Why Central Florida Kids Choose Community College

A partnership between UCF and local two-year programs is helping keep a university degree within the reach of low-income, minority students.

Students who graduate from one of the four regional Direct Connect community colleges are guaranteed admission to the University of Central Florida.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
Feb. 10, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

OR­LANDO, Fla. — At Daniel Salas’s cent­ral Flor­ida high school, stu­dents had a lot of reas­ons for not go­ing to col­lege. “I don’t have the money now. I need to work more. I don’t have the time. It’s not on my pri­or­ity list,” the 20-year-old re­calls, list­ing a few. Some loc­al teens dis­miss nearby Valen­cia Col­lege, a former com­munity col­lege, as “the 13th grade” — just an­oth­er year of high school. Oth­ers worry they won’t be able to get in to Valen­cia, even though Valen­cia has an open-ad­mis­sions policy.

In Osceola County, only about 40 per­cent of stu­dents pur­sue high­er edu­ca­tion right after high school. The biggest private-sec­tor em­ploy­ers here are Wal-Mart and Walt Dis­ney World, and, des­pite the sub­urb­an sprawl, it’s not un­usu­al to pass a cow pas­ture. The area has a fast-grow­ing His­pan­ic and im­mig­rant pop­u­la­tion, and many par­ents don’t have col­lege de­grees them­selves. Four years of full-time, in-state uni­versity tu­ition, low by na­tion­al stand­ards at about $24,000, would be an un­ima­gin­able ex­pense for many fam­il­ies.

Daniel Salas, 20, raised in the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic, sees Valen­cia as the first, surest step in his goal to be­come a sur­geon. (Soph­ie Quin­ton)Salas, an as­pir­ing sur­geon who grew up in the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic, turned down of­fers from three state uni­versit­ies so he could start his path to med­ic­al school at Valen­cia. He’s sav­ing money be­cause he can com­mute from home, and his tu­ition — about $3,000 per year for full-time stu­dents — is off­set by schol­ar­ship money.

Through his as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree pro­gram, Salas is tak­ing classes aligned with first- and second-year course work at a state uni­versity. And he’s guar­an­teed ad­mis­sion to the Uni­versity of Cent­ral Flor­ida when he com­pletes the two-year de­gree. “That was one of my con­di­tions to com­ing to Valen­cia. One day I would want to go on to UCF,” Salas says. He doesn’t need to start out at UCF to earn a UCF bach­el­or’s de­gree.

Dir­ect­Con­nect, a re­gion­al agree­ment between UCF and four former com­munity col­leges (now Flor­ida Col­lege Sys­tem in­sti­tu­tions), amp­li­fies Flor­ida’s already strong sys­tem of trans­fer from as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree pro­grams to state uni­versit­ies. Dir­ect­Con­nect stu­dents get the se­cur­ity of guar­an­teed ad­mis­sion to a spe­cif­ic in­sti­tu­tion, ad­di­tion­al ad­vising, and can even earn UCF bach­el­or’s de­grees without leav­ing their loc­al Flor­ida Col­lege cam­pus.

The agree­ment pre­serves ac­cess to UCF, an in­sti­tu­tion of some 60,000 stu­dents that has be­come as se­lect­ive in fresh­man ad­mis­sions as the state flag­ship. For now, UCF and its part­ner col­leges are well matched. But as the uni­versity in­creases its ef­forts to re­cruit the state’s strongest stu­dents, the trans­fer guar­an­tee could come un­der strain.


Na­tion­wide, 45 per­cent of first-time col­lege fresh­men start out at a com­munity col­lege, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of Com­munity Col­leges. Two-year pro­grams serve dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of low-in­come, first-gen­er­a­tion, and minor­ity stu­dents, many of whom hope to gath­er lower-cost cred­its that they can put to­ward a bach­el­or’s some­where else.

Not many suc­ceed. Of first-time stu­dents who star­ted out in an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree pro­gram in the 2003-04 aca­dem­ic year, 11.3 per­cent had at­tained a bach­el­or’s de­gree six years later, ac­cord­ing to re­cent data from the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics. Only 17.9 per­cent com­pleted an as­so­ci­ate’s in that time. Bach­el­or’s de­grees are all but es­sen­tial for pro­fes­sion­al jobs, and any kind of post­sec­ond­ary at­tain­ment boost labor mar­ket pro­spects.

The White House wants to strengthen links between two-year and four-year col­leges to im­prove so­cial mo­bil­ity. State law­makers also want to strengthen those links to make their high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tems more ef­fi­cient and to meet col­lege com­ple­tion goals without spend­ing bil­lions of dol­lars on new uni­versity cam­puses.

In Flor­ida, a lot of the struc­tur­al policy is­sues with trans­fer have already been re­solved. Un­der what’s known as the 2+2 sys­tem, stu­dents who earn an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree are guar­an­teed a place as ju­ni­ors at a state uni­versity — al­though not ne­ces­sar­ily the in­sti­tu­tion or de­gree pro­gram of their choice. As­so­ci­ate in arts de­grees in­cor­por­ate the gen­er­al edu­ca­tion courses uni­versit­ies re­quire fresh­men and sopho­mores to take, and state law man­dates that all cred­its will trans­fer across in­sti­tu­tions.

Trans­fer has be­come more im­port­ant to Flor­idi­ans as the col­lege-go­ing pop­u­la­tion grows, and as state uni­versit­ies fail to ex­pand fresh­man seats fast enough to meet de­mand. The ac­cept­ance rate across the sys­tem has dropped from 67 per­cent to 52 per­cent in a dec­ade. Today, al­most two-thirds of high school gradu­ates who pur­sue fur­ther edu­ca­tion en­roll at an open-ac­cess Flor­ida Col­lege. The col­leges serve 82 per­cent of all fresh­men and sopho­more minor­ity stu­dents in the state high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem.

But 2+2 isn’t per­fect. Only about half of as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree gradu­ates go on to en­roll in a state uni­versity, and 8 per­cent pur­sue work­force-fo­cused bach­el­or’s de­grees offered by Flor­ida Col­leges. The most pop­u­lar two-year de­gree — as­so­ci­ate in arts — has little value oth­er than as a link to a bach­el­or’s de­gree.

Valen­cia Col­lege Pres­id­ent Sandy Shugart and Uni­versity of Cent­ral Flor­ida Pres­id­ent John Hitt de­signed Dir­ect­Con­nect in 2006 to plug the leaks in the 2+2 sys­tem. Guar­an­teed ad­mis­sion to a spe­cif­ic in­sti­tu­tion helps stu­dents fo­cus their aca­dem­ic plan, and UCF ad­visers on part­ner col­lege cam­puses provide ad­di­tion­al guid­ance. UCF, which already had re­gion­al cam­puses aside from its main cam­pus near Or­lando, also com­mit­ted to bring­ing ju­ni­or and seni­or level courses to part­ner col­lege cam­puses.

At Valen­cia’s Osceola Cam­pus, some stu­dents com­mute two and a half hours by bus to get to class. UCF’s main cam­pus is an­oth­er hour’s drive away by car, on a toll road. “It’s just so out of the realm of pos­sib­il­ity for so many of our stu­dents to drive to UCF’s main cam­pus,” says Osceola Cam­pus Pres­id­ent Kath­leen Pl­in­ske. Many stu­dents can’t af­ford, or don’t want, to leave home and find hous­ing on or close to UCF.

When, in 2012, Pl­in­ske an­nounced at a loc­al cham­ber of com­merce meet­ing that UCF would be bring­ing a dozen bach­el­or’s de­gree pro­grams to the Osceola cam­pus. “There were folks there al­most in tears,” she says. Long­time res­id­ents of the com­munity con­tin­ue to be moved to think that uni­versity de­grees are with­in stu­dents’ geo­graph­ic reach. UCF and Valen­cia split the cost of a new build­ing, where today Valen­cia fac­ulty teach lower-di­vi­sion courses, and UCF fac­ulty teach up­per-di­vi­sion courses.

As­so­ci­ate’ de­gree trans­fers now make up 48 per­cent of bach­el­or’s de­grees awar­ded by UCF, the highest share of any Flor­ida uni­versity. Without any grade or test score re­quire­ments, Dir­ect­Con­nect stu­dents gradu­ate at a slightly high­er rate than nat­ive UCF stu­dents with only slightly lower GPAs over­all, Shugart says. The trans­fer agree­ment hasn’t hindered UCF’s ef­forts to im­prove its aca­dem­ic repu­ta­tion, and it has helped part­ner col­leges like Valen­cia re­cruit and gradu­ate as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree stu­dents.

The agree­ment has also ad­ded di­versity to UCF’s gradu­at­ing class. In 2012-13, 31 per­cent of some 4,800 bach­el­or’s de­grees gran­ted to nat­ive UCF stu­dents went to minor­ity stu­dents. Forty per­cent of the more than 7,200 bach­el­or’s de­grees awar­ded to Flor­ida Col­lege trans­fers went to minor­ity stu­dents. “If you want to in­crease ac­cess to the pro­fes­sions for people of col­or, there’s only really one way to do it — and that’s to draw a dir­ect line from trans­fer to the pro­fes­sions,” Shugart says.


High­er edu­ca­tion is of­ten ideal­ized as a four-year, res­id­en­tial ex­per­i­ence. But that’s not really the UCF ex­per­i­ence. The main cam­pus only has on-cam­pus hous­ing for about 16 per­cent of un­der­gradu­ates. Many stu­dents live at home and com­mute to school, and many work part time, as their coun­ter­parts at Flor­ida Col­leges usu­ally do.

Dir­ect­Con­nect stu­dents say they don’t feel like they’re miss­ing much. “They’re lit­er­ally in the ex­act same classes that I’m tak­ing, pay­ing twice as much,” says Valen­cia stu­dent Gonzalo Sauri,20, of his high school friends who went straight to UCF. Valen­cia stu­dents also find it easi­er to get to know their pro­fess­ors. Most classes have about 30 stu­dents, as op­posed to the 300-per­son lec­tures com­mon to first- and second-year classes at big uni­versit­ies.

Both UCF and its part­ner col­leges are en­rolling grow­ing num­bers of minor­ity stu­dents, a shift that re­flects Flor­ida’s chan­ging demo­graph­ics. Both have strong aca­dem­ic pro­grams. And thanks to the shared fa­cil­it­ies on part­ner col­lege cam­puses, there’s a cer­tain amount of churn, with stu­dents based on UCF’s main cam­pus some­times trav­el­ing to a part­ner col­lege to take a class and vice versa.

Stu­dent life is a little dif­fer­ent: UCF of­fers fra­tern­it­ies, sor­or­it­ies, and hun­dreds of stu­dent clubs, while Valen­cia’s Osceola Cam­pus has about a dozen act­ive clubs. But Valen­cia stu­dents keep busy. Salas par­ti­cip­ates in stu­dent gov­ern­ment, vo­lun­teers at a hos­pit­al, and has a job at a GNC nu­tri­tion store. Sauri is a peer ment­or, a mem­ber of a stu­dent en­gin­eer­ing so­ci­ety, and an em­ploy­ee of both a loc­al su­per­mar­ket and a wo­man’s club.

In the years to come, however, there is a danger of di­ver­gence between the two types of in­sti­tu­tion. In fresh­man ad­mis­sions, UCF has made a big push to re­cruit Na­tion­al Mer­it Schol­ars and, last year, it began auto­mat­ic­ally ad­mit­ting Flor­ida high school seni­ors in the top 10 per­cent of their class. UCF is in­vest­ing in amen­it­ies, as se­lect­ive in­sti­tu­tions do when com­pet­ing for tal­en­ted stu­dents: a well­ness cen­ter, a rock climb­ing wall, dorms with single bed­rooms, more ca­reer and health ser­vices. Valen­cia’s cam­puses look like big high schools. UCF looks like a small city.

“I think a big chal­lenge for us is that as UCF be­comes more and more se­lect­ive — and so the aca­dem­ic back­grounds of their nat­ive stu­dents are go­ing to be so much more en­riched than the stu­dents we serve — that per­form­ance dif­fer­ences will be­gin to emerge, par­tic­u­larly in their first semester, that trans­fer shock semester,” Shugart says.

With a lot of com­mu­nic­a­tion between in­sti­tu­tions, and con­stant fo­cus on im­prov­ing the struc­ture of aca­dem­ic ex­per­i­ences, Shugart is con­fid­ent that Valen­cia stu­dents will be able to hold their own. But if in­creas­ing se­lectiv­ity at the uni­versity level is com­bined with widen­ing in­equal­ity in K-12 pre­par­a­tion, the two-year and four-year pro­grams in­volved in Dir­ect­Con­nect may cease to be so closely matched.