College Excellence Program
College Excellence Program
Valencia College is a large, diverse, multi-campus community college in central Florida, offering a comprehensive range of programs, including transfer-directed associate’s degrees, career technical certificates, and continuing professional education. Valencia achieves exceptional student outcomes by offering clear pathways to success, from associate’s degree programs with guaranteed admission to the selective University of Central Florida to technical degree programs that have career advisers embedded in each program. The environment at Valencia is defined by professors and administrators taking responsibility for student success, consistently asking what they each can do to improve student outcomes. Interventions aim at creating incentives for students to use services, clarifying pathways, and, at times, limiting the kinds of student choices that result in poor completion rates, such as not allowing students to add courses after the first day of class. The graduation and workforce results are clear and especially impressive given Valencia’s diverse student body (about half are Hispanic or African American), the large percentage who arrive needing remedial work, and the significant number from lower-income households.
Leaders at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., could see from the data that whether students succeeded in their first five courses on campus foretold whether they would succeed in the long run. As Sandy Shugart, the president of Valencia since 2000, put it, “All the failure occurs at the front door.”
The school enrolls 50,000 credit students and offers more than 700 courses a term. Yet only 15 or so introductory courses account for more than two-fifths of student enrollment—courses that not nearly enough students were passing. So Valencia zeroed in on how students could be set up to succeed in their earliest experiences and start learning from the first moment of the first day of class.
To “Start Right,” as the school termed the goal, Valencia reworked many traditional processes that other colleges view as immutable. Students needed earlier advising and orientation, which in turn meant earlier application and admission deadlines. Adjunct professors were assigned courses a year ahead of time. No more sections were hastily added at the start of the term, a practice that creates chaos for students and faculty, not to mention the bookstore. And because data showed that students who start classes late are the least likely to complete them, nobody could add a course that had already met, even once. But the school didn’t want to slow anyone’s progression. So for the classes first-time students typically take, Valencia created “flex start” sections a month into the semester for students enrolling late.
Valencia’s student body is nearly half underrepresented minorities and many live in poverty. Yet two-thirds of students return for their second year of school and over 40 percent graduate or transfer within three years (compared to one-third for community colleges nationally). The story of Start Right exemplifies how the institution has been able to accomplish this: Understand when students do and don’t succeed, and use that information to make decisions. Try new things where they’ll matter most, for the neediest students.
Two-fifths of Valencia students—including all those with the greatest developmental needs—now take a course called Student Success, where they create a personalized education plan and learn organizational skills. Additionally, learning communities link two classes, often Student Success and a developmental class. Now that she is team-teaching with a Student Success instructor, math professor Julie Phelps can direct students to the personal services they need, is more deliberate about how she groups them for collaborative work, and teaches not just what to study but how. In her old beginning algebra classes, 70 percent of students would pass—90 percent or more of students pass her class now that it’s linked to Student Success. Schoolwide, the percentage of students who complete the developmental education sequence they are placed in has increased significantly.
Patrice Cobb, 40, took pre-algebra linked with Student Success and attended peer tutoring sessions with her classmates several times a week, taught by a “supplemental learner” assigned to her class alone. The instructional tools were great, she said, but just as important, the community that developed sustained her. “In that class, we were amazing as a team,” Cobb said. “We made sure that all of us went through and made it.” Now Cobb aspires to be a math professor and creates that community herself as a tutor for the course she once surprised herself by excelling in.
Clear pathways for students
Jim Lipscomb, a Northrop Grumman manager in Orlando, used to spend half the year on the road, looking for workers qualified to help make laser sights for military hardware. Competition was fierce—a good candidate had five or ten job offers to choose from—and those he hired often left Florida in months, homesick for Texas or Idaho or Iowa.
Now, Lipscomb doesn’t need to leave town. Over the last several years, he has hired nearly every laser technician who has come out of Valencia, which created a program in response to growing industry demand. Valencia is doing its part to fill a national shortage of laser technicians while linking local residents to well-paying jobs for local residents. “It’s very important that we have this local source for employees,” Lipscomb said. What’s even more important, he said, is that Valencia graduates “are really good.” They have enough theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience to work independently in the lab nearly immediately, compared to a six-month learning curve for most new hires.
Valencia College sees itself not as a destination for students, but as a bridge to higher accomplishments—a role it accomplishes by creating strong, clear pathways to careers and higher education. Thirty percent of students who enter Valencia transfer to a four-year college, four in five to the selective University of Central Florida (UCF), which now has an outpost at Valencia, so students need not leave to get a bachelor’s degree. Thanks to an agreement called DirectConnect, students cannot transfer to UCF without an associate’s degree, but cannot be denied admission if they have one from Valencia. Those who enter Valencia with their sights on UCF get counseling all along from both schools. Representatives from the community college and from the university work together to analyze student data and align programs.
For the two-fifths of Valencia students enrolled in technical programs, the college maintains strong relationships with employers; aligns programs with actual, good jobs; and provides opportunities for in-the-field training. Strong faculty-industry relationships net students internships—at hotels, on movie sets, in hospitals—and, through advisory boards, ensure that curriculum is state-of-the-art. Lisa Macon, an information technology instructor, said that when faculty meet with the IT advisory board, “we listen to every word they say.” For example, when employers expressed concern that Valencia graduates needed more work on “soft skills” such as working in teams or making presentations, the department added a required course giving students practice in just that.
Career program advisors embedded in each technical department at Valencia help students stay on track. The advisors, who have experience in industry, keep an eye on career trends and maintain outside connections that benefit students. Additionally, the program advisors know the ropes within Valencia, helping students navigate everything from the course catalog to lab hours. They work one-on-one with each student to help them set a goal and determine exactly which courses will get them there most efficiently.
The completion rate in Valencia’s career programs has grown 44 percent over four years. Cheryl Robinson, dean of students at Valencia’s Winter Park campus said, “I really think it’s because of these specialized advisors that form the relationships with the students and can get them through their sequence really quickly.”
Experimenting in the classroom
The textbook that professor Al Groccia used to assign his developmental math students cost $150. So he wrote one that cost a tenth of that and his class performed just as well. This wasn’t a rogue experiment; it was part of the improvement process for every Valencia instructor seeking tenure.
Over the course of three years—with the help of a training course, an advisor, and a review panel of their peers—new full-time instructors each develop action research projects to be tested on students in the classroom and assessed against a control group. They’re asked to consider what might make the biggest difference for students? A teacher may test an innovative hands-on project, or a new approach to tutoring. Ideas that work are spread, which is why all beginning algebra classes on the Osceola campus now use Groccia’s $15 textbook.
Summer Trazzera’s developmental reading students used to all be assigned, and get frustrated with, the same lab work. As one of her action research projects, she gave a section of students a pretest to determine their areas of weakness and gave them personalized lab assignments based on their needs. Now, all sections of that course on the East Campus use her model of individualized instruction.
“Our culture really supports innovation,” said Wendi Dew, Valencia’s director of faculty development. “But it’s innovation that’s supported by evidence.” One thing that evidence makes clear: Students attending Valencia College have an exceptional chance to succeed.