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Setting Standards for Higher Education: Dr. Sandy Shugart’s Story

When Dr. Sandy Shugart accepted the position as president of Valencia College in 2000, he knew right away it was a great fit. Located in Orlando, Fla., Valencia is the state’s third largest community college, serving more than 60,000 students across five campuses.

The mission of Valencia College is to bring opportunities for academic, technical, and life-long learning in a collaborative culture dedicated to inquiry, results and excellence. For Dr. Shugart, this was the perfect opportunity for him to apply his knowledge of higher education with a college that shared his vision.

A Journey to Education

Shugart’s passion for education began when he was a graduate student at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where his research focused on how students learn in the classroom. This eventually led him to direct his attention to how adults learn, with a particular focus on learning in a college environment.

“My academic preparation, which was about my particular field of education, focused on how adults learn and how the brain works, and put me on a trajectory to care about learning as the central mission of higher education. It put me on track to my career,” Shugart explains.

After completing his Ph.D. in Teaching and Learning from UNC, Shugart began his career in higher education, serving as president of North Harris College and as vice president and chief academic officer of the North Carolina Community College System.

Big Changes for Valencia

When he was appointed president of Valencia College, the goal was to incorporate positive changes that would improve both student experience as well as increase graduation rates. “When I made the transition to Valencia 18 years ago, I knew right away that the college’s vision matched my vision. They were looking for a good leader who shared the same goals,” Shugart recalls.

Since that time, part of Valencia’s success stems from its focus on the student’s experience during their first year. After discovering that students are more likely to finish their degrees when they do well during the first year, Dr. Shugart and the leadership team decided to implement the New Student Experience vision, which includes different ways the college provides support during the most crucial time of a student’s journey in higher education.

“Instead of looking at how things like student affairs or financial aid could be reformed, we decided to focus on the classroom first. That’s where most of the student experience is,” explained Shugart.

This proved to be a successful tactic for the college, with its graduation rates improving significantly over the years. For example, Valencia saw an 87 percent increase in students completing the associates of arts program from 2006 to 2014.

During the 2010-2011 school year, Valencia graduated 6,655 students, before increasing to 7,625 graduates during the 2014-2015 year. In addition to improved graduation rates, Valencia graduates are experiencing success upon entering the workforce, with a 95 percent job placement rate and an average salary of $43,000 among students who obtained their associate’s degrees from the college. Additionally, students are receiving more opportunities that may not have been accessible otherwise. Valencia is now ranked 4th in the nation for associates degrees awarded to Hispanic students, and 6th in the nation for associates degrees awarded to African American students.

Continued Success

Dr. Shugart is proud of how the institution has grown in recent years. Upon winning the 2017 McGraw Prize in Education for his role at Valencia, Shugart credited the college’s success to a collaborative effort between the college, the leadership team, and its faculty members and staff. According to Shugart, the success that Valencia has experienced would not have been possible without their continued teamwork and commitment to higher education.

“We are all delighted to be recognized with the Prize, and I believe it is a recognition of the college’s work as a whole. It’s really a great affirmation, and it’s helping show that Valencia is a bit counter-cultural with how we work. The Prize will help us continue to get people’s attention,” Shugart explains.

With a unique approach and reputation as one of the top community colleges nationwide, Valencia College is bringing more opportunities to students across Florida. With help from the Valencia community, Dr. Shugart’s passion and expertise in higher education have been instrumental in the college’s success, and will continue to influence the field in the future.