For three consecutive years, Watertown, South Dakota’s Lake Area Technical Institute was a national finalist in the Aspen Institute’s annual Community College Excellence Awards. Its track record for being among the nation’s best in graduation rates and job placement among two-year and technical institutes had placed the school in elite company, and for grand recognition which annually fell short.
But this year, LATI officials accepted the national accolade and its $600,00 top prize to support student success with a certain amount of expectation. After all, a 74% degree completion rate, 80% retention rate and 99% postgraduate job placement success rate is hard to turn down in any year.
“On every measure of community college excellence, Lake Area Technical Institute is firing on all cylinders,” said Joshua Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program. “Its outstanding graduation and job placement rates are a result of its deep commitment to ensure that all students thrive in the classroom and in great jobs after graduation."
LATI joined Broward College and Indian River State College as the nation's top three two-year and technical institutions in the Excellence Awards.
“This is the fourth time we’ve been in the top ten, and we’ve always finished with distinction,” said LATI President Mike Cartney. “So to win is an honor and a privilege.”
Cartney says that LATI’s success is directly attributable to key metrics of engagement that involve all members of the college community, and have propelled the institution towards dramatic improvements in technical training and professional skill building in critical workforce sectors.
“We consciously focused in on low-income students, who make up between 40% and 50% of our student population,” Cartney said. “Yes, we may have the highest graduation rate in the country among our peer group, but we were not as successful at graduating students from this particular group.”
“We offered services to everyone knowing that preponderance of the benefit would go to low-income students. People whose lives have been more of a challenge already feel like an underdog when they come into the learning or training environment. So we worked to empower them in all aspects of their experience. For low-income students, our graduation rates five years ago were 8% below their peers, but that number has now evened out among all student groups, and along some metrics, our low-income students are performing better than their counterparts with different economic circumstances.”
Cartney says that redefining institutional success through job placement metrics was another key factor in raising performance numbers. Helping students to better understand career pathways and specific job options helped to relieve the stress associated with classroom and test performance, and led to stronger academic outcomes along the way.
“Our mission is to expand South Dakota’s technical workforce development, about we’re at just about 85% of the employees the state needs to meet its goals. We’re years away from meeting the workforce demands, and when we’ve met all of the workforce demands and students are getting great jobs, that’s when we’ll know that what we’ve done and are continuing to do is the right thing for our students and for the state.”
A culture of caring
Cartney also attributed this year's success to a revitalized campus culture with focus on student development through intensive encouragement and availability.
“We care about our students and make sure they know we care about them, and we listen and make sure they know we are listening. If you aren’t talking about their challenges, their goals and their vision for success, it can be translated into a belief that we as faculty and staff do not care about their individual success.
“Everyone, from administration to faculty, to staff takes personal responsibility for student success. The culture is something we’ve been working on for a number of years but took for us to lead from the front. We have older faculty who know who we are and how we have done these things over the course of years to benefit our population. We added a retention coordinator, who did preemptive engagement and learning engagement and also hired some personnel to focus on diversity issues. So a part of our approach has been to make new investments, but largely, our biggest investment was time in changing our institutional philosophy.”