COLLABORATE, DON’T COMPETE
Collaboration in the community is where Valencia turns free-enterprise notions of competition on their head. The colleges in the Orlando area openly avoid competing with one another for students. Three colleges collectively agreed that Valencia should be the one to offer a degree requested by defense contractor Northrop Grumman. Because Valencia already had the most advanced electrical-engineering curriculum, the other two agreed to opt out.
Valencia, in turn, offers only a few bachelor’s degrees—ones not offered by the University of Central Florida, the behemoth four-year university that is a distant goal for many of the state’s high-school students. Why duplicate when you can supplement, Shugart reasoned.
Valencia’s most potent weapon to attract students is the chance for a direct path to UCF. The university guarantees that those with an associate’s degree from Valencia or three other community colleges can come in as juniors. The program, dubbed Direct Connect, appeals to students who may have difficulty getting into or paying for UCF. State budget cuts forced UCF to increase tuition by 15 percent this year, and its admissions policies have also gotten more selective over time. The average SAT scores for incoming freshmen have jumped 77 points in 10 years.
Direct Connect is the game changer that has altered the value of the two-year college in the minds of students and parents. “All parents want their child to have a bachelor’s degree, a four-year degree.… Well, in a sense, the career path with the [associate’s] degree can give them that,” said Joan Tiller, who runs special projects for Valencia.
Shugart and UCF President John Hitt collaborated on Direct Connect. In 2005, the two presidents recruited the three other community colleges to hash out course work and other details that would give students a smooth transition to the four-year university.
The negotiations required a high level of trust from UCF. It took on an obligation to smaller colleges that don’t turn people away and offer a lot of remedial courses. The community colleges took on the job of making sure their graduates showed up at the university prepared to be juniors.
“We all have drunk the same water and believe that we can do more together than we can do competing against one another. It sounds like mom and apple pie, but it really is true,” said UCF Provost Tony Waldrop.
The university has advisory offices on all the community-college campuses served by Direct Connect, and all the staff advisers are in constant contact. Students in Valencia’s elite honors program are automatically enrolled in UCF’s honors program, and the university periodically offers free football tickets to community-college students.
It can be difficult for some students (or their parents) to accept that they will spend their first college years on a campus that offers more technical certificates than student-life activities. Romano said that it drives her crazy when students transfer to UCF before finishing all of their prerequisites. The university’s courses are more expensive, and students who leave prematurely risk running out of financial aid.
Still, Romano understands the yearning to move beyond an uber-practical community college for a big-time university. “It’s a big campus. They have a Greek life,” she said.
“They have a bar in the student center,” added Valencia’s academic dean, Nick Bekas.
Valencia is not alone in telling high-school students that there are easier and cheaper ways to get to the four-year university than through a grueling senior-year application process. A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse found that 45 percent of all students who completed a degree at a four-year institution in 2010-11 had previously enrolled at a two-year institution.
“It’s important for students to understand that there are multiple paths to success. They don’t have to cinch that same degree in three years,” said Doug Shapiro, the clearinghouse’s executive director of research.
DEGREES FOR EMPLOYERS
Valencia offers a hands-on, job-training college experience that flouts the traditional classroom picture. Students in the school’s culinary lab wear chef’s uniforms and trace frosting designs on cookie sheets. Officials are proud that their culinary-arts degree is
a fraction of the cost of the same degree at a private academy.
Students in an invasive-cardiology class are decked out in full hospital gear. They practice threading guide wires through tiny catheter tubes and injecting dye. The object is to get the dye into the tube without air bubbles, which requires a steady hand. “When a bubble gets injected, you can stroke the patient,” said student Nalini Ghisiawan. The program had a 100 percent job-placement rate last year.
The business community in Central Florida is so closely interwoven with the area colleges that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the two. In August, Valencia opened a satellite campus in Lake Nona Medical City, a planned cluster of hospitals and medical-research institutions. Once a cow pasture, the hub also houses a campus for the University of Central Florida’s medical school, a Veterans Administration facility, and a cutting-edge children’s hospital.