If they make it to college at all, odds are they won’t finish. Almost half of the students who enter a community college either fail to get a degree or transfer to a four-year school after six years, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
This is a problem, because high school diplomas are no longer going to cut it for Americans who want to make a middle-class salary. New research from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute predicts that, by 2020, two of three jobs will require at least some college education. That figure already hovers around 60 percent.
But there is good news as well. There are 11 million “middle jobs” available for people who can’t afford or simply can’t deal with a full four years of college, according to the report. These are jobs that pay at least $50,000 annually and require some post-high-school education but not a bachelor’s degree—jobs that reduce poverty rates and expand the economy.
“We said, if we look carefully at our learners, we don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with them.” —Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College
The standard narratives about college must change to accommodate the students who will fill the middle jobs. Finishing has to be the ultimate goal, not finding yourself. Students can’t waste time and precious credit hours trying out several majors. “When I was in college, the idea was that your freshman and sophomore years was an exploratory time. Totally gone. It is not exploratory,” said Joyce Romano, Valencia’s vice president for student services. “Decide when you’re in the womb what you want to do.”
That thinking is controversial. Something precious is lost if colleges focus only on employment outcomes. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that Americans—even college presidents—have conflicting views about higher education. Pew surveyed the general public and college presidents separately. In each group, half of the respondents said that the main purpose of college was to give students skills for the workplace. The other half said it should focus on intellectual growth and critical thinking.
Community colleges are at the heart of this tension. They need to make a clear-cut business case to prospective students who probably don’t worry very much about the “great books.” Valencia’s advisers tell high school students that they can double their incomes with a two-year degree. The college has attracted national attention for its better-than-average rate in awarding diplomas to people who otherwise might be running concession stands at one of Orlando’s theme parks. Valencia’s overall graduation rate is nearly three times the average among large urban public community colleges as defined by the Education Department.
But it is also important for community colleges to provide an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to think. It helps to have a charismatic leader like Shugart. But even then, figuring out what that secret sauce is, and then bottling it for mass consumption, has proven to be a challenge.
With Shugart as its talisman, Valencia openly challenges unspoken rules that permeate higher-education circles. Many community colleges depend on their enrollment income to balance their budgets. Valencia sacrifices its enrollment numbers (and the accompanying dollars) by turning students away who fail to register before the first day of a class. Research shows that students who register late are more likely to drop out, so Shugart says it makes sense to head those students off.
“What we wanted to accomplish was to recapture the first two weeks of instruction, which [was used before] to hand out syllabuses and send them home—because Lord knows who will be in the class next week,” Shugart said. “So we said to the faculty, ‘If we do this for you, will you make the first minute of the first meeting of the first class a learning minute?’ ”
Valencia also doesn’t separate student services from academics, which elevates the status of the dean of students but also runs the risk of deflating professorial egos. The school has made its system work by devoting staff resources to each academic program. Faculty members are expected to participate in plotting their students’ graduation paths, but each program also has an embedded full-time career adviser to track students’ progress.
The most important of Valencia’s innovations is the hardest to export. It’s also hard to explain. Administrators frequently use the word “culture” when trying to describe it. Here’s how it developed.
Shugart interviewed for the president’s job 12 years ago because, he says, he saw the opportunity to invert the prevailing theory of the 1990s—namely, that “students are underprepared and unmotivated and don’t know what’s best for them.”
“We came to a different conclusion,” he said. “We said, if we look carefully at our learners, we don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with them.”