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Dethroning Enrollment to Put Learning First

Florida's Valencia College long ago gave up being an "institution builder," eschewing enrollment numbers in favor of a focus on learning outcomes. Here's how President Sandy Shugart has rewritten the standard formula for community colleges.

Valencia College has just won another award. This Orlando-based community college system with five campuses, an annual enrollment of nearly 61,000 credit-seeking students and 35 associate's degrees, 81 certificate programs and three bachelor's degrees first came to the forefront when it received the inaugural Aspen Institute prize for "Community College Excellence" (besting a thousand applicants). Then it was recognized by ¡Excelencia in Education! for its promotion of academic success for Latino students.

The most recent accolade went directly to President Sandy Shugart, who received one of three McGraw Prizes in Education intended to recognize "outstanding individuals who have dedicated themselves to improving education through new approaches." Shugart has served since 2000 at the helm of the college system. He's the author of a management book: Leadership in the Crucible of Work: Discovering the Interior Life of an Authentic Leader. And he's a singer and songwriter with three CDs of music, a frequent speaker who's likely to break out into poetry or song during his presentations.

Recently, Campus Technology interviewed Shugart to understand the history and extent of Valencia's innovations. This story has been edited for length from the original interview.

Campus Technology: Share some ways Valencia College has changed things up from the way the traditional community college operates.

Valencia College President Sandy Shugart

Sandy Shugart: The truth is, our colleges were designed in late post-war America — on an industrial model that values productivity and volume over everything. It's the way we're built.... Community colleges were never designed to be places of deep learning and personal engagement. They were designed to be mass treatments of raw material that produced — we hope — some product. That means over time they became obsessed with enrollment and productivity inside their organizations. It's hard wired. It's hard to push back against that.

Valencia was early to a conversation that said, OK, what if we dethroned enrollment? Enrollment is not our mission. Enrollment is just a business outcome. It's necessary in the long term to finance the mission. But it's not the mission. The mission is learning. And if we put learning first and everything else second, what would that cause us to do?

We've made countless changes to our processes and habits and procedures and policies and the way we allocate resources around that one idea. What if learning was more important than anything else? It doesn't mean that other things are unimportant, but what if you put learning first?

Our much-higher-than-average completion rates exist not because we put so much emphasis on completion but because we put emphasis on learning, and I think that's unusual. There are lots of places that are now committed to the completion agenda. We see completion as a product of learning, not an end in itself.

CT: Can you give an example where you've put learning first over enrollment?

Shugart: Lots of colleges do this now, but in the early 2000s, we had a deadline for admissions to a community college. That was almost unheard of at the time. You still cannot add a class once it has met. You can't be a late addition to a class. All those things that colleges did — they said it was in the name of access, but it was really in the name of enrollment. We brushed those aside. We're just not going to do that.

[The admission deadline] was weeks before the beginning of the semester, so that we could assess, advise and orient students and place them properly before classes started. And we forbid the practice of drop-add. Drop-add creates chaos in the learning environment. That cost us enrollment at the time. We learned how to work with that new system so well that I don't think it hurt in the medium term, and I think it helps us in the long term with retention.

But we put enrollment at risk to give our students a better start to college. We call it "Start Right." Lots of colleges do that now, but it was revolutionary at the time. We're going to respect the learning environment.

Colleges are really paying a lot of attention to completion — which is a good thing — [and] are reforming the living daylights out of student affairs, but they're not making much of an impact on teaching and learning. If you put learning first and say, "Completion is a function of learning," then you have to deal with teaching and learning with the classroom. We started there. Our faculty led our efforts. And we spent enormous resources with them under their leadership, both hiring differently and inducting faculty into our organization differently.

CT: It looks like the college makes a big deal about getting students into pathways or tracks with specific goals as quickly as possible. Are students coming in with specific careers in mind or is the college helping them pin that down?

Shugart: Before the pathways comes a bigger question. As we worked with students over the years and did lots and lots of focus groups as well as quantitative analysis, what we discerned was that one of the best predictors of success at the college and ultimately graduation is if the student knows why they're here — if they have a purpose. For some it was a sublime purpose. I can remember Rafaela, who wanted to become a doctor someday so she could go back to the Amazon Basin where she came from and treat children. For others it's very pragmatic — "My husband left me and I've got no career," or "I've been a police officer for 15 years and someday I'm going to make sergeant." If they could articulate a real purpose for their presence here, their likelihood of graduating was much higher than students who looked just like them but weren't quite sure why they were here.

We started with purpose. When we bring students in through the new student experience, they're all required to go through a three-credit-hour general education core course where we help them to discern what their purpose is in being here, then what pathways they might be interested in and how to explore them.

And then they write a plan to graduate, all the way through graduation. That's really a key issue. Most colleges don't ask students to write and turn in a plan to graduate until their last semester. It's called an application for graduation. We want to put that at the front end, so they have a plan to follow. Then we want to attach a person to them who's intimately involved with them in the development of that sense of purpose and plan — a faculty member who teaches that class. And that person becomes their personal adviser for at least a year.

CT: I read an article in which you were quoted as saying you maintain a "radical commitment to personhood" — that somebody on campus will know your name. The college has 61,000 students. How do you achieve that?

Shugart: We're facing a postmodern generation [of students] who are not just suspicious but deeply distrustful of all institutions. All institutions. They are that way because we made them that way. We did it by depersonalizing them. We treat them as raw material or we treat them as a customer, which is to say, a source of revenue, or we treat them as a demographic, or anything but a human being. I think the fundamental distrust of institutions will undo our institutions if we don't know how to address it.

The only way to address it is to stop doing harm, which is stop treating students as objects, and to begin to treat them as persons. What that means is that the only adequate definition of authentic human service is to render a unique response to the unique human being in front of you. In spite of rules and procedures and systems and regulations, how do I treat you as a unique human being?

In the community college world, it should be easier because we say we're student-centered, and we try to stay close to our students, and we keep small class sizes. But we do a thousand things a day that dehumanize, that treat students like a number or a magnetic strip on the back of a card. The worst is when you treat them as what we call an FTE in America — full-time equivalent. I gave this talk one time in Canada. Afterward in the Q&A, a guy raised his hand. He said, "It's worse here in Canada, eh?" And I said, "What do you mean?" "Because here we don't call them full-time equivalents. We call them funding units — FUs... " That's the way the students feel.

The question I wake up worrying about most days is, how does a huge, distributed organization like ours that always feels a resource pinch treat each student each day as a person and do it nearly 70,000 times a day in eight locations, with 3,000 employees? Scale is the enemy of personalization. We have deep conversations here about how technology, for example, can either make us more productive, which usually means dehumanizing, or make us more personal. Which way are we going to use it?

I don't have great answers. There are lots of little things I could say that help, but I think that's just a constant struggle.

CT: Say you're walking around campus and you happen to see somebody behind the counter addressing a student in a way that you think is less than personalized. Do you pull that person aside after the transaction and say, "I might have handled that a little differently"?

Shugart: Let me tell you a story about that. At the registration office you won't find a counter. We took them out. Now instead of standing across the counter and instead of having the view of the back end of a computer screen with the wires coming out, instead of standing in a queue — remember, they were practically invented in Orlando — instead of doing all that, we have a lounge with couches. A student checks in and is logged into a system that will beep them on their phone and tell them, "Your assistant Molly is ready to meet with you now." Molly will come out and walk them into her little cubicle, where they both sit on the same side of the desk and look at the computer screen together and have a conversation: "Why are you here today? What can I do for you? Why do you think you need a copy of your transcript? Well, let me show you how you can do that yourself." It's person-to-person and shoulder-to-shoulder.

Last week I was at the registration office on our East Camus, just wandering through, high-fiving and teasing with people. And I saw one of our young registration assistants get up from her desk, walk out to the couch, invite the young lady waiting there to come join her at her desk and sit side-by-side. I came over and said, "I just love so much how well you did that. I feel like I would follow you to your desk. You can give me any advice you want. Thanks for treating our students so well." It's better to catch them doing something right.

CT: What's the biggest challenge the school is facing now that you're taking on as your next big thing?

Shugart: Orlando is the best economy in the world for putting unskilled people into low-paying jobs. If you want to work in Orlando, you can get a job for $9 an hour. You can get two or three — if you're willing to park cars or clean rooms or whatever you need to do. The service jobs are important to our economy. I don't mean to put them or the service economy down. It's wonderful. It's what has made Orlando what it is.

The problem is the people who enter the workforce on the bottom rungs of that ladder can't climb the ladder. There are not enough rungs. It runs out after two rungs. We've got this permanently under-employed public here — hundreds of thousands of people who are stuck in low-paying jobs. Meanwhile, we have skill shortages at the same time. The construction industry here, for example, is exploding. They're so hard-up for talent, they're unbundling the job into discrete skills. When I was growing up, if you were a brick mason, you could do anything that any brick mason could do. You could build chimneys and door jams and fireplaces and fancy block, stone, tile, whatever. Now the construction crew has 10 or 15 people who can lay brick to a line and one who supervises and does the fancy work.

We saw an opportunity in that. We asked, if we could have one impact on our community beyond what we do now, what would it be? The answer was, we'd add rungs to the ladder, so the people stuck at the bottom could move up the ladder and move from $9 to $12.50 to $16 to $19 an hour, where they could support a family for the long term.

The way to do that is to provide this discrete skill training in very short, intensive bursts. The opportunity cost is low, and with immediate employment that improves their rate of pay.

We've been at this for about two years now, and we're still scaling it. We call them the centers for accelerated training. We've now got certificates in several construction areas, in a number of manufacturing and fabrication areas, in transportation, in heavy equipment operation. And we made these things portable, so we could take them around the community. Today we might have heavy equipment operation in one end of the district and the basic construction certificate at the other end. And a month from now we might flip them. People don't have to travel all over the kingdom to get this training.

It receives no state support. It's tuition only. We did get some Department of Labor money from the Feds to get it started. And everybody gets jobs. This notion of short, intensive, industry-credentialed training that leads to immediate employment and growth in pay, $2, $3, $4 an hour for each certificate, is a big deal for us right now.

I'm the chairman of the board for one of the big hospital systems in central Florida, called Orlando Health. It became apparent to me that the cost of the nursing shortage was much, much greater than people had estimated. We did our math here. We thought that the cost was about $40 million a year in marginal costs due to overtime and supplying nurses to fill slots that were unfilled.

We gathered the university and the colleges in the area and the hospital systems and said, "Do you agree that this is the scale of the problem?" They said, "Yes." We said, "Would you be willing to spend a tenth of that amount to solve the problem?" They said, "Yes." So we're in the process now of a little more than doubling our nursing programs. We have the largest program in the region now, for about 360 graduates a year. We're going to be at 700 in three years.

And we're going to add a bachelor's degree with the blessing of the university, because 80 percent of these graduates need to go on and get a bachelor's and [the university] can't handle that kind of volume. There's a massive nursing initiative underway that I think is going to have a huge impact. It will change us. It'll change healthcare in the community. It'll make it more affordable and more accessible. It'll raise the quality. All those things. Then I think about that additional 300 or 400 graduates every year that Valencia will produce — a thousand across all of the colleges in the region. For every one of those families, think about the impact. Every one of those families moves from having a $30,000-$40,000 income to a $70,000 or $80,000 income — almost overnight. That changes the trajectory of the lives of everybody in that family.

CT: Your new award comes with a little honorarium — $50,000. Not enough to buy the old Tesla, a little more than you need to buy the new Tesla. What are you going to do with the money?

Shugart: Great fun. That's a bigger check than I usually get to write. I'll give it to our foundation, of course. Valencia earned that prize, not Sandy Shugart. I'm going to reinvest that money in the mission.

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