The winners were named at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., with each school winning a prize of $400,000.
Two other top colleges Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, S.D. will each receive $100,000 as finalists-with distinction.
Walla Walla was chosen for its skills at following economic trends and training students to work in emerging job markets.
Santa Barbara was picked for its success at attracting and graduating students from low-income or minority families and sending them on to graduate from four-year schools at impressive rates.
"These colleges, by really paying close attention to what comes next, are aligning what they do to that kind of success," said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute's college excellence program, which awards the prize.
The four schools were among 10 chosen from more than 1,000. Other finalists were: Brazoport College in Lake Jackson, Texas; Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; College of the Ouachitas of Malvern, Ariz.; Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla.; Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Cumberland, Ky., and West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, Ky.
The Aspen Prize recognizes community college excellence in the areas of student learning, degree completion, labor market success in securing good jobs after college, and minority and low-income student success.
The top prize usually goes to one college, but the people picking the winner decided Walla Walla and Santa Barbara equally met all the criteria with different results.
Walla Walla Community College grew its programs and enrollment during the recession, while many other rural colleges struggled. Instead of sticking with the way things had always been done, the college closed programs that weren't getting its students good jobs and expanded or opened new programs that could.
In 2011, new graduates from Walla Walla earned $41,548, close to double the wages of other new hires in the region. The school, which now has about 6,500 students on two campuses and in two nearby prisons, doubled its nursing program when its market research revealed a nursing shortage.
Its best-known success came with the local wine industry. After learning wine makers needed more trained people, Walla Walla developed and grew a new program, with lots of help from people in that field. The local wine industry exploded along with the college, growing from 17 wineries to about 170.
"Talent is the priority for economic development. It's the most critical shortage we have," said college president Steven VanAusdle, who is active in regional and statewide economic development commissions. "We need to close that skills gap."
Santa Barbara City College is a big urban college with about 21,000 students and a strong focus on preparing graduates to transfer to four-year universities. A third of the students are Hispanic, unlike the more diverse demographics of many community colleges.
About 64 percent of students who are the first in their families to go to college transfer or graduate within three years, compared to the national average of 40 percent. Nearly half of the Hispanic students graduate or transfer within three years, compared with 35 percent nationally.
The college is known for the wraparound services it provides to help students overcome obstacles to graduation from financial to academic.
"We have this common goal of simply wanting to see our students achieve their dreams," said college President Lori Gaskin.