Pierce College Fort Steilacoom has won a national award for dramatically improving student outcomes.

The state community college was one of 10 colleges in the running for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, a $1 million award given since 2011 that recognizes excellence in community colleges.

While Pierce didn’t win the big prize, it was one of three to receive Aspen’s “rising star” award for a strong record of improvement.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. The Seattle Foundation serves as fiscal sponsor for Education Lab, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon, Comcast Washington and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab

Pierce was praised for identifying and lifting barriers that make it hard for students to finish a degree or credential. “By enacting comprehensive reforms — and measuring impact every step of the way — Pierce has improved student success at a remarkable rate,” Joshua Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, said in a news release.

In interviews last year, Pierce Chancellor Michele Johnson described how staff members at the college began looking closely at how many students were finishing a degree or transferring, and were shocked by how poorly they were doing. The school launched a major initiative to figure out where it was failing, and was able to improve graduation and transfer rates by 20 percentage points.

All three of Pierce College’s campuses — Fort Steilacoom, Puyallup and Joint Base Lewis-McChord — made data available to everyone on the faculty that showed how students were doing, and gave staff members a significant salary increase when they participated in summer training to improve student achievement.


The college redesigned its curriculum, creating six major career pathways to give students a clear road map for their college careers. It worked to diversify its employees at a school where close to half the enrollment is made up of students of color. And the school abandoned jargon in favor of clear language about student aid and core requirements. Its graduation rate is now 59 percent, about 20 percentage points higher than the national average.

The top Aspen award was split between two Florida community colleges, Indian River State College and Miami Dade College. The two other winners of the “rising star” award were in Texas: Palo Alto College and Odessa College. Pierce, Palo Alto and Odessa will each receive $100,000.