Share story

WALLA WALLA — With its picturesque main street and pleasant, tree-lined neighborhoods, Walla Walla was recently named the friendliest small town in America.

The epicenter of a celebrated wine industry, its All-American atmosphere also harbors a soul that’s ambitious and entrepreneurial.

It’s an attitude that extends to the local community college, too. So when Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) took a hard look at the number of students it was losing every year — students on the verge of completing their degrees, but who instead simply drifted away — administrators knew they needed to take action.

Why did students quit?

Why didn’t they transfer to four-year colleges, or finish the credentials that would add heft to their résumés?

The questions, while vexing for college leaders, were not new, or even unique.

Nationally, only about 40 percent of first-time, full-time students at community colleges complete a degree or transfer within three years.

The statewide rate is higher — about 47 percent — but still well below the completion rate for Washington’s public four-year colleges.

The implications are great in Washington state, where more students attend two-year colleges than four-year universities, and a high-school diploma alone no longer cuts it in the state’s increasingly high-tech job market.

Walla Walla Community College has long been credited with paying attention to, and even shaping, the area’s economy, preparing its students for emerging local jobs that pay well. About six years ago, it shifted its attention to completion rates, looking for ways to keep students firmly on the paths it had created and get those who’d fallen off track back on it.

To that end, it developed an evolving set of individualized advising practices, and related software tools, that together have helped hundreds more students to earn degrees and certificates each year.

Before the counseling push began, the college was conferring about 1,600 degrees and certificates a year. After three years, with little change in enrollment, it had boosted that number to more than 2,000.

About 56 percent of Walla Walla’s first-time, full-time students now transfer or graduate within three years — well above the state and national average. Its minority students in particular do well, earning credentials at a rate more than three times the national average.

The impressive track record
drew the attention of the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C., a national think tank that recently began spotlighting community colleges across the country that excel in certain areas, including high completion and transfer rates.

After poring over
data from more than 1,000 community colleges, the institute named WWCC a first-place winner for 2013, in a tie with Santa Barbara City College. The award included $400,000 for each school.

“While small towns elsewhere in rural America struggle,” the institute noted, Walla Walla Community College “has helped create a bright future for residents in its local community.”

Since then, college administrators from around the country have flocked to the rural campus to learn what the school is doing right.

Earlier this year, Kentucky alone sent 77 people, someone from every community college in the state.

“We are unique,” said Wendy Samitore, WWCC’s vice president of student services. When it comes to confronting problems, “we roll up our sleeves and just do ’em.”

Majority drop out

Washington’s community-college system is expansive, serving more students than the state’s four-year colleges and universities — public and private — combined.

In fact, its 34 community and technical colleges form the backbone of the state’s higher-education system, conferring degrees, credentials and workforce training that for many are a springboard to solid, middle-class careers.

Yet for reasons as multifaceted as the diverse group of students drawn to community colleges, fewer than half who start at one in Washington graduate or transfer in three years.

One reason: Unlike four-year colleges and universities, which weed out lower-performing students through admission decisions, community colleges are open to all. They serve higher rates of low-income and minority students, who as groups are often less prepared for college.

About 57 percent of students entering community college for the first time need extra academic help, most often in math. And some flounder when presented with an ambitious catalog of options and pathways but little guidance about which will lead to a job that pays well.

Nearly half are trying to work while going to school, and many are also raising families.

All these realities play out at Walla Walla Community College.

A midsized school with an enrollment of around 10,000, Walla Walla offers 53 degree programs and 50 certificate programs, with about 42 percent of its students pursuing workforce training.

In 2013, the average age of students was 29. More than half were attending part-time, and about a third were minorities.

A startup’s principles

Established in 1967 and led by the same president, Steve VanAusdle, since 1984, the school has long embraced a guiding philosophy that sounds like the action plan for a tech startup:

Search for low-hanging fruit. Find problems that can be solved relatively easily. Start with a pilot program, then grow it if it works. Be intentional and data-driven. And don’t be afraid to take risks.

In many ways, it had to adopt those principles.

In the late 1990s, the economy of the southeastern corner of Washington was rapidly shifting. A sawmill in Walla Walla shut down. A cannery that was an important source of local jobs closed its doors.

“We needed to reinvent ourselves,” VanAusdle said.

The college took an entrepreneurial leap, creating its own enology and viticulture program to support a nascent wine industry. To that it recently added a culinary program, training a new generation of chefs.

The programs are small, but together they have helped nurture Walla Walla’s wine, food and cultural offerings to make it a tourist destination, VanAusdle said.

The college also has paid attention to technology that has reshaped the Eastern Washington economy.

When wind turbines started to spring up in the dry, windy hills outside of Walla Walla, the college started a wind-turbine technology program to train technicians for work that pays about $35,000 a year.

Its tractor certification program, run in partnership with John Deere dealerships, attracts students from around the Western U.S., with graduates who intern at the dealerships and are hired into jobs that pay up to $25 an hour.

Joe Castillo, 34,lives in the Benton County town of Prosser with his wife and four children. He entered the tractor program after several years of shoeing horses and inspecting livestock, both dangerous jobs.

He wanted something more stable, and figured that because farm equipment has become so highly specialized and automated, the skills he’d learn would remain in high demand.

“That’s a giant computer that just happens to pull like heck,” he said, gesturing to one of the four tractors that John Deere supplies the school for free.

Castillo got help through a state worker-retraining program, which also assisted him with money to rent a room in Walla Walla during the week, and gas money to travel back and forth to Prosser during the weekends.

“When it’s all said and done, we’re going to have a lot more job security,” said Castillo, who will graduate in June with a job lined up at an equipment company in Sunnyside, Yakima County, where he also interned during the program.

At the same time, the college has closed programs that weren’t leading to good jobs — two of its carpentry programs, for example, were mothballed.

The success of

WWCC programs is seen in the numbers. Its 2011 graduates were earning $54,756 a year in wage

s, compared

with other new hires in the Walla Walla area

who earned an average of $20,904.

Focused guidance

While some students come to Walla Walla to learn tractor repair, far greater numbers start out with no idea about what they want to study or become.

Counseling students about their career goals, while extremely labor intensive, is a practice successful community colleges do very intentionally, the Aspen researchers noted.

Like many of Washington’s other community colleges, Walla Walla requires every student to go through an orientation. It matches each student up to an academic adviser, and schedules quarterly counseling meetings.

But over the last seven years, it has also ramped up its basic advising strategy in ways that help advisers keep close tabs on a student’s path through college, and notice if students start to falter.

The new emphasis
started with a software tool, developed by the school’s IT department, that allowed each student and adviser to map out a course-taking pathway through specific degree programs and certificates.

Three years ago, the IT department developed another tool to help students chart their own progress. As part of this, advisers don’t just tell students which courses they need to take; they tell them the exact order in which to take them.

A year ago, the college created yet another tool — the degree navigation program — which, among other things, helps student and adviser discover if a course on the student’s schedule won’t count toward his or her degree. There’s no point in spending time and money on a course if it won’t count, Samitore said.

“Technology helped us streamline, so we could scale it to reach a lot more students,” she added.

The school also encourages students to firm up the reasons they are there. For that, there is yet another software tool — a proprietary system called Career Coach.

It helps students pinpoint where the jobs are in a 100-mile radius around Walla Walla, how much they pay, how many likely openings there will be, and which degrees or certificates they require.

“We pressure students pretty firmly: If you don’t know what pathway you want to select, you can’t float around very long without making that decision,” Samitore said. “The fewer choices you give, the less confusing — and the better it is for students.”

A few years ago, the college also jettisoned a requirement that students fill out paperwork and pay a fee before they could receive a degree. Now it simply confers degrees as soon as they are earned.

Another new practice: The college began using its software tools to identify students who were just a few credits shy of a degree or certificate but didn’t re-enroll for another quarter. It hired three “completion coaches” to track them down and help them finish.

Too close to give up

Completion coaches do much of their work at the start of every quarter, spending hours with the registrar, going through the records of hundreds of students who appear to have dropped off the map.

Then they divide up the names and go on the hunt.

The result: sometimes long, personal conversations — on the phone or in person — about what went wrong and a plan for righting it.

Student Miguel Colin, the first in his family to attend college, says a completion coach kept him from becoming a dropout statistic.

Colin initially struggled some in school but found his footing at Walla Walla High. He enrolled at the college after graduation, and was working on his associate degree when he took a part-time job working for a property-management company.

The job took a toll on his schooling, and his math grade slipped to a D. Because of that and another low grade, he lost his financial aid, but didn’t discover that until a week before the next quarter started.

Completion coach Max Weber stepped in to help.

Within a week, Weber, who has since left for another job, had offered Colin a scholarship to pay for his final quarter, awarded on condition that if Colin didn’t finish his degree, he’d have to pay the money back.

Colin, 20, is now a junior at Walla Walla University, a small private school, and considering a career in accounting.

“I feel really good about how I’m doing now,” Colin said. “So far I’ve had all A’s — I’ve aced every quiz.”

The Aspen Institute report notes that the best community colleges recognize that many students have jobs or face other risk factors, and “build support systems so strong that students say it would be hard for them to fail.”

“It is coaching, it really is,” Samitore said. “People say, is this really scalable? A lot of the practices are definitely scalable.”

Staffers say VanAusdle’s can-do leadership style and entrepreneurial approach have permeated the administration.

Among his new goals: boost the school’s transfer and completion rates even higher — to 80 percent.

The school is considering adopting a program that would require students to take a preselected set of classes that equal 45 credits on their way to a degree, preventing them from putting off their weakest subjects.

Taking the least-favorite courses in your second year — “that’s a recipe for disaster,” Samitore said.

And the 45-credit idea is based on another bit of research: Earning a credential is a sure way to boost earnings.

“When a student completes 45 credits and a credential,” Samitore said, “that can make an economic gain for their family.”

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