celebrate excellence at a time when community college success is more important to the nation than ever before.

"It's pretty simple, but the stakes are high," he said. "In an era where a college degree is the ticket to the middle class, real educational opportunity for our citizens and real economic growth for our country will depend on our community colleges."

Northeast Iowa Community College serves more than 5,200 credit students and 38,000 non-credit students annually at the college's two major campuses in Calmar and Peosta, at centers in Cresco, Dubuque, Manchester, Oelwein and Waukon, and online. NICC offers more than 75 academic degree, diploma and certificate programs, and 20 programs can be taken completely online as well as many non-credit continuing education and professional development training and certification programs.