Florida Community Colleges, 4-Year Institutions Working Together

Around 40% of Students in Osceola County, Florida attend college right after high school. The Hispanic and immigrant population is rising, and many parents do not have a college degree, and the two biggest private sector employees are Wal-Mart and Walt Disney World. Spending four years in a university at a price tag of $24,000 is an impossible expense for many.

A new program called DirectConnect, designed by Valencia College President Sandy Shugart and University of Central Florida President John Hitt, is hoping to change that. It is a regional agreement between UCF and four former community colleges that speeds up the transfer of associate degrees to state universities. Students in the DirectConnect program have guaranteed admission into a specific institution, more advising, and the possibility of earning a UCF bachelor's degree without leaving a local Florida College Campus.

Currently the agreement allows 60,000 students access to UCF and is well-matched with partner colleges. However, as the university increases recruitment efforts, the transfer guarantee could become harder.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 45% of college freshmen start at a community college. Sophie Quinton of National Journal reports that two-year programs serve a majority of low income, first generation, and minority students hoping to get low-cost credits before obtaining a bachelor's elsewhere — and few succeed.

Of first-time students who started out in an associate's degree program in the 2003-04 academic year, 11.3 percent had attained a bachelor's degree six years later, according to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 17.9 percent completed an associate's in that time.

The White House wants to improve this number and mobility. State lawmakers want to make higher education systems more efficient and help students meet college completion goals without spending money on new campuses.

A system in Florida known as 2+2 has helped resolve many of the transfer issues. Students who earn an associates are guaranteed a junior's place in a state university. Associate degrees include the majority of general education courses universities require so according to state law the credits must transfer. Despite the efforts of 2+2, only half of associate degree graduates go on to a state university.

The DirectConnect program was designed to "fix" the 2+2 system. By guaranteeing admission to a specific institution, students can focus on their academic plan. Advisors at partner college campuses provide the students with additional guidance.

Associate degree transfers currently make up 48% of the bachelor's degrees awarded by UCF, and DirectConnect students graduate at a slightly higher rate than resident UCF students do. The transfer agreement has not hurt UCF's credibility and has added diversity to UCF's graduating class.

"If you want to increase access to the professions for people of color, there's only really one way to do it—and that's to draw a direct line from transfer to the professions," Shugart says.

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