At One Orlando College, Magic

ORLANDO, Fla.—Sandy Shugart has big ideas. Six of them, to be exact. And you don’t have to go very far on any of the five campuses of Valencia College in central Florida to hear what they are. The community-college president’s vision has seeped into the bloodstream of the Orlando education community—deans, faculty, tutors, neighboring colleges, and even employers.

It may seem odd to hear the same phrases pop up in conversations with various school administrators—“the ecosystem of higher education,” for example, or “anyone can learn anything under the right conditions”—until you meet Shugart. He has planted and cultivated those seeds in everyone around him.

“What I’m after there is not compliance. What I’m after there is fertility, fecundity,” he said. “So a guy who’s mowing the lawn can say, ‘You know what? It’s really not very learning-centered for me to mow right up next to the classrooms when people are trying to learn. I need to mow away from the buildings during prime time.’ ”

If Shugart sounds like a daytime talk-show host, it’s no accident. He compares himself to Phil Donahue. “I have the same hair.” A more apt comparison is to former President Clinton; both leaders have an uncanny ability to make platitudinous statements sound genuine. Both relate easily to people. And, yes, both have great hair.

“From the very first year Sandy was here, he asked two questions: ‘Are students learning? How do we know?’ ” said Nasser Hedayat, a former electrical-engineering professor who heads the college’s outreach to Orlando employers.

The answers to Shugart’s questions are the reason that Valencia was the first school to win the top prize in the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. The contest, which offers $1 million a year for community colleges, was unveiled two years ago by President Obama when he launched a campaign to increase community-college graduations by a total of 5 million by 2020.

One year later, Aspen awarded Valencia $600,000 and gave four runner-up institutions $100,000 each. Valencia devoted more than half of its award, $350,000, to its unique faculty-training facility; the rest went to student scholarships. School fundraisers say that a matching campaign will at least double the amount of the Aspen award. The recognition that goes with the prize also upped Shugart’s national profile. A few minutes before his interview with National Journal, he finished a conference call with White House officials and three university presidents who sat on a panel that took place Monday.

Shugart thinks of himself as a risk taker. He doesn’t like to keep the college’s funds in a trust account if he can spend the money on programs that bolster student learning. He is critical of  Obama’s “college completion agenda” because he believes it takes emphasis away from what really matters: students’ learning. Staff members say that having Shugart at the helm encourages them to take risks as well. Everyone calls him Sandy.

He refuses to follow anyone’s script, which makes him both sought after and slightly feared as a public speaker. A few years ago, he removed his name from a list of potential speakers at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee after what he described as an “awkward conversation” with committee staffers; he told them that Pell Grants don’t affect students’ decisions about where to go to college.

“I’m on panels, I make people angry. I don’t mean to,” he said.

WHAT IS COLLEGE FOR?

Shugart is in the forefront of a national conversation that challenges the traditional, romantic notions of college—as in brick and ivy, late-night study sessions, fraternity pranks, students hell-bent on changing the world.  Shugart is fond of pointing out that only 17 percent of college students fit this sentimental stereotype—going to school full time, living on campus, completing a four-year degree at one institution.

Community colleges aren’t Yale or Stanford. They cater to the mundane parts of the college experience that don’t show up in the movies. Their aim is to quickly and efficiently give students the skills they need to get a job with a decent salary. They train people for stable careers in accounting, electronics, nursing, and information technology. Their administrators use words like “competencies.”

“We’re really talking about people on the margins and institutions that have long been on the margins of higher education,” said Joshua Wyner, who runs the Aspen contest.

These marginal students are the target of Obama’s lofty goal to double college completions by 2020. A-grade students don’t need a White House initiative to pull together a college application. C-grade students might. They are the kids who can’t get into four-year colleges and probably can’t afford them anyway. They might have children and part-time jobs. They usually need some kind of “remediation” or “developmental education”—noncredit classes that teach them what they were supposed to have learned in high school.

If they make it to college at all, odds are they won’t finish. Almost half of the students who enter a community college either fail to get a degree or transfer to a four-year school after six years, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

This is a problem, because high school diplomas are no longer going to cut it for Americans who want to make a middle-class salary. New research from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute predicts that, by 2020, two of three jobs will require at least some college education. That figure already hovers around 60 percent.

But there is good news as well. There are 11 million “middle jobs” available for people who can’t afford or simply can’t deal with a full four years of college, according to the report. These are jobs that pay at least $50,000 annually and require some post-high-school education but not a bachelor’s degree—jobs that reduce poverty rates and expand the economy.

“We said, if we look carefully at our learners, we don’t think that there’s anything inherently wrong with them.” —Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia College

The standard narratives about college must change to accommodate the students who will fill the middle jobs. Finishing has to be the ultimate goal, not finding yourself. Students can’t waste time and precious credit hours trying out several majors. “When I was in college, the idea was that your freshman and sophomore years was an exploratory time. Totally gone. It is not exploratory,” said Joyce Romano, Valencia’s vice president for student services. “Decide when you’re in the womb what you want to do.”

That thinking is controversial. Something precious is lost if colleges focus only on employment outcomes. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that Americans—even college presidents—have conflicting views about higher education. Pew surveyed the general public and college presidents separately. In each group, half of the respondents said that the main purpose of college was to give students skills for the workplace. The other half said it should focus on intellectual growth and critical thinking.

Community colleges are at the heart of this tension. They need to make a clear-cut business case to prospective students who probably don’t worry very much about the “great books.” Valencia’s advisers tell high school students that they can double their incomes with a two-year degree. The college has attracted national attention for its better-than-average rate in awarding diplomas to people who otherwise might be running concession stands at one of Orlando’s theme parks. Valencia’s overall graduation rate is nearly three times the average among large urban public community colleges as defined by the Education Department.

But it is also important for community colleges to provide an atmosphere in which students are encouraged to think. It helps to have a charismatic leader like Shugart. But even then, figuring out what that secret sauce is, and then bottling it for mass consumption, has proven to be a challenge.

BIG IDEAS

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.

6) Collaboration.

“Every day, we step back and say, ‘What are students experiencing? What do we want them to experience?’ ” Shugart said.

Like most community colleges, Valencia has open enrollment. It doesn’t reject people because they failed algebra or even because they lack a permanent address. Shugart has made it clear that student success is everybody’s job, so there is a heavy emphasis on teaching and experimenting with new methods.

Tenure-track faculty members are required to complete a three-year “learning academy” in which they invent and test theories about how to improve student learning. Adjunct faculty members, who make up about two-thirds of the teachers at Valencia, get a bump in pay if they participate in the same teacher-development courses.

The college has thousands of class offerings, but it invests most heavily in 15 to 20 “gateway courses” that make up 40 percent of the curriculum for first-year students. If students pass those courses, they have a far better chance of finishing their degrees. If they don’t, they’re probably sunk. The college is banking on success in those early classes to cascade into more-advanced classes where students need less hand-holding and teachers need fewer resources.

All students are expected to map out a graduation plan in their first semester. They must “connect” with faculty members, career advisers, tutors, and student-services staffers. Tutors—usually students themselves—know the professors personally and often sit in on classes to seek out students who might feel shy about asking for help. Tutoring centers are located in central campus areas, and they are packed.

Valencia constantly parses student-achievement data, but the school does not tie faculty evaluations to those assessments. The analyses don’t even identify individual instructors. This is a unique way to use assessments, and it runs counter to education-reform efforts pushed by Obama and others who want student test scores to be factored into teacher evaluations. Faculty evaluations at Valencia are still weighted heavily toward teaching, but they focus on the instructor’s actions to engage students rather than test results: How has the instructor measured his own progress? Has she taken student outcomes seriously in her experiments with teaching methods? The teaching academy allows the school to document instructors’ progress as they develop their own teaching portfolios.

“The accountability is not external. The accountability is internal,” said Kurt Ewen, Valencia’s assistant vice president of assessments. After a few go-rounds of instructor-blind testing, he said, the reachers actually came to him to find out how their students were doing.

Shugart is a big fan of consensus, but he says, “Committees are bad.” He is fond of calling 200 people into structured meetings that smack heavily of group therapy. He splits them into smaller groups. They analyze specific questions and make recommendations. After a set time, they reconvene, refine their questions, and repeat the small-group sessions. At the end, Shugart takes a wireless microphone and walks among the groups, à la Phil Donahue. “You seek dissent. ‘Who really disagrees with this? Tell me why.’ … It’s a technique designed to reach a strong set of ideas in consensus that are actionable in two and a half hours instead of two and a half years of committees,” he said.

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.

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.

Valencia was involved in the Lake Nona planning from the beginning. The goal was to create a friendly environment for science-related companies and to build on Orlando’s lucrative tourism industry. City officials hope that the area will become a mecca for medical conferences. An international airport is nearby. The presence of SeaWorld, Universal Studios, and Disney World ensures plenty of hotel space.

Valencia tries to craft its degrees to what employers need. The college doubled its nursing program to respond to a shortage at Florida Hospital, which ponied up $1 million for the expansion. The hospital donated equipment, and the school made sure that the students were trained on it.

Shugart recalled the conversation that hatched the deal. Around a boardroom table of hospital and college executives, Florida Hospital President Lars Houmann said he expected to spend $24 million a year to recruit and hire 1,000 nurses, ad infinitum.

“I said, ‘Well, from what you’re telling me, I need to produce another 300 nurses a year to save you $12 million. Is that worth a million to you?’ It’s a business proposition,” Shugart said.

Cozy relationships between educators and employers can backfire if the market suddenly changes, of course. That’s what happened with Northrop Grumman, which asked Valencia in 2006 to develop a laser-photonics program that would cater to its needs. At the time, the defense contractor was scrambling for workers to build the laser-guided missile components and scanning equipment that the military was screaming for.

Massive defense-spending cuts suddenly dried up that demand last year. Northrop Grumman laid off 200 employees, some of them graduates of Valencia’s program. The layoffs caused enough of a disturbance that the White House shied away from including Valencia’s laser-photonics program in one of President Obama’s speeches promoting college/employer relationships.

More broadly, critics say that aligning academic programs so closely with employers’ needs does a disservice to students who need a broader education. They may be thinking of people like Vik Cesalien, who interned at Northrop Grumman as part of a high school program dedicated to laser photonics. Cesalien is going for his bachelor’s degree in lasers and electronics, and he wants to work at Northrop Grumman. The only trouble is, the giant contractor isn’t hiring.

A narrow focus on one company misses the point. A host of other Orlando employers were involved in crafting Valencia’s laser-photonics program, but they didn’t get as much publicity because they didn’t write the biggest checks and they didn’t have as dire a need for workers. But the program is still going strong with contributions from a variety of employers, including Northrop Grumman.

“They’re great. They’re still on the advisory committee. They still started it. When their contracts come back, they’ll hire people,” Shugart said. “If the people we trained got laid off, that’s still OK with me, because skills are a durable, transferable, fungible asset.”

A certificate in laser photonics may not get someone a job at Northrop Grumman, but it can allow him to design theme parks instead of just operating the rides. That’s what happened to Jimmy Hurst, a technician at Universal Studios who spent the last year putting together graphic displays for the new Harry Potter theme park. He was already working at Universal when he decided to get an associate’s degree from Valencia. Without it, he would have been stuck in a dead-end job. He tells his younger colleagues that a professional degree is their ticket to advancement. “They’ll hire you as a technician, but that’s as far as you’re going to go” without it, he said.

This is the story that Valencia is trying to tell in a hundred different ways: College is for everyone. College doesn’t have to be four years of book learning. Transfers are OK. Part-time school is fine. Two-year degrees aren’t terminal. Employers want degree holders who are from the area, and Valencia can offer them.

Shugart is lucky that he operates in an environment friendly to his off-the-wall ideas. (He once considered inserting $5 bills into required textbooks to encourage students to buy early.) Not every college has resources to freeze tuition, as Valencia did this year. Not every college has employees who would accept the accompanying wage freeze without complaint. Not every college is nestled in the heart of a booming health care and tourism region that is willing to support it.

Not every college can do what Valencia does. That’s kind of the point. And if middle-class employment is going to continue into the next generation, there should be more places like it.

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