Pierce College Fort Steilacoom is one of 10 community colleges nationwide that's in the running for a prestigious $1 million prize.

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Eight years ago, the staff at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom began looking closely at how many of its students were finishing a degree or transferring, and they were shocked by how poorly students were doing.

The college launched a major initiative to figure out where it was failing. And the work has paid off.

Not only has the Lakewood college improved its graduation and transfer rate by 20 percentage points, it was named one of 10 finalists for a $1 million prize for community-college excellence called the Aspen Prize. Finalists were announced last week, although the prize won’t be awarded for another year.

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Pierce College Chancellor Michele Johnson said 62 percent of the students at the Fort Steilacoom campus are the first in their families to go to college. “They’re coming to us with no family support,” she said. “They don’t know what FAFSA is, what core requirements are — words we use every day. They don’t get it, and why should they?”

Johnson said the college began combing through data that showed how students were doing in school, and making the numbers available to every faculty member.

“It changed the conversation,” Johnson said. “They were surprised to see the numbers of students who weren’t achieving.”

At all three Pierce College campuses — Fort Steilacoom, Puyallup and the center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord — faculty members receive a significant salary increase for professional development when they participate in summer training to create a plan to improve student achievement, Johnson said. During that time, faculty members test out new ideas, and share the ones that are working.

The college also redesigned its curriculum, creating six major career pathways. It’s part of an idea known as “guided pathways,” which gives students a clear road map for their college careers, making it more likely that  students will sign up for the right classes and finish a degree.

Pierce has worked to diversify its employees, because “students need to see faculty and staff that looks like them,” Johnson said. About 46 percent of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom’s enrollment is students of color, and 12 percent are veterans or active-duty military. (Joint Base Lewis-McChord is next door.)

And the college also worked to “clean up our own language,” as Johnson puts it, trying to avoid using jargon such as FAFSA (the federal financial-aid form) and core requirements (the basic group of classes a student takes as part of a career path).

In 2010, just 18 percent of Pierce College Fort Steilacoom students graduated or transferred to a four-year school within three years. This spring, 38 percent will graduate or transfer, and Johnson’s goal is to have 45 percent graduate or transfer by 2020.

The Aspen Prize is awarded every other year by the Aspen Foundation, which combs through data on more than 1,000 community colleges across the nation and looks for indicators that a college is doing an exceptional job getting its students to the finish line.

Aspen measures colleges by looking at access and success for students of color and low-income students. It examines student learning, certificate and degree completion and employment and earnings rates after graduation to come up with its list of finalists.

For the next year, Aspen officials will work with a team of national experts to collect more data on the colleges, and visit the finalists for several days. The prize will be awarded in April.

The other finalists include colleges in Texas, Florida, New York, California, Texas and South Dakota.

This isn’t the first time Pierce College has been in the spotlight for student achievement. Last year, the college won a national award from the college-reform network Achieving the Dream for making outstanding progress in changing to a student-focused culture.

Washington colleges have placed in the top-10 Aspen Prize list before, and in 2013, Walla Walla Community College tied for first place with Santa Barbara City College in California.