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.”
That conclusion led to the six “big ideas” that have both impressed and confounded observers who want to replicate Valencia’s successes elsewhere. The big ideas resemble chapter headings from a self-help book:
1) Anyone can learn anything under the right conditions.
2) Start right.
3) Connection and direction.
4) The college is how the students experience us, not how we experience them.
5) The purpose of assessment is to improve learning.