In 2011 Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) was one of 120 community colleges invited by the Aspen Institute to participate in the inaugural Prize for Community College Excellence. Of approximately 1,200 community and technical colleges in the United States, WWCC ranked among the top five and was recognized as a “college of distinction.” In 2013, WWCC rose to the top and was awarded the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, sharing the number one spot with Santa Barbara College.
How is “excellence” defined, and can it be sustained? How is WWCC measuring up in the two years since receiving the recognition from the Aspen Institute?
Clearly, there are many ways to define, identify, and measure the attributes indicating excellence. Arguably, we are awash in so many rating and ranking systems that they can seem meaningless. However, the indicators governing the criteria for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence shine a spotlight on student success and achievement. That has meaning across the board, and resonates for us at WWCC because student success is our mission. For WWCC, student success begins with access and opportunity as it pertains to enrollment, student persistence and retention, and completion. Across the entire college, everyone works to ensure students fulfill their goals and finish what they start. Yet, completing a degree is not enough on its own; we are also concerned with how our graduates fare after leaving WWCC. Are Academic Transfer students enrolling at baccalaureate institutions to further their education? Are Workforce Education students securing family wage jobs?
The following charts show trends for student retention and completion and transfer at WWCC. I’ll begin with retention, since it is necessary to achieve while on the way to completion. The chart below presents WWCC’s retention rate from 2009 – 2014 using Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data. The advantage of IPEDS data is that it is a national standard and the source that informs the “first cut” of the Aspen Prize process. The chart shows the percentage of first time, full time, degree seeking students at WWCC whose enrollment persisted from their first Fall Quarter to the following Fall Quarter. The most recent data shows a retention rate of 67%, while our peer institutions averaged 60%. Who are our peers in this instance? The selection of peers is based on a set of similar characteristics, such as public, 2-year institution, city size, western states, and enrollment. There are 28 colleges in the peer comparison, six of which are in Washington.
The next chart presents WWCC’s completion and transfer data, again from IPEDS. The chart shows the percentage of WWCC students that complete a program of study as well as those students who transfer to a baccalaureate institution to continue their studies. WWCC performance in this area is notable, with every data point exceeding 50 percent and averaging out at 55 percent over the past five years. To put that into context, our peers reflect the national average, which is about 35 percent over the five year span. Our own research shows that within one year of completing their studies, 48 percent of our Academic Transfer students enroll in a baccalaureate institution and 83 percent of our Workforce Education graduates secured employment.
WWCC has gained a national reputation as a leader in moving the “completion agenda,” which recognizes the importance and value of attaining 2- or 4-year higher education credential for individuals and the communities where they reside. Gone are the days when one could land a high paying job with a high school diploma. In today’s globalizing economy, good jobs require skill sets that are acquired in higher education: critical thinking, written and verbal communication, and digital literacy. There is also a growing body of evidence showing that regions endowed with an educated and skilled population attract investment, fueling regional economic development. This is the starting point. In essence, we need to prepare our students to become independent, lifelong learners. The ability to learn and adapt is necessary in today’s ever changing labor market. The creativity and innovation displayed by WWCC to further the completion agenda has most recently been recognized by the Gates Foundation. We have been asked to participate in a project aptly named “Project Finish Line,” and to mentor a group of our sister colleges in the state as they move toward adopting some of our most effective practices that “move the needle” on completions.
How does WWCC sustain this level of performance? Upon receiving the Aspen Prize, WWCC President Steve VanAusdle stated that even though we’re at the top, we’re not satisfied, and there is always room to improve. Our work to provide equitable access to high quality education is never done. At the end of the day, as a community, as a society, we need more people to walk through the doors, enroll, and earn a higher education credential.
Dr. Nick Velluzzi
Director of Institutional Planning, Research, and Assessment