WW Community College rides escalator to success

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Walla Walla Community College has received unprecedented recognition this year. The Aspen Institute named WWCC as the co-winner of the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

More recently thebestschools.org, a leading higher education and careers website ranked Walla Walla Community College as the number one community college in the United States.

The success that has generated this recognition can be attributed to at least three factors:

SBltThe college is aligned with the needs of the community and region.

SBlt The college provides access to students of all ages and educational backgrounds.

SBlt The college uses assessment information in cycles of continuous improvement.

In regard to alignment, WWCC has been responsive to, often anticipating, the employment needs of the area. Education programs that do not benefit the community or the region have been eliminated while programs that align with the needs of the regional economy have been initiated or expanded.

Even during recent periods of state funding reductions WWCC has responded to needs of growing industries and expanded employment opportunities.

Because WWCC has had forward-looking and risk-taking leadership from the Board of Trustees through the faculty and staff, it has expanded access for students.

Enrollment is one way to measure access. At WWCC, per capita enrollment in Workforce programs is two times the state average.

Enrollment in academic transfer programs is 1.5 times more than the state average on a per capita basis.

Enrollment of the basic skills students is 1.3 times that of the state average on a per capita basis.

WWCC has the highest service level (enrollment per 1,000 population) of the 35 community colleges in the state. This means a lot of higher education opportunities for Walla Walla students.

Alignment and access alone do not assure success. Walla Walla Community College is constantly assessing student outcomes at the course, instructional program and degree levels. These assessments feed into annual and long-term planning cycles to improve instruction and student services and thereby continue to increase student success.

So, the 3 A’s: alignment, access and assessment have been key to institutional and student success at WWCC. Those elements are pretty much the “what.”

In addition to what, success is dependent upon “how.”

When I think about how, my mind thinks in pictures. My “brain picture” of our college is a multi-story department store with high-quality degrees and certificates and student services available on various floors.

A series of escalators and elevators connect these areas to each other and to the outside world. Skywalks connect WWCC to baccalaureate and higher degrees.

A stair can get people (students) to the next floor, but the student has to do all the work. That seems to be only the facility part of a college. “If you build it, they will come!”

But, will they succeed?

That is where we need the escalator. An escalator takes a lot of moving parts working in perfect synchronization to keep the stairway moving. One failing part can bring the entire device (college) to a grinding halt.

Escalators have high sidewalls (limits, requirements, guidelines, expectations) to keep the people on the steps. The riders have to pay attention, find the escalator (marketing), step on (admissions, testing, orientation, attendance), hold on to the hand rail and watch their step.

People who want to accelerate their journey can run up the escalator. By exerting more of their own energy they can go higher, faster. People with additional burdens, such as young children or large packages, may require more help or different systems, like an elevator.

When I think about WWCC I see an escalator of hope that helps students discover and accomplish their goals. Everyone working together in perfect synchronization at WWCC shares in the recognition the college has received. The success of the college is the sum total of the success of each part of our WWCC escalator (employees) working together with our amazing students.

Success defined: The Aspen Institute found that WWCC students graduate or transfer at a rate of 54 percent compared to the national average of 40 percent. WWCC graduates earn 79 percent more — on the average — than do other new hires in the area ($41,548 compared to $23,244). WWCC enrolls a larger proportion of under-represented minority students than is present in the college’s service area, and under-represented minorities at WWCC succeed at rates well above the national average (48 percent compared to 34 percent).

Are we pleased with our accomplishments and recognition at WWCC? Yes. Are we satisfied? Not completely.

According to the Lumina Foundation, one of the funding sponsors of the Aspen Prize, to be competitive, our nation will need 60 percent of the working-age population to hold at least an associate degree or a high-quality credential by 2018.

Currently less than 40 percent of the U.S. population holds such. In Washington state, 42 percent of the state’s working-age adults hold at a least a two-year degree.

We need to have more students finish what they start at WWCC to reduce the skills gap.

There are a couple of strategies the college will work on immediately. WWCC will extend our “escalators” to the K-12 system and to baccalaureate institutions so that all students have clear, coordinated pathways to reach their educational goals.

One example is under way with the construction of the South East Area Skills Center on the WWCC campus. This will create exceptional opportunities for shared curriculum and articulated programs.

WWCC has joined a national network of postsecondary institutions known as Achieving the Dream. Through this coalition of high-achieving institutions, WWCC will learn more about using data to improve instruction and outcomes.

Through the recent recognition programs, we have learned so much about ourselves. We know the value of that and look forward to learning even more.

WWCC has accomplished so much, and we are very proud of that. Our community is very proud of our college. The best is yet to come!

Jim Peterson is vice president of Administrative Services at Walla Walla Community College.

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