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Student success shouldn’t be territorial — Valencia, UCF paving the way in transfer partnership

On Dec. 3, Dr. Sandy Shugart — president of Valencia College — will keynote the Belk Center’s annual Dallas Herring Lecture on “Ecosystem Thinking in Higher Education: The Future of Transfer.” Ahead of the lecture, we visited Valencia in Orlando, Florida to learn more about the college’s DirectConnect program with the University of Central Florida (UCF).

Driving around Orlando and its surrounding communities, Valencia College is hard to miss. With 11 campuses and facilities across Orange and Osceola counties in central Florida, Valencia enrolls just under 48,000 students and is one of the largest community colleges in the country. Down the road, the University of Central Florida (UCF) enrolls roughly 69,000 students, making it the largest university in the country by enrollment. What’s even more interesting: Roughly one-in-four UCF graduates started their education at Valencia.

That’s due in part to DirectConnect, a program that guarantees admission to UCF for graduates from six college partner institutions — including Valencia. Started in 2006, the program requires community college students to have completed an associate in arts (AA) degree or an associate in science (AS) degree for certain pathways, such as nursing, criminal justice, and hospitality management.

DirectConnect is heralded nationally as a bright spot in transfer student initiatives, and in 2012, it was recognized as the country’s top program for increasing academic opportunities and success for Latinx students at the associate level.

Along with guaranteed admission to UCF, students receive comprehensive advising from DirectConnect success coaches to help ensure a smooth transition. Two of Valencia’s campuses — West and Osceola — offer UCF classes and advisors on-site. For example, students could complete both their AA and their bachelor’s in elementary education solely at UCF Valencia West or UCF Valencia Osceola. A third Valencia campus, East, has a UCF suite on-site that houses advisors and offers courses in integrated business.

For many students in central Florida, DirectConnect means better access to a four-year degree. Acceptance to UCF as a freshman is competitive — in 2019, the freshman class at UCF had an average high school GPA of 4.15 and an average SAT score of 1330. DirectConnect provides a guaranteed pipeline to a four-year degree regardless of student’s high school grades and test scores. And, DirectConnect offers a more affordable way to achieve a four-year degree. In-state tuition for one credit hour is $103 at Valencia compared to $212 at UCF.

Because DirectConnect only guarantees admission to UCF for students who complete their associate degree, Valencia’s completion rates have increased. If a student wants to transfer to UCF prior to completing an associate degree, they have to submit things like high school and college transcripts and SAT or ACT scores, and they have to complete UCF’s general education program. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse in 2012 points to the importance of completing an associate degree at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution — 71% of those transfer students earned a bachelor’s degree within four years of transferring, with 80% either graduating or remaining enrolled.

Improving two- to four-year college transfer processes can increase educational attainment levels and boost upward social mobility. As North Carolina works to meet its myFutureNC attainment goal — 2 million people with a high-quality postsecondary credential or degree by 2030 — DirectConnect offers insight on strengthening transfer processes and pathways.

State-level support and deep partnerships

Sonya Joseph has seen the evolution of DirectConnect from its inception over a decade ago to where it stands today — and the many twists and turns along the way. Joseph, vice president of enrollment management at Valencia, credits two factors for the program’s success: support at the state level and deep partnerships with UCF.

In Florida, a number of statewide policies assist students in transitioning smoothly from two-year to four-year colleges and universities. These policies apply to the 28 two-year colleges and 12 four-year universities in the state.

  • A statewide articulation agreement guarantees that students can transfer 60 credits earned as part of an AA degree to any public university. However, students are not guaranteed transfer to the college or university of their choice.
  • The statewide articulation agreement also guarantees that the 36-hour general education block of credits earned at any public college or university in Florida will be accepted in total by any other public institution in the state.
  • A manual of common prerequisites describes the specific coursework that students need to complete prior to admission to bachelor’s degree programs.
  • A statewide course numbering system facilitates the smooth transfer of credit among all of Florida’s postsecondary institutions by ensuring that courses with similar academic content that are taught by faculty with similar credentials are given the same prefix and number. Those courses are considered to be equivalent and, by law, students must be awarded credit for equivalent courses when they transfer.

These policies set the DirectConnect program up for success. But when state-level alignment isn’t available, Joseph said colleges can still lean on deep partnerships with specific universities. Rather than view each other as competitors for the same students, Valencia and UCF identified a common goal: educating their community. That philosophical alignment, Joseph said, was crucial in laying the groundwork for more tactical conversations about how the program would actually work.

“It’s a lot of deep trust, it’s a lot of collaboration, and it’s a lot of prior work,” said Joseph. “But if you find partners that are willing to sit down and have a conversation with you and and not be territorial … we have found how it’s really increased our population of students.”

A banner promoting DirectConnect on Valencia’s West Campus. Analisa Sorrells/EducationNC

Now, over a decade into the program, the partnership between Valencia and UCF is evident in a number of ways. This fall, Valencia opened a downtown campus in partnership with UCF where both Valencia and UCF students take classes side-by-side. The two institutions aligned their academic calendars so that students would have the same breaks. Data sharing agreements between the institutions allow UCF’s DirectConnect coaches to access Valencia students’ degree audits and transcripts, enabling them to create personalized pathway plans for students looking to transfer. At Valencia’s West, Osceola, and East campuses, DirectConnect success coaches hold pop-up advising events alongside Valencia staff to spread the word about the program.

During curriculum alignment meetings, which are regularly held between UCF and DirectConnect partners, faculty and staff dig into the nitty-gritty of course syllabi and learning outcomes. Curriculum alignment works to ensure students are learning the same things in equivalent courses across institutions and to ensure they are prepared to transition to the next level course once arriving at UCF.

But the partnership is not all roses. Joseph recalled an instance years ago when science faculty at UCF expressed that community college students should not take organic chemistry at community colleges because they weren’t prepared upon enrolling at UCF. Joseph said that Valencia then worked to engage in an open and honest dialogue with UCF about what students were having challenges with and what could be done about it.

“It’s not all pretty, and sometimes it’s a pretty difficult conversation. But if you have the guidelines and the principles laid out for you, you fall back on those — what are we really trying to accomplish for students?” said Joseph. “And you come back to that. That’s really helpful in moving forward.”

A sign outside of Valencia’s West Campus in Orlando, Florida. Analisa Sorrells/EducationNC

The role of success coaches

Lisa Cruz, associate director of student services and advising for UCF’s three Valencia campuses, remembers working as a DirectConnect advisor when the program first began. Back then, Cruz recalls walking from door-to-door, introducing herself to Valencia staff and spreading the word about how she could help. Every day since then, cultivating partnerships with Valencia has been Cruz’s priority.

“The success of the program is the partnerships that we have. And you can’t just let that go just because you have your strong partner today,” said Cruz. “You have to keep cultivating, you have to keep working at that partnership — because there’s so many moving parts all the time, so many people are moving around and changing.”

Just as Cruz’s role with UCF has evolved, so has DirectConnect’s approach to student advising. Kimberly Hardy, assistant vice provost for UCF’s three Valencia campuses, described the initial support model as siloed — staff in enrollment services, student services, and advising were all working to support transfer students. Now, those services are streamlined into a single success coach who is trained across content areas.

DirectConnect success coaches, who are UCF employees housed across Valencia’s main campuses, are one-stop shops who assist students before, during, and after the transfer process. Once a student indicates their interest in the program, DirectConnect coaches proactively reach out as early as that students’ first semester at Valencia. Then, coaches meet periodically with students and discuss things like which courses they should take for the bachelor’s program they are interested in, how to prepare and apply to transfer, and how to sign up for UCF orientation.

A step-by-step pathway for Valencia students interested in DirectConnect to UCF for nursing. Analisa Sorrells/EducationNC

And coaching services don’t end when students transfer to UCF. Coaches stay in touch with DirectConnect transfers to keep them updated on things like withdrawal and graduation deadlines — and to offer guidance when questions arise. Hardy said that the personal connections coaches make with students is critical to removing barriers and retaining students throughout their educational journey.

When asked what advice she had for other colleges interested in strengthening their transfer processes, Cruz emphasized the importance of working as true partners with Valencia — not as competitors.

“A lot of colleges say, ‘Aren’t you in competition?’ No — we’re working together towards helping the student remove barriers so they can graduate,” said Cruz.

At the end of the day, Hardy believes DirectConnect is successful because of its laser focus on increasing student success.

“If you keep the student and the success of that student at the forefront, that’s the key. Everything else you can figure out — you can work it out, you can collaborate,” said Hardy. “You just keep saying, OK, we have to figure this out. We have no choice. This student has to be successful. What are we going to do to make that happen?”

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.