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2012 October 1 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Eyes on The Prize

Photo courtesy Walla Walla Community College
Culinary students at Walla Walla Community College watch an instructor at work.

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Eyes on The Prize
Ten Colleges Vie for Top Award from Aspen Institute
By Paul Bradley

That the winemaking industry has been the economic salvation of Walla Walla, Wash., can hardly be argued; the industry provides some 6,000 direct and indirect jobs, nearly 15 percent of all jobs in the region. It’s the main source of the area’s economic growth.

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Aspen Institute's Top 10

What’s less well-known is the instrumental role Walla Walla Community College played in uncorking the economic engine that has helped southeastern Washington state weather the economic downturn and become one of the nation’s top wine producing regions.

It was back in 2003 that WWCC opened its $4.1 million Center for Enology and Viticulture, among the first of its kind for a community college in the nation. The center gives students hands-on experience in winemaking, viticulture practices, and wine sales and has developed several acres of vineyards where students help manage the vineyard and oversee the growing of quality wine grapes.

Today, Walla Walla County is home to more than 100 wineries. In the late 1990s, they numbered only about 20. They include College Cellars of Walla Walla, WWCC’s own non-profit winery, which produces award-winning wines in the viticulture center.

“Our goal,” said college President Steven L. VanAusdale, “is to help our local winemakers make the best wines in the world.”

But more than creating beverages to sip and savor, WWCC has assumed a primary role in its regional economy. WWCC’s close ties with area business and industry and its ability to respond to their needs are among the reasons the college has been named by the Aspen Institute as one the top ten community colleges in the country — the second straight year it’s been so recognized.

“Walla Walla Community College stands out among the nation’s community colleges because it stays on top of local economic trends and job growth, creating innovative programs that create tomorrow’s jobs,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “Its focus on growing the regional economy from the ground up and providing the students to fuel that economy is outstanding.”

The ultimate goal of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence competition is to identify best practices that can be shared and scaled up across the country. Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges, including large numbers of low-income and Hispanic students. Community colleges enroll more than 7 million students, and the institutions are being called upon to boost graduation rates and improve the nation’s turgid recovery from the recession.

This is the second year that the Aspen Institute has sought to identify and recognize excellence in community colleges, sponsoring a competition that offers a $1 million prize fund to be awarded in March in Washington, D.C. to the winner and up to four finalists-with-distinction. Last year’s winner, Valencia College, was ineligible to compete this year.

But more than 1,000 community colleges did compete in a process that first winnowed potential winners to 120, and then narrowed them to the top ten. Colleges are being judged on their achievements in four areas: student learning outcomes; degree and college completion; labor market success in students securing jobs after college; and minority and low-income student success. Site visits to the finalists are now under way.

The ten finalists reflect the broad diversity of the community college sector itself. They range from the giant Broward College, with more than 56,000 students spread across three campuses and six educational centers in south Florida, to tiny Lake Tech Technical College, located in a corner of South Dakota with a service area of more than 18,000 square miles. They are located in crowded urban areas like Brooklyn, N.Y. (Kingsborough Community College) and rural outposts like Cumberland, Ky. (Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College).

What they have in common, Wyner said, is a willingness to adapt to their peculiar challenges, adopt approaches that work in addressing them and discarding those that don’t.

“The best colleges are developing policies that are consistent in meeting their challenges, and measuring those policies to see if they are working,” he said. “It’s a real willingness to recognize that serious challenges exist. It’s not finger-pointing. It’s a real hunger for finding out what works.”

VanAusdale said WWCC’s close ties to its regional economy are critical to the college’s success.

“We have been looking at this institution through an economic lens, not only for today, but for the future,” he said.

The same thing has been happening half a continent away
in Paducah, Ky., home of West Kentucky Community & Technical College, another of the Aspen Institute’s top ten finalists, and another that made the list for the second straight year. If Walla Walla found its economic niche in wine, Paducah discovered its in the world of art.

“For communities that are losing jobs, it’s important for the college to identify areas where students can get a job,” said college President Barbara Veazey. “We’ve worked very hard to identify those areas.”

So the college has a thriving marine technology degree program, owing to Paducah’s location at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. It’s allied health program produces nurses and lab technicians for one of the region’s fastest-growing jobs sectors.

But the college has perhaps become best-known for its support of Paducah’s flourishing arts scene. In 2008, the college opened its Paducah School of Art in the city’s Lower Town Arts District, which became nationally known a few years earlier for using the arts to foster economic development.

A once dilapidated, depressed area of the city is now home to more than 25 art galleries; since the district was launched with Artist Relocation Project in 200, more than $30 million has been invested in the area.

“The Artist Relocation Project really turned our city around and made it a tourist attraction,” Veazey said. “We asked ourselves, ‘what could we do to continue this?’”

That’s how the school was started, first in a rented storefront in Lower Town and soon to be located in a larger space now under construction in the district.

“You really have to be a part of your community,” Veazey said. “This is a niche we are working on very hard. We’re looking at things that would make a company want to come here. The goal is to make Paducah a very appealing town, and the college is trying to be a part of that.”

Different Roles

WKCTC awards primarily technical degrees, a far different role than that of Santa Barbara City College in California, which also made Aspen’s top ten list two years running, despite the fact that the college has lost 11 percent its state funding over the past two years. SBCC concentrates on college transfer and has a three-year transfer and graduation rate of nearly 64 percent.

College President Lori Gaskin said SBCC has tried to create and maintain a culture of excellence, despite the budget cuts that could have crippled the school.

“I think it’s a collective sense of priority,” she said. “There is a pervasive belief that a student’s educational journey at SBCC is of paramount importance. Students achieving their goals become our reason for being. It’s not just words.”

Part of the reason for the college’s success is its partnerships with area high schools, which embraces a cradle-to-career approach to education, Gaskin said. In the ninth grade, Santa Barbara high school students are required map out a ten-year educational plan. It’s revisited and adjusted on the 10th, 11th and 12th grades.

“The students start thinking about college readiness and career readiness,” Gaskin said. “They are constantly planning and making decisions. We’re trying to implant good choices and put them into practice.”

It’s a matter of creating a culture of excellence and high expectations, she said. Lake Area Technical Institute, a top ten finalist for two years in a row, has the same approach.

“Lake Area Technical Institute not only leads the nation in graduation rates, but is also remarkably successful at connecting its graduates to competitive-wage jobs,” Wyner said. “LATI is delivering success to students and the community, listening to what the labor market is saying and arming its students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace, and that’s good for everyone’s bottom line.”

Clear Path to Graduation

College President Deb Shephard said LATI has a rigid program structure that offers students a clear path from admission to graduation.

“We have an attendance requirement,” she said. “We can’t teach them if they are not here. They have a clear graduation plan from day one. Keeping them on that path is so important. It keeps everyone focused.”

At nearly 76 percent, LATI has one of the highest graduation and transfer rates of any community college in the U.S.The college offers workforce training programs in 27 different areas.

Shephard said she is humbled that the college has been singled out for praise. But more than that, the awards process has been a valuable learning experience.

“We’ve learned a lot,” she said. “Community colleges are different from one another, but they’re the same. “The successful ones are those that focus attention on the student and make connections between students and instructors. The whole process has helped us improve what we do.”

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