WALLA WALLA -- Walla Walla Community College has been named among the top 10 community colleges in the country by the Aspen Institute.
The distinction has made the college a competitor for the first College Excellence Program, which will give the top college $1 million.
Aspen Institute announced its 10 finalists in September, with the top college and runners-up to be named in December.
The award looks to recognize innovation, achievement and success at the nation's community and technical colleges.
The college's Center for Enology and Viticulture was just one of several programs at the college recognized as innovative, and demonstrating an understanding of what is driving jobs and the economy in the community.
The center opened in 2002 and was the first teaching and commercial winery at a two-year college in the country. It also sells wine under its College Cellars label, with grapes grown on a 5-acre vineyard off campus.
The community college also is known for successful nursing and medical programs, the new Water & Environmental Center and a new focus on wind technology.
The college was rated highly for a high graduation rate and for getting students into the work force.
It also stood out for helping students transition from high school to college, and for reaching disadvantaged and nontraditional students.
"Walla Walla Community College is doing great things for students and the Walla Walla Valley," said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, in a news release.
"The school deserves special recognition for its success in helping students overcome gaps in their K-12 education to finish their programs and complete college."
WWCC President Steve VanAusdle said Aspen's efforts show a keen understanding of the challenges the nation is currently facing.
There are high-skill jobs in demand, but not enough skilled workers. Meanwhile, an abundance of low-skill workers are trying to fill a smaller pool of low-skill work.
"Can community colleges in this country build a bridge for these individuals, to move them into high-skill jobs?" VanAusdle said.
What VanAusdle and the college's faculty and staff work to do is get students into those high-skill jobs -- whether by earning certificates, associates degrees, or transferring to four-year schools.
VanAusdle, like the Aspen Institute, believes community colleges will play an increasingly important role bolstering the economy by getting students trained with the right skills.
"I see all of this coming around the importance of talent," he said. "Talent at the very heart of it is the skills."
Part of the Aspen College Excellence Program includes learning best practices from top colleges that can be replicated or applied at other institutions.
If nothing else, VanAusdle said, WWCC will benefit from Aspen's detailed analysis of its programs.
It can also stand to benefit from the successes of other colleges.
Yet being named in the top 10 has been a confirmation of the hard work going on at the college.
"I thought it was a great honor for the college," VanAusdle said, giving praise to his faculty and staff.
"They've really earned this honor through hard work and focus."
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317.