Walla Walla Community College is a small, rural school doing big things, as confirmed by its recent designation as one of the top five community colleges in America by the Aspen Institute

COLLEGE rankings and prizes crop up with numbing frequency, but Walla Walla Community College’s designation as one of America’s top five two-year schools is a well-deserved tribute to a fast-rising institution.

As one of four “finalists with distinction” for the inaugural Aspen Prize — an honor created by the nonprofit Aspen Institute to spotlight community colleges doing exceptional work — Walla Walla is rightly hailed as a leader in educating students and training them for good-paying jobs.

An economic study by the Aspen Institute showed Walla Walla graduates’ wages in 2010 averaged about $54,000 a year. That’s outstanding compared with local new hires who were not graduates of the school and whose wages averaged only $20,000 a year.

Community colleges play a valuable role in improving the economy. Strong leadership is the key. Kudos to Walla Walla President Steve VanAusdle for steering the school on a path closely aligned with the local labor market and for connecting academic programs to real jobs. A good example is the Center for Enology and Viticulture, which smartly complements Washington’s thriving wine industry.

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Over the years, employers have come to value the college and the degrees the school produces.

Walla Walla also enjoys a fine record preparing students for further intellectual pursuits. Full-time, first-year students have a graduation and transfer rate that is 12 percent higher than the national average. Minority students do as well as nonminority students.

This is the kind of success that ought to encourage the state Legislature to pursue more, not less, funding for higher education.

Attention paid by the Aspen Institute highlights a school that richly deserves the attention. It is also confirmation of the importance of investing in our state’s educational institutions.