It was a notable achievement the first time. But for the second year in a row Lake Area Technical Institute has been listed as one of the top ten two-year schools in the country.
That distinction comes from the Aspen College Excellence Program which rates schools based on a variety of factors ranging from student success to job placement after graduation.
"I'm so glad I came here. One of the best choices I ever made was coming here. So it does not surprise me one bit, no," business student David Noby said.
"Once I started coming here I knew why it was," nursing student Marielle Bucklin said.
Lake Area Tech was one of only four schools in the country to make the top ten list for the second year in a row.
The Aspen Institute conducted the study of two-year schools and assembled its list of finalists based on student outcomes, completion rates and job placement after graduation. It also considers the success of minority and low income students.
"The South Dakota system works very well. We have graduation plans where when a student comes into school, they know exactly what they need to do for success," Lake Area Tech vice president Michael Cartney said.
In its study the Aspen Institute sited Lake Area Tech's student completion rate which leads the nation and its very high rate of students who either find jobs or continue their education within a year of graduating.
The recognition doesn't surprise Watertown businessman Ed Mallett.
"They're finally recognized for the great job that they've done through the years," Mallett said. "We hire kids from Lake Area and they are truly ready for the workforce."
From agriculture to aviation, the school has advisory boards for each of its departments made up of industry professionals from the region. They help decide what types of curriculum will best prepare students for the real world.
"We give our input, how things are evolving in our business and how that fits the student curriculum," Mallett said.
And the school takes that input to heart. Administrators say the school creates and then further develops programs based on employer demand.
In the school's physical therapy assistant program, director Chris Barrett says that's helped her students find work.
"They call us when they have job openings, and they know that our students are really good students,” Barrett said. “They hit the ground running; they know what they need to know, and they actually function very well as new graduates."
The school could earn an even higher distinction after professionals visit each of the top-ten schools and determine a grand prize winner and up to four finalists.
Lake Area Tech finished in the top five last year which came with a $100,000 prize. A committee made up of a variety of people ranging from students to administration decided where that money would go.
The committee decided to fund four initiatives designed to further improve the school and keep it at a standard worthy of national recognition year after year.
"They've already helped me out with so much," Noby said.
"We're really proud of the school. It's a very great school to be at," Amber Boyle said.
And with a top five finish last year, the school is shooting for the number one spot this time around.
The Aspen Institute will announce the Grand Prize winner and up to four finalists in March. The panel to determine that list is made up of three people including the U.S. Secretary of Education.