Given these unusual methods, Valencia administrators have a tough time explaining to outsiders how they work. The Aspen prize committee puzzled over the magic ingredients of the school’s success. “They would say, ‘So we see these numbers where you have these many students graduating now or this kind of success. What do you attribute that to?’ ” Ewen said. “Behind the question was, ‘What specific strategies can another school employ that would get the same results as you?’ And the answer is, there are none.”
“Fifty people met with [the committee], and, to a person, they would come out of the meeting saying, ‘They keep asking me: That’s all good, but exactly what is making the difference here?’ ” recalls Romano, the student services vice president. “They left, and we thought, ‘OK, well, there’s no way we’re going to win, because they obviously are looking for something more tangible.’ ”
The Aspen judges were tough on Valencia in part because the big ideas that guide the school can easily be dismissed as New Age mumbo jumbo. Anyone can say that enrollment numbers are less important than learning, but Shugart showed he meant it when he stopped distributing enrollment reports to the faculty. “That was transformational,” Aspen’s Wyner said. “You’re saying as a new president, ‘I’m having you do things that will literally sink the ship. I’m willing to bet my presidency on this.’ Don’t add classes on the first day. Take away enrollment reports. And students are still here.”
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.