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
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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.


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