Walla Walla Community College among top 5 in U.S.

Walla Walla Community College was named one of the top five community colleges in the nation Monday and received $100,000 in prize money at an event in the nation's capital.

The school was one of four "finalists with distinction" for the inaugural Aspen Prize, created to highlight two-year colleges that do exceptional work in educating students and training them for good jobs. The prize was awarded by the nonprofit Aspen Institute.

"I think what this does is really shine a spotlight on community colleges, as a game changer for really strengthening the economy," said Walla Walla President Steve VanAusdle, who flew to Washington, D.C., to accept the award.

The top prize winner was Valencia Community College in Florida, which received $600,000.

Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who helped present the award, said, "One of the most impressive things about this college (Walla Walla) is that they award degrees and certificates that are tied to real jobs."

Walla Walla graduates' wages are about 260 percent higher than the average wage paid to first-time hires in the area, he said.

VanAusdle said the Aspen Institute did an economic study of the wages that Walla Walla college graduates received in 2010, and the average was $54,000 a year. Locally, new hires that were not graduates of the school averaged $20,000 a year.

Walla Walla made the final cut because its full-time, first-year students have a college-graduation and transfer rate about 12 percent higher than the national average, and that rate is improving, and minority students do equally as well as nonminority students, Aspen Institute officials said.

The community college also has been nimble at changing its degree offerings as the local economy has changed.