Walla Walla CC gets $100,000 as one of nation's top 5 community colleges
The two-year school received the prize money from the nonprofit Aspen Institute at an event Monday in the nation's capital.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Walla Walla Community College — one of the state's small, rural two-year-schools in the heart of Washington wine country — was named one of the top five community colleges in the nation Monday and received $100,000 in prize money at an event in the nation's capital.
The school was one of four "finalists with distinction" for the inaugural Aspen Prize, created to highlight two-year colleges that do exceptional work in educating students and training them for good jobs. The prize was awarded by the nonprofit Aspen Institute.
"I think what this does is really shine a spotlight on community colleges, as a game changer for really strengthening the economy," said Walla Walla President Steve VanAusdle, who flew to Washington, D.C., to accept the award.
The top prize winner was Valencia Community College in Florida, which received $600,000.
Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who helped present the award, said "One of the most impressive things about this college (Walla Walla) is that they award degrees and certificates that are tied to real jobs."
Walla Walla graduates' wages are about 260 percent higher than the average wage paid to first-time hires in the area, he said.
VanAusdle said the Aspen Institute did an economic study of the wages that Walla Walla college graduates received in 2010, and the average was $54,000 a year. Locally, new hires that were not graduates of the school averaged $20,000 a year.
VanAusdle said the school's health-occupations program helped contribute to the high figure.
Walla Walla administrators found out in September that the school had been selected as one of the top-10 schools, after the institute analyzed graduation rates, postgraduate employment figures and other data for more than 1,000 community colleges across the nation.
"It was a data-driven competition, in many regards," said VanAusdle.
Engler and former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley, who was secretary of education during the Clinton administration, co-chaired the award-selection committee and gave out the trophies.
"What a screening committee — Riley and Engler," VanAusdle said. "Pretty amazing folks."
Also in attendance at the ceremony: Education Secretary Arne Duncan and community-college English professor Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph Biden.
Back in Walla Walla, more than 100 students and staff watched a live webcast of the ceremony at the school's Student Activity Center, while snacking on popcorn.
Walla Walla made the final cut because its full-time, first-year students have a college-graduation and transfer rate about 12 percent higher than the national average, and that rate is improving, and minority students do equally as well as nonminority students, Aspen Institute officials said.
The community college also has been nimble at changing its degree offerings as the local economy has changed.
Its enology (the study of winemaking) and viticulture (the study of growing grapevines for winemaking) programs have helped fuel the expansion of wineries in the Walla Walla area by teaching students how to make great wine.
And now that Walla Walla's wines have put the town on the tourist map, the college is expanding its culinary, performing- and visual-arts programs — the kinds of entertainment that wine-tasting tourists seek out when planning a vacation, VanAusdle said.
Information from the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin was included in this report. Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.
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