The Aspen Institute’s decision to once again name Walla Walla Community College one of the top 10 community colleges in the nation reflects highly on the integrity of Aspen’s second-annual rankings.
It means the Washington, D.C.-based education and policy study think tank is focusing on the nation’s best schools, not merely giving a variety of schools an opportunity to be recognized.
When the top 10 was narrowed to a final five last year, WWCC was among the elite group. In this year’s 10 top, West Kentucky Community College and Technical College and Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D were also included for a second year. WWCC is the only school in Washington state or the Pacific Northwest honored.
Given WWCC’s success long before Aspen started its rankings, we are not surprised it was awarded this honor two years in a row. We would imagine WWCC will routinely be tabbed for the top 10 and we expect at some point — perhaps this year — it will be selected as the nation’s top school.
These awards aren’t only about prestige. They also carry a cash prize. The winning school each year receives $600,000 while the other four schools in the top five are awarded $100,000.
WWCC President Steve VanAusdle said the college used about half its money for financial aid to students. The other half went to training and other efforts to support student success.
“It is all about student success, and investing in strategies that help us do a better job in helping students finish what they start,” he said.
WWCC has its focus in the right place, which is why it has once again stood out.
The local college has higher completion rates and a larger number of students going on to four-year colleges than comparable schools. This gave WWCC an edge in the competition.
Last year WWCC was lauded for its innovative programs that succeed in earning students good jobs after graduation. These innovations likely gave WWCC a lift again this year.
The college has several programs, including those offered at the Water & Environmental Center and the Center for Enology and Viticulture. The Enology Center, which opened in 2002, is the first teaching and commercial winery in the country at a two-year college.
“They commended us for the relationship between our Workforce training programs and labor market needs. We’ve aligned that over the years. ... The thing that got us in the top 10 is good outcomes,” VanAusdle said. “After we were fortunate to make it into the top five, we want to be number one.”
And it’s the desire to succeed — and the willingness to work — by VanAusdle and his staff that will eventually earn WWCC that top spot.