WWCC: Sowing seeds for innovation

With a national award under its belt, WWCC's is showing why it's no coincidence the area has one of the lowest jobless rates in the state.

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One would think winning the distinction of being among the top five of more than 1,000 community colleges in the nation would be enough of a glow to last for a while.

Not so for Walla Walla Community College, which in December received that honor by the Aspen Institute along with an accompanying $100,000 prize.

Although still feeling euphoric about the award, WWCC President Steve VanAusdle said he will convene key staff this month to discuss "lessons learned" in the national competition for the Aspen Prize. In short, that means brainstorming what the college might work on to maybe this year be the top prize winner, which in December went to Valencia College, a 60,000-student, two-year school in Orlando, Fla.

VanAusdle said he hasn't heard specifically from judges what tipped the balance toward Valencia compared to WWCC and three other runners-up, but being among that company of colleges "certainly reminds ourselves of some of the outcomes the Aspen Institute is looking for ... to address challenges of having a skilled, committed work force."

Nor will he tip his hand to what he thinks his 8,400-student college could do better; that's something he'd like to hear from staff when it convenes.

But he does use the word "innovation," which has become a kind of mantra for WWCC as well as among national leaders who see community colleges as a traditional bridge between high school and higher learning, and now more than ever -- in a tough economy -- a direct path to better-paying jobs.

The Aspen Prize is funded by the Joyce Foundation, Lumina Foundation, Bank of America Charitable Foundation and JPMorgan Chase Foundation. The institute, based in Washington, D.C., Aspen, Colo., and Wye River, Md., has an international network of partners who foster values-based leadership across social, economic, business, political, scientific, education and cultural spectrums.

An Aspen Prize publication the institute put out noted WWCC has 103 programs divided evenly among career technical education and general education and college transfer courses.

"But it is strong connections with local employers and the community that stand at the center of WWCC's success," the publication said. "Using a combination of sophisticated data analysis and deep engagement on regional economic development, the community college identifies projected areas of job growth and then provides students with the skills and credentials needed to succeed in those jobs."

Indeed, Walla Walla County in November reported a jobless rate of 6.2 percent, one of the lowest in the state and far below the nation's 8.6 percent rate.

Said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in congratulating WWCC: "Walla Walla is doing some of the most innovative work in the nation when it comes to connecting workers to local jobs and careers and tailoring their degree offering to meet the needs of the local economy. This is a model that works, and the Aspen Institute was absolutely correct to highlight these efforts as a model for the rest of the country."

Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, also used "innovation" in her congratulatory note to all top five colleges: Valencia, WWCC and Lake Area Technical Institute, Watertown, S.D.; Miami Dade College, Miami, Fla; and West Kentucky Community and Technical College, Paducah, Ky.

"Our best community colleges are on the cutting edge of innovation, showing us what can happen when a college reaches beyond its campus to partner with businesses and four-year colleges in order to expand opportunity, provide intensive preparation for career, and ensure excellence leading up to graduation and into the work force," she wrote. "As the unsung heroes of higher education, these schools are shining examples of what can happen when institutions work hard to improve student learning and increase degree completion."

WWCC has a long history of such business-education partnerships and innovation tailored to the Valley's present economy and also with an eye toward future trends.

Among offerings it has established in the past 15 years are its partnership with John Deere in farm equipment maintenance and dealership management programs; a turf management program; its Center for Enology and Viticulture, complete with a nation's first teaching winery at a community college; and a culinary arts program to complement the local surge in fine restaurants the wine industry has engendered. More recently WWCC has launched watershed ecology and management programs and a wind energy technology program.

Such innovation did not escape John Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's College Excellence Program, which noted that 2010 graduates from Walla Walla earn more than twice the wages of other new entrants -- $54,756 compared to $20,904 -- in the regional labor market.

"Some colleges wait to respond to the labor market, but Walla Walla analyzes data and anticipates needs, building programs (that) respond," Wyner said in a prepared statement. "The prize jury was impressed with the college's adaptability, which has been crucial to meeting students' needs for job-relevant credentials."

High overall graduation and transfer rates also were noted. Within three years of entering WWCC, 53 percent of full-time students graduate or transfer to four-year colleges and universities. The national rate is 39 percent.

Graduation and transfer rates at WWCC for minority students, which stood at 42 percent in 2010, also exceeded a national rates of 33 percent.

Valencia College with a student population more than seven times larger than WWCC, reported similar overall graduation and transfer rates. Among minority students, however, graduation rates among college-ready African American students nearly triple in the past decade, from 15.4 percent to a current 44.3 percent. For Hispanic students, the rate increased from 38.7 to 45.5 percent over the period.

In congratulating Valencia in being the first winner of the Aspen Prize, Barnes noted the college "offers clear pathways to student success, from associate's degree programs with guaranteed admission to the selective University of Central Florida to technical degree programs that have career advisers embedded in each program.

"The environment at Valencia is marked by professors and administrators taking responsibility for student success, consistently asking what they each can do to improve student outcomes," she wrote from the White House. "... These outcomes are important to Valencia's diverse student body (about half are Hispanic or African American), a significant number of whom come from lower-income households."

To VanAusdle, standings in the Aspen Prize are less important than continuing to push forward the guiding mission of WWCC.

"I think what this does is really shine a spotlight on community colleges as a game changer for really strengthening the economy," he said shortly after the Aspen awards were announced.

Egils Milbergs, executive director of the Washington Economic Development Commission, put it this way about WWCC in the Aspen Prize publication: "The attitude is not about buying into the recession. It's about inventing the future."

Thomas P. Skeen can be reached at tomskeen@wwub.com or (509) 526-8320.

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