The following is excerpted from a 2012 Annual Meeting session entitled “Beyond the Quad: Post-secondary Education that Works” where Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, explained how Valencia is leading the nation with strong community college graduation rates for ethnic minorities. For the full audio of this session or to check out other sessions from the 2012 Annual Meeting, visit our resource page.
In America today people don’t go to college the way you and I went to college. The percentage of students who go to college right after high school—leave town to go to college, live on or near campus, and attend pretty much full time—is now 17 percent of the American undergraduate population, and headed towards 12, maybe even 10 percent before it stabilizes.
In other words, everything we thought we knew about what college education looks like is not what our students are experiencing. At Valencia College a core principle of our work is this: The only adequate definition of college is that college is what the students experience. So a beginning point for us as operators of institutions, and for you as partners with institutions, is to understand what the institution is. It’s what the students experience, and what they experience isn’t anything like what we all experienced. All of our assumptions have to be challenged again.
Excellence isn’t about who you let in: it’s about what students learn and what they do with it.
Valencia serves nearly 70,000 students a year, in mostly 2-year degree programs. We’re a hybrid institution now, like many in Florida. We also offer bachelor’s degrees because our university asked us to. They were overwhelmed, so we’re a partner on those things and offer some ourselves. That’s a growing model. You’ll find it in Pennsylvania and Georgia, and it’s growing in Arizona and California as well. So the 2-year college, 4-year college nomenclature doesn’t really work anymore. They’re all just colleges. We’re known for having the highest graduation rate in the business, the highest transfer rate in the business, and for getting results from students who are hard to serve. They are highly diverse, a significant component being lower income though it’s probably an ordinary distribution now. But that’s what we’re known for.
What I want to speak to you about as philanthropists is why you would care. There are eight million students in community colleges. There are 1,200 institutions out of approximately 7,000 colleges and universities in America, including the for-profit sector. Why care? Why would private philanthropy invest in a big community college?
One reason I think we are overlooked by private philanthropy is that we have historically served overlooked people. And we’ve been good at it. We’re deeply embedded in our communities. Private philanthropy that is community-based has been really involved with community colleges, but private philanthropy that reaches beyond the immediate community, much less so.
Second is, we’re a public college, so it’s assumed we are getting public funding. Except that that’s no longer really the case. At Valencia this year, 36 percent of our funding is public, all the rest is private and tuition. What we used to imagine about public higher education— that it was a public good for the public to invest in—is a lost value proposition now. I hope it comes back, but the covenant that we made as institutions with our elected leaders has long-since broken down. The recent recession only accelerated a pattern that already existed. So you’ll find most of your colleges now receive barely more than 50 percent of their support from the state and the larger ones like us a good bit less. Maricopa Community College District in Arizona, which is one of the largest in the country, gets 1 percent of its funding from the state. We’re all headed in that direction, though I hope I don’t quite out-pace Maricopa.
A third reason that we’ve not been terribly engaged with private philanthropy is that it creates such exposure for the donor. Our colleges tend to be affiliated in states, and so sometimes foundations we talk to say, “We’d love to help you but, you know, there’s a college on every corner. We’ll just be beset with colleges.” That’s a real problem. I understand that problem, but there is another way of looking at that, which is that you have leverage. In the community college system, there really are leaders in the system that everyone else models after. So a place like Valencia, or right down the street at Broward College, figures out how to get extraordinarily high success rates with the students and is emulated by every college in the country. An experiment at our place that yields high results ends up being implemented at hundreds of colleges and benefiting tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of students. That’s the position Valencia is in.
Finally, private philanthropy is traditionally interested in investing in—what I would just call—excellence. Harvard doesn’t raise money because it needs to: it raises money because it can. It is an excellent institution, and we’re drawn to excellence. I want to suggest to you a different model of excellence. Around the 1980s, college enrollment, particularly independent college enrollment, took a real dip. It was in the period we called the baby bust, the trough between the baby boom and the echo baby boom. I was in public policy at the time, and we thought we would be closing down colleges. That’s how severe the enrollment decline was.
Anyone can learn anything under the right conditions. The problem isn’t the students.
Private higher education quickly discovered the tools of modern marketing: direct mail, intrusive marketing, database marketing, etc. We call it enrollment management, but it’s just marketing. One of the things discovered in that time was that America was ready for a proposition: Excellence is the same as exclusivity, and exclusivity is achieved through expensiveness.
There were a fair number of independent colleges with whom I worked who made a strategic decision to double their tuition and reduce their enrollment to raise their prestige and their leverage on philanthropy. It was a stated strategy. The University of Miami reduced its enrollment from 18,000 students to 11,000 and almost doubled tuition in a four-year period. Its primary purpose was to rise up the pecking order in the university world and to leverage philanthropic dollars because it gave them, they thought, a longer lever on the fulcrum of raising money.
I think there is another way of thinking about excellence, and this is what the community college proposition has always been: geniuses will be raked from the coals. There is a quote from Thomas Jefferson that says intelligence, and initiative even, don’t know what neighborhood they were born in, don’t know how wealthy or poor their parents were, they just exist. What doesn’t exist in every neighborhood is opportunity. The great American experiment for us has been to open the doors to everybody and see if we can get the same performance from that kind of population as you might get from an elite population. We don’t measure our excellence by the average SAT of the incoming class. Excellence isn’t about who you let in: it’s about what happens with them once they’re there and what they do with it. And we’ve been setting that standard for our industry, particularly in the last decade.
Our assumption about our students is different from almost any other institution: Anyone can learn anything under the right conditions. The problem isn’t the students. Anyone can learn anything under the right conditions. Do you believe that? Most Americans will say they kind of sort of do, but they don’t. They really think the power to learn is given to a few, and the rest ought to just work.
For example, most Americans believe they are math disabled. But the truth is everybody in this room has the basic biology you require to learn calculus. I could teach it to you. You could learn to speak Chinese, even at our age. That part of your brain doesn’t turn to concrete at a certain age. You all have the capacity to learn, and so does every student who crosses our threshold. So why do community colleges have such low graduation rates? Because they thought the problem was under-prepared students. The problem really is inadequate conditions, some of which the students control.
Now, I’d like to prove this hypothesis to you, but I’ll do it with just a story. I gave this lecture on learning to 3,000 teachers in Austin, Texas, in the 1990s. “Death by PowerPoint: How do we know anyone can learn anything?” A lady came up to me afterward and said, “Thanks for that, Dr. Shugart, I really appreciate it, and I liked that part about anyone can learn anything, and I think it’s true in most disciplines.” And I said, “Well, what is it that you teach, ma’am?” She said, “I teach German. It’s a very difficult language, kind of intuitive, tough vocabulary, difficult syntax and, after teaching German for 15 years, I can tell you there’s some people who just can’t learn German.” And I said, “Well, how fortunate for them they weren’t born in Germany.” She looked at me funny. I said, “You see, the conditions for learning German are exceptionally good in Germany. It’s not genetic. There is no Deutsche gene. They learn German across the ability spectrum because the conditions are right.”
At Valencia we’ve spent 15 years changing the conditions of learning, tripling our graduation rate. We’re the largest producer of transfer students in the country. Our partner institution, University of Central Florida, is the largest receiver of transfer students in the country. We have a 95 percent placement rate into jobs, even in a bad economy. It’s all about putting learning first, ahead of everything else, and adjusting those conditions. So my value proposition to any investor would be this: We get results, and when we do, it changes the way the entire movement works.