West Kentucky Community and Technical College was again named one of the top 10 community colleges in the nation during the 2017 Aspen Prize ceremony Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
A large crowd of students, faculty and community members watched a live webcast in WKCTC's Crounse Hall in Paducah.
Some groaned in disappointment that the college didn't repeat its finish two years ago in the top three, but they soon recovered with applause in support of the school's fourth consecutive finish in the top 10 in the competition sponsored by The Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program.
WKCTC President Anton Reece said the difference between the No. 1 and No. 10 spots is slight.
"We are all very appreciative that we got to this stage in the game through such a rigorous process," he said after the event. "That external validation says a lot about what we already know."
He said talking with leaders of other colleges across the country gave him a perspective on the highly competitive selection process.
"It's just one or two degrees that separates all of us from being No. 1," he said.
WKCTC has been named an Aspen Prize finalist every year the biennial prize has been awarded starting in 2011, a feat shared only by this year's winner, Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota.
"Every cycle is like a new beginning, so the fact that we've been there four times over an eight-year period, that speaks to something special," Reece said.
George Miller, former congressman and co-chair of the Aspen Prize jury, said WKCTC's efforts have contributed to a 47 percent three-year graduation/transfer rate, which is 8 percent above the national average.
"As thousands of jobs have left the region, (WKCTC) has been a primary player in efforts to expand economic growth and provide high-tech customized training opportunities for growth areas such as marine technology, logistics and operations management," Miller said.
This year's winner, Lake Area Technical Institute, received a $600,000 prize. Two finalists with distinction, which received $100,000 each, were Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Florida, and Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The rising star prizes, worth $100,000 each, went to Odessa College in Odessa, Texas, and San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas.
Other finalists besides WKCTC included Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California; Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids, Minnesota; Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska; and Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California.
Josh Wyner, the vice president and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, said that choosing the 10 finalists took 16 months and a large collection of data. The top 10 finalists were chosen out of more than 1,000 colleges across the United States.
Judges looked for four key aspects: evidence of learning, degree completion, student employment and wages one year out and five years out, and equitable outcomes.
Miller praised the 10 colleges saying that no matter the conversation in the country, it's addressed at community colleges.
"Very often we ask community colleges to be the rapid response team when things go to hell in the country," Miller said. "When the economy dies, people need new skills, new training, and this is the institution that responds."