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How a Community College's Big Ideas Are Transforming Education How a Community College's Big Ideas Are Transforming Education

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How a Community College's Big Ideas Are Transforming Education

Why an innovative Florida community college consistently outperforms its peers.


Prize winner: Valencia.(Fawn Johnson)

ORLANDO, Fla.—Sandy Shugart has big ideas. Six of them, to be exact. And you don’t have to go very far on any of the five campuses of Valencia College in central Florida to hear what they are. The community-college president’s vision has seeped into the bloodstream of the Orlando education community—deans, faculty, tutors, neighboring colleges, and even employers.

It may seem odd to hear the same phrases pop up in conversations with various school administrators—“the ecosystem of higher education,” for example, or “anyone can learn anything under the right conditions”—until you meet Shugart. He has planted and cultivated those seeds in everyone around him.


“What I’m after there is not compliance. What I’m after there is fertility, fecundity,” he said. “So a guy who’s mowing the lawn can say, ‘You know what? It’s really not very learning-centered for me to mow right up next to the classrooms when people are trying to learn. I need to mow away from the buildings during prime time.’ ”

If Shugart sounds like a daytime talk-show host, it’s no accident. He compares himself to Phil Donahue. “I have the same hair.” A more apt comparison is to former President Clinton; both leaders have an uncanny ability to make platitudinous statements sound genuine. Both relate easily to people. And, yes, both have great hair.

“From the very first year Sandy was here, he asked two questions: ‘Are students learning? How do we know?’ ” said Nasser Hedayat, a former electrical-engineering professor who heads the college’s outreach to Orlando employers.


The answers to Shugart’s questions are the reason that Valencia was the first school to win the top prize in the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. The contest, which offers $1 million a year for community colleges, was unveiled two years ago by President Obama when he launched a campaign to increase community-college graduations by a total of 5 million by 2020.

One year later, Aspen awarded Valencia $600,000 and gave four runner-up institutions $100,000 each. Valencia devoted more than half of its award, $350,000, to its unique faculty-training facility; the rest went to student scholarships. School fundraisers say that a matching campaign will at least double the amount of the Aspen award. The recognition that goes with the prize also upped Shugart’s national profile. A few minutes before his interview with National Journal, he finished a conference call with White House officials and three university presidents who sat on a panel that took place Monday.

Shugart thinks of himself as a risk taker. He doesn’t like to keep the college’s funds in a trust account if he can spend the money on programs that bolster student learning. He is critical of  Obama’s “college completion agenda” because he believes it takes emphasis away from what really matters: students’ learning. Staff members say that having Shugart at the helm encourages them to take risks as well. Everyone calls him Sandy.

He refuses to follow anyone’s script, which makes him both sought after and slightly feared as a public speaker. A few years ago, he removed his name from a list of potential speakers at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee after what he described as an “awkward conversation” with committee staffers; he told them that Pell Grants don’t affect students’ decisions about where to go to college.


“I’m on panels, I make people angry. I don’t mean to,” he said.


Shugart is in the forefront of a national conversation that challenges the traditional, romantic notions of college—as in brick and ivy, late-night study sessions, fraternity pranks, students hell-bent on changing the world.  Shugart is fond of pointing out that only 17 percent of college students fit this sentimental stereotype—going to school full time, living on campus, completing a four-year degree at one institution.

Community colleges aren’t Yale or Stanford. They cater to the mundane parts of the college experience that don’t show up in the movies. Their aim is to quickly and efficiently give students the skills they need to get a job with a decent salary. They train people for stable careers in accounting, electronics, nursing, and information technology. Their administrators use words like “competencies.”

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“We’re really talking about people on the margins and institutions that have long been on the margins of higher education,” said Joshua Wyner, who runs the Aspen contest.

These marginal students are the target of Obama’s lofty goal to double college completions by 2020. A-grade students don’t need a White House initiative to pull together a college application. C-grade students might. They are the kids who can’t get into four-year colleges and probably can’t afford them anyway. They might have children and part-time jobs. They usually need some kind of “remediation” or “developmental education”—noncredit classes that teach them what they were supposed to have learned in high school.

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This article appears in the October 6, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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