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It’s a great story: Little community college in a rural Washington town sees the potential in a growing local wine industry and scrapes up enough money to start a program in enology and viticulture.

Then it sees the potential in wind energy and begins training residents how to fix and maintain wind turbines, which are sprouting across the hills like daisies.

The college also does less showy things, like hiring completion coaches to help students on the verge of dropping out, cutting back on courses and programs that aren’t leading to high-paying jobs and boosting the size of programs that are.

All those successes helped Walla Walla Community College win the national Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence on Tuesday, sharing the win with Santa Barbara City College in California.

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When it became clear that the school had tied for first place, “there were uproarious cheers” from students and faculty gathered in the school’s Student Activities Center, said Wendy Samitore, vice president of student affairs. The school streamed a live broadcast of the ceremony as it took place at the Newseum, an interactive museum of news and journalism in Washington, D.C.

Each school will receive a $400,000 prize — and earn bragging rights as the top community college in the nation.

The prize, awarded by the nonprofit Aspen Institute, recognizes achievements in such areas as degree completion, success in helping students get good jobs after college, and helping minority and low-income students finish their education.

About 54 percent of Walla Walla’s first-time, full-time students transfer or graduate within three years; the national average is 40 percent. The school’s new graduates in 2011 earned an average of $41,548 — about 80 percent higher than other local workers who were newly hired.

And 48 percent of minority students graduated or transferred within three years, higher than the national average of 34 percent.

Walla Walla was a fourth-place finisher last year for the prize and used a large portion of the $100,000 prize money for financial aid for students who were close to completing their degree, President Steve VanAusdle said.

He said he expects to do the same with the bigger prize, as well as to use it for staff development.

The prize, created in part to raise national awareness of community-college programs with strong success rates, has attracted international attention to Walla Walla. The college was visited this year by 73 faculty members from a Kentucky college, and a representative from a college in Santiago, Chile, will be on campus next week to talk about a wine-training partnership, VanAusdle said.

On Tuesday, after accepting the prize before an audience of national education leaders, VanAusdle described how the school reinvented itself in the 1990s, when unemployment was high in Eastern Washington.

The school grew its nursing program, formed a partnership with farm-equipment manufacturer John Deere for a training center, trimmed programs that weren’t helping students get good jobs and began promoting wine production — at the time, a tiny industry with just 17 or 18 wineries in the Walla Walla Valley.

“We pulled the leaders together and said, ‘Let’s think about this — Can we work together as a college and a community and grow this industry to 25 or 30 wineries?’” VanAusdle recounted. Twenty years later, the school has a Center for Enology and Viticulture, and the number of wineries has grown to 170.

The growth of the wine industry also made Walla Walla a tourist destination, VanAusdle told the D.C. audience. “So we want you all to come, because a wine tourist spends 2.5 times as much as an average tourist.

“We’re improving life for all Americans through great wine,” he added, drawing a chuckle.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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