National Awards

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Washington, DC, March 18, 2015 – The Aspen Institute announced today that Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) in Watertown, South Dakota is a Finalist-with-Distinction for the 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Selected from 1,123 community colleges nationwide, this is the third time LATI has been awarded this honor along with $100,000 in Prize funds.

“Today we celebrate in the company of an esteemed group of Top 10 community colleges who work every day to improve the lives of seven million community college students nationwide,” LATI President Mike Cartney commented. “We are extremely proud to be named a finalist with distinction for the third time in a row – the only college in history to attain that status every consecutive time. It is a tribute to our faculty, staff and leadership who strive each and every day to improve student outcomes on our campus.  It’s not about being the best, it is about doing our best and the rest will follow!”

The Aspen Prize, the nation’s preeminent recognition of high achievement and performance in America’s community colleges, is awarded every two years and recognizes institutions for outstanding outcomes in four areas: student learning; certificate and degree completion; employment and earnings; and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students.

This year’s Aspen Prize winner, Santa Fe College (Gainesville, FL), will receive $800,000, while a second finalist-with-distinction, West Kentucky Community & Technical College, and the “Rising Star” recipient, Kennedy-King College (Chicago, IL), will receive $100,000 prizes. (See full list of Top Ten Prize Finalists below and read more information about them at

“Lake Area Tech has a graduation rate that rivals most top-tier four-year colleges,” said Joshua Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program and author of What Excellent Community Colleges Do. “Every faculty and staff member has a single-minded focus: ensuring students succeed and are prepared for careers in good, available jobs.”

Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) has been a finalist-with-distinction each of the three years the Aspen Prize has been awarded since 2011. Its graduation/transfer rate is among the highest in the nation, fueled by its highly structured programs of defined courses and hands-on educational approach. LATI’s 2,000 students, most attending full-time, are guided into a technical program when they enroll – based on their aptitude, goals and interests – and guided on a clear pathway to a degree or certificate. LATI faculty track student success from start to finish and also work with local employers to build and fine-tune their exemplary workforce training programs to provide students with the exact skills they need to be job-ready. The college is part of a solid, perpetual employment loop with regional employers investing heavily in LATI and its students, providing equipment, scholarships, and field experiences and collaborating with instructors and hiring LATI graduates who then go on, as employers themselves to continue the cycle.

Student outcomes:
  • 73% graduation/transfer rate, among highest in the nation (40% national average)
  • 98% of graduates are employed or continuing their education six months after graduation
  • Graduates earn 49% more than  other new hires in the region

Community colleges today enroll more than 40 percent of all US undergraduates – 7 million students – working toward degrees and certificates. These include rapidly growing numbers of lower-income and minority students. While nationwide, fewer than half of all community college students graduate, Aspen Prize finalist institutions demonstrate that community colleges can help students achieve higher levels of success while in college and after they graduate.

At today’s Prize announcement event at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, national and state leaders joined in celebrating the program and the accomplishments of the finalists.  Speakers included Dr. Jill Biden, Second Lady of the United States; Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee – the first state in the nation to offer free community college; and Aspen Prize Jury co-chairs Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and former Governor of Indiana, and former Representative George Miller (D-CA).

"So many Americans are relying on community colleges to provide the stepping stones to a college degree and a better future,” Dr. Biden said.  “Our nation’s prosperity truly depends on our higher education system delivering more high-quality degrees to an increasingly diverse group of students. This is the time for community colleges to shine, and the institutions Aspen honors today are leading by example.”


September 4, 2014 - Lake Area Tech staff and students celebrated President Mike Cartney’s announcement that LATI was named - for the third time in a row - one of 10 finalists for the 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence!

LATI has earned a place on the 10 finalists’ list in each of the three years the prize has been awarded and was named a finalist-with-distinction in 2011 and 2013. The $1 million prize fund will be awarded in March 2015 in Washington, D.C. to the winner and up to four finalists-with-distinction.

“We're strong believers that if you stay focused on your student outcomes, then recognition like this is a natural flow from that,” Lake Area Tech President Mike Cartney said. “We're certainly in esteemed company, if you look at the other nine finalists. This is really a feather in not only LATI’s hat, but also for the Watertown School Board, the community, and South Dakota as a whole.  They all play a crucial role in the success of our students.”

The prize, awarded every two years, recognizes outstanding institutions selected from an original pool of more than 1,000 community colleges. With a singular focus on student success, the prize assesses community colleges’ achievements in four areas: student learning, certificate and degree completion, high rates of employment and earnings for graduates, and high levels of access and success for minority and low-income students.

“This small town college is delivering big results,” said Joshua Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program in Washington, D.C. “LATI has devised a clear and compelling set of pathways for students aligned to specific available jobs. Providing high-quality instruction that combines classroom and hands-on learning, LATI has come to be relied upon by students and employers alike to deliver excellent outcomes.”

LATI stands out as one of the nation’s top community colleges for many reasons, including:

  • 73% graduation/transfer rate—one of the highest rates among all US community colleges
  • Exemplary workforce training programs in 29 different disciplines—from aviation mechanics to nursing to welding—that result in exceptional levels of employment and strong earnings
  • Extensive partnerships with local businesses that result in regular, real-time assessments of and improvements in program quality
  • Strong pedagogical training for instructors, many hired directly out of the industries relevant to their programs

Aspen’s Finalist Selection Committee selected the 10 finalist institutions after reviewing extensive data on performance and improvements in learning, graduation, workforce outcomes, and equitable outcomes for all students, especially those in traditionally underserved racial/ethnic groups, and those from low-income backgrounds.

This fall, the Aspen Institute will conduct site visits to each of the 10 finalist institutions. Following a rigorous review process, a distinguished Prize Jury will select a grand prizewinner and up to four finalists-with-distinction to be announced in March 2015.

To read the news release, please click here.


In its second national awards presentation recognizing outstanding achievement in community colleges, the Aspen Institute named Lake Area Technical Institute one of the 2013 Top 4 two-year colleges in the nation! LATI also earned a finalist-with-distinction honor during the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence awards ceremony held in Washington, D.C. on March 19. For its achievement, the Aspen Institute awarded LATI $100,000 for program support.

Lake Area Tech learned last September it was a Top 10 finalist for the prestigious award that’s based on outstanding achievement in four areas: student learning outcomes, degree completion, labor market success in securing good jobs after school, and facilitating minority and low-income student success.

LATI President Deb Shephard and Vice-President Michael Cartney represented the school at the presentation. President Shephard said the award is a great honor that comes with responsibility.

“The award is a nice accolade and it keeps the pressure on us,” she said. “When we get this kind of recognition, we want to keep the momentum going and we don’t want to let anyone down. Students are going to expect more from us when they come to Lake Area Tech because of this award so we’ve got to deliver.”

The Aspen Institute recognized that three of every four full-time students who begin at Lake Area Tech graduate or transfer within three years – a rate among the highest of any community college in the nation. LATI was recognized during the selection process for high achievements including:

  • 76% of first-time, full-time students graduate or transfer to four-year colleges within three years, compared with the national average of 40%.
  • Recent graduates earn 40% more on average than other new hires in the area.
  • 41% of first-time, full-time students receive Pell grants, the main federal financial aid program for students.
  • “From the moment students enroll, Lake Area Technical Institute is structured so that students have a great chance of both completing their degrees and gaining the hands-on skills needed to land a good job,” said Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “With clear, rigorous programs aligned to available jobs, LATI shows the way to not just high graduation rates, but degrees with high value for both students and employers alike.

    President Shephard acknowledged the award is the result of a collective effort among many groups of people. “This award is not just for Lake Area Tech staff and students,” she said. “It’s for so many patrons starting with the Watertown School District administration, all of our business partners, state government, and the community. We’ve been building on this for decades.”

    Lake Area Tech shares the finalist-with-distinction honor with Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY. The co-winners of the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence are Walla Walla Community College in Walla Walla, WA and Santa Barbara City College in Santa Barbara, CA.

    (Left) LATI President Deb Shephard and Vice-President Michael Cartney attended the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence awards ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, March 19, 2013. The Aspen Institute awarded Lake Area Tech a finalist-with-distinction honor and recognized LATI as one of the Top 4 Community Colleges in the nation. (Middle) President Shephard and Dr. Jill Biden posed for a photo following the awards ceremony. (Right) Presidents of the two-year community colleges that were Top 10 finalists gathered following the ceremony to celebrate their achievements. Congratulations to Walla Walla Community College in Washington and Santa Barbara City College in California for being named co-winners of the Aspen Prize.


    September 5, 2012 - Lake Area Tech students learned today that - for the second year in a row - their school is one of the top 10 finalists for the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the nation’s signature recognition of high achievement and performance in America’s community colleges! Aspen officials released the 10 finalists today, chosen from an original pool of more than 1,000 community colleges. The Prize recognizes the most outstanding institutions for achievements in four areas: student learning outcomes, degree and college completion, labor market success in students securing jobs after college, and minority and low-income student success.

    “Lake Area Technical Institute not only leads the nation in graduation rates, but is also remarkably successful at connecting its graduates to competitive-wage jobs,” said Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “LATI is delivering success to students and the community, listening to what the labor market is saying and arming its students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, and that’s good for everyone’s bottom line.”

    Lake Area Tech joins three other top tech schools repeating as top 10 finalists including Santa Barbara City College, Santa Barbara, CA; Walla Walla Community College, Walla Walla, WA; and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Paducah, KY. Our hat goes off to those institutions as well as the six other community colleges selected as first-time finalists. Check back to our site often for updates throughout the selection process. The $1 million Prize will be awarded to the winner and up to four finalists with distinction in March of 2013 in Washington, D.C.

    Read the press release here

    Read more on the Aspen Prize

    Lake Area Tech was named as a Top Five Finalist with Distinction for the first Aspen Prize in 2011. Below is the history of LATI’s journey on the road to the Aspen Prize.


    LATI NursingWant to say you attended one of the best two-year schools in the nation? On December 12, 2011 Lake Area Tech was named among the TOP FIVE of two-year schools in the NATION by the Aspen Institute’s Community College Excellence program! That’s definite proof you learned from the best!

    Read more on the Aspen Prize

    What does it take to be TOP FIVE?

    LATI has been recognized for big-time student success. Our graduation rate is almost twice the national average, our programs lead immediately to real employment, and our graduates earn 22% more than other new hires in the regional labor market.

    That's right. In a first-ever effort to recognize the best-performing two-year colleges in the nation, LATI has emerged shining. The Aspen Prize competition - first unveiled at the White House Community College Summit in October 2010 – included a year-long, rigorous review of 1,200 U.S. two year colleges by the Aspen Institute. Aspen was looking for elements that "all U.S. community colleges should seek to emulate"; specifically a high bar for learning, a focus on college completion, and real attention to preparing students for 21st century jobs. After research, data collection and a campus visit from the Aspen Institute's finalist committee, Lake Area Tech placed in the top five of the original 1,200 two year colleges!

    LATI President Accepts Award at Announcement Ceremony in Washington, DC

    Deb accepting Aspen Award Deb accepting Aspen Award Deb accepting Aspen Award

    The "Top 5" announcement was made at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (Left) LATI President Deb Shephard accepted award from former Gov. of Michigan and Business Roundtable President John Engler. (Center) Scott Lawler of 3M was invited to be a panelist speaker at the event. Lawler emphasized the strength of LATI business partnerships and the effectiveness of LATI graduates. (Right) The Aspen prize competition, which began Oct. 2010, involved a rigorous review of 1,200 two-year colleges and was endorsed by such luminaries as President Obama and VP Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

    Check out what the experts are saying about Lake Area Tech (below):

    LATI is "blazing a trail of prosperity for students" (White House Blog)

    Through their Aspen applications, Lake Area Technical Institute (Watertown, SD), Miami Dade College (Miami, FL), Walla Walla Community College (Walla Walla, WA), and West Kentucky Community and Technical College (Paducah, KY) all demonstrated bold commitment to results in preparing students for academic and professional success...

    Read entire blog entry

    LATI has "exemplary workforce training" (The Aspen Institute)

    Thanks to aggressive grant-seeking and the school’s strong business partnerships, students learn on state-of-the-art equipment: the only truck chassis dynamometer at a South Dakota school; new John Deere tractors each year; a cadaver lab funded by a local hospital. Even the campus itself is a cutting edge tool, fitted with water control features that environmental technology students use as a learning lab...

    Read the full Aspen profile of LATI

    LATI "programs link directly to jobs" (Executive Director Josh Wyner)

    LATI is providing students with the skills they need- the hands on learning they need, to make sure that when they graduate- employers are going to be lining up to hire them, and give them jobs with good wages and benefits...

    Watch video with more comments from Josh Wyner

    LATI "makes it happen"(Scott Lawler, 3M)

    Colleges across the country have a lot to learn from the Lake Area structure and work with employers. Scott Lawler, a manager with 3M in Brookings, is one of those employers. He spoke at Monday’s award ceremony. With 3M plants in Aberdeen, New Ulm, Minn.; and Hutchinson, Minn.; Lawler said competition for Lake Area graduates is intense.

    "My peers fight for the kids out of Lake Area because they are so good," Lawler said. "The thing is, Lake Area listens to the kids. They listen to the business world and ask, 'How can we fit in?' Then they make it happen."...

    Read full article from the Argus Leader

    LATI is "far above the norm" (The Chronicle)

    The best community colleges, they found, were unusually focused and intentional when it came to structuring the learning experience. Large or small, the top two-years didn't just offer courses and wait for students to sign up. Lake Area Technical Institute, in South Dakota, for example, has 27 technical programs, each with a defined curriculum. Sixty-six percent of its students graduate within three years...

    Read The Chronicles article "For Community Colleges, a Time to Shine"

Lake Area Tech Named a 2016 Military Friendly ® School

Military Friendly

For the sixth consecutive year, Lake Area Technical Institute has been designated a 2016 Military Friendly® School by Victory Media. The Military Friendly® Schools designation is awarded to the top colleges, universities, community colleges, and trade schools in the country that are doing the most to embrace military students, and to dedicate resources to ensure their success both in the classroom and after graduation. Institutions competed for the elite Military Friendly® School title by completing a survey of more than 100 questions covering 10 categories, including military support on campus, graduation and employment outcomes, and military spouse policies.
“It is an honor to be named a 2016 Military Friendly School,” said Lake Area Tech VA Certifying Official Julie Forman. “We are dedicated to helping our service members translate the skills and experience gained while serving our country into educational success at Lake Area Tech. It is a huge transition for our military students and their families and we are here to assist them each step of the way.”

LATI leads military men and women to the region’s best careers.

In addition to its current array of student veteran services, Lake Area Tech has implemented new marketing and recruitment strategies. These include enhancing the veterans’ services and benefits website information and maintaining a veteran support coordinator. This year, LATI is participating in the Greenlight A Vet project. Greenlight A Vet shines a light on the impact transitioning veterans make in and out of uniform in communities across the country during Veterans Day week. The program aims to bring recognition to the veterans transitioning back to school, jobs and neighborhoods. Greenlight a Vet encourages everyone to participate by showing their support using a “visible symbol” (such as a green light bulb) saying even though we don’t always know who are vets are when they aren’t wearing uniforms, we should still show them support.
Now in its seventh year, the original, premier Military Friendly® Schools designation provides service members and their families with transparent, data-driven ratings about post-military education and career opportunities. Lake Area Technical Institute will be showcased along with other 2016 Military Friendly® Schools in the annual Guide to Military Friendly® Schools, special education issues of G.I. Jobs® and Military Spouse Magazine, and on

Lake Area Tech Named a “2015 Great College to Work For”

Great Colles To Work For.

Lake Area Technical Institute is one of the best colleges in the nation to work for, according to the latest survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. This is the seventh consecutive year Lake Area Tech has earned this designation. In addition, Lake Area Tech once again earned the distinction of being an Honor Roll school, a result of its high rankings in the categories surveyed. The results, released today in The Chronicle’s eighth annual report on The Academic Workplace, are based on a survey of 281 colleges and universities. In all, only 86 of the 281 institutions achieved “Great College to Work For” recognition for specific best practices and policies. This includes 62 four-year institutions and 24 two-year institutions. Of those, 42 institutions attained Honor Roll status. Results are reported for small, medium, and large institutions, with Lake Area Tech included among the small universities (2,999 students or fewer) category.

Lake Area Tech won honors in four categories:

  • Collaborative Governance
  • Job Satisfaction
  • Respect & Appreciation
  • Teaching Environment

This is a very satisfying affirmation of Lake Area Tech, but our real goal is not recognition – it’s being a community that values the needs and contributions of every individual working together towards our common goal of student success,” said Lake Area Tech Vice President Diane Stiles. “In that sense everyone at Lake Area Tech helps to make this a great place to work.” The Chronicle is the nation’s most important source of news about colleges and universities. “The institutions that the Great Colleges program recognizes provide innovative educational experiences – while also offering their employees outstanding workplace experiences – and we are eager to help readers learn more about them,” said Liz McMillen, The Chronicle’s editor. The survey results are based on a two-part assessment process: an institutional audit that captured demographics and workplace policies from each institution, and a survey administered to faculty, administrators, and professional support staff. The primary factor in deciding whether an institution received recognition was the employee feedback. To administer the survey and analyze the results, The Chronicle worked with ModernThink LLC, a strategic human capital consulting firm that has conducted numerous “Best Places to Work” programs, surveying hundreds of thousands of employees nationwide. Great Colleges to Work For is one of the largest and most respected workplace-recognition programs in the country. For more information and to view all the results of the survey, visit The Chronicle’s Web site at


President's Community Service Honor Roll

LATI Auto students help sand-bag


Nationally Honored for Community Service

LATI Named to Community Service Honor Roll with Distinction.


December 10, 2014. – Lake Area Tech was named to the 2014 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for its work in service learning projects both locally and nationally. Lake Area Tech students contributed well over 17,000 hours in community service projects for the 2014 award. Some of those projects included working at Joy Ranch; serving at the Banquet; helping staff with blood drives and flu shot clinics; organizing and contributing to food drives for the Salvation Army and PACH program; fundraising for the Ronald McDonald House, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Special Olympics, and Make-A-Wish; and providing Shoes 4 Kids for orphaned children of inner cities in the United States.

The Corporation for National and Community Service and the U.S. Department of Education honors the nation’s leading colleges and universities, students, and faculty members, and staff for their commitment to bettering their communities through community service and service learning.

“At Lake Area Tech, our faculty instills a sense of community involvement in our students from day one,” said Lake Area Tech Vice President Diane Stiles. “The exceptional leadership opportunities our students experience through community service creates a sense of pride and accomplishment that can only be developed outside of the classroom. We are humbled by this recognition, which truly is a testament to our staff and students’ efforts.”

Lake Area Tech is the only South Dakota college named to the Community Service Honor Roll with Distinction list. This marks the sixth time Lake Area Tech has received the community service recognition award. The award program has grown tremendously with approximately 766 colleges nation-wide submitting hours of community service to be considered for the honor this year.

“Service and higher education go hand in hand,” said Wendy Spencer, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service. “These schools are inspiring young leaders to roll up their sleeves and work alongside community members to solve problems. By recognizing the institutions who are leading the way to achieve meaningful, measurable results for the communities they serve, we also highlight the vital role all colleges and universities play in addressing community challenges and placing more students on a lifelong path of civic engagement.”