The third-largest university in the country  could get a lot larger, thanks in part to an increasingly popular guaranteed transfer initiative it sponsors with four community colleges in Orlando.
The University of Central Florida, which enrolled a record 53,537 students this fall, introduced DirectConnect  in 2006. The program offers guaranteed entrance and accelerated admission to the university for all students who complete an associate degree from and alumni of Brevard Community College, Lake Sumter Community College, Seminole State College of Florida and Valencia Community College. High school students applying to these four community colleges can also signal their desire to attend UCF on their application and are similarly guaranteed admission once they earn a two-year degree.
Though such guaranteed transfer programs are not new, the sheer number of students making use of the option to enter UCF is attracting the attention of university officials and presidents of the participating community colleges. More than 35,000 students are currently in the DirectConnect pipeline for eventual transfer to UCF, said David Harrison, vice provost for the university’s regional campuses. This fall, more than 60 percent of UCF’s 5,337 transfer students enrolled via DirectConnect.
UCF officials distinguish DirectConnect from Florida's statewide “2+2” articulation program, which guarantees community college graduates admission to one of the state’s 11 public universities, but not necessarily one of their choosing. In contrast with those utilizing the 2+2 program, students in DirectConnect meet periodically with UCF advisers and other officials to help create and keep up with a four-year academic plan, making for a seamless transfer and increasing familiarity with their eventual baccalaureate institution.
“The state 2+2 was designed to get students into four-year institutions, but DirectConnect was designed to help them graduate,” Harrison said. “UCF officials work with students as soon as they declare their intent to transfer, and they stick with them through graduation.”
The access- and completion-oriented program grew out of Florida’s recent enrollment boom, in which demand for seats in higher education has nearly exceeded supply.
“Florida was under-built for higher education and didn’t realize it for a long time,” said Sanford Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, a DirectConnect partner. “There was no strategic planning by the state, so in those parts of the state that drive the economy the game plan was for the regional universities to grow like crazy. They thought that all growth is good. Well, they reached a point where big is good, but prominence is better. And, prominence comes from being more selective, not huge, and growing graduate programs. That’s what happened at UCF.”
In 2000, UCF admitted 63 percent  of its applicants. This academic year, UCF admitted 43 percent  of its applicants. In addition to becoming more selective during the past decade, UCF has also become more residential. It now has more than 10,000 beds , an increase of 5,700 since 2000. This institutional shift, however, pushed out some students from the local Orlando area, as the university began admitting more students from around the state.
“Once UCF changed its strategy, it was nearly full, and the demand for freshman seats far exceeded supply,” said Shugart, noting that UCF’s freshman class has been frozen in size for the past three years. “A lot of really good students in our area couldn’t get into UCF after it began the transition from what some have called a ‘commuter school on steroids’ to a more residential college. Local students aren’t living in those dorms; students from elsewhere in the state are.”
Though Shugart said it is too early to judge the success of DirectConnect in graduating local community college transfers -- given the program's youth -- he noted that it has increased the access his students have to a baccalaureate degree. What Shugart did not expect, however, was for DirectConnect to make his community college more popular among students from outside of its service area.
In the three-year period before DirectConnect was introduced, the number of out-of-district students at Valencia increased by only 2 percent. But, in the three-year period since DirectConnect was introduced, the number of out-of-district students at the college increased by 30 percent. This upswing comes at a time when the number of “commuting students” from neighboring districts has steadily decreased. As a result, Shugart believes that th lion’s share of the new out-of-district students at Valencia have uprooted and moved to the area because of benefits such as the guaranteed admission to UCF.
Shugart also believes that DirectConnect may also serve as an alternative to the recent movement among many Florida community colleges to offer four-year degrees .
“Everywhere in the state where community colleges are aggressively fighting for bachelor’s degrees, there are open tensions with their local universities,” Shugart said. “While everyone else in the state was concentrating on what they could do as an institution, we focused on what we could do for our students to have immediate and complete access to all bachelor’s degrees.
"Given that those who have sought the authorization to offer very specific occupational or boutique four-year degrees have led to eroding relationships between institutions, we thought this was more important. That’s what DirectConnect is about: It’s helped us meet the policy issue of under-built supply and overwhelming demand without damaging our 2+2 articulation."
While they laud the access to baccalaureate degrees that DirectConnect provides their students, Valencia and UCF's other community college partners are not entirely opposed to the idea of offering of four-year degrees themselves. Shugart acknowledged that there was some interest in offering four-year degrees  in programs that UCF has recently discontinued for cost-cutting purposes, such as electrical and computer engineering technology. He noted, however, that the college has no intention of adding dozens of baccalaureate programs as some other two-year institutions in the state have done, citing the strain these can put on relationships with nearby state universities.
E. Ann McGee, president of Seminole State College of Florida, a DirectConnect partner, noted that her institution already offers industry-specific baccalaureate degrees in fields such as interior design – in which Seminole State has a thriving two-year program but UCF has no intention of offering a four-year degree. She believes the college's partnership with UCF helps the institutions from clashing over the offering of these baccalaureate programs.
"We have a very deliberate partnership," McGee said of the consortium of UCF and the four communtiy colleges. "When UCF has gotten rid of certain baccalaureate degrees, it has caused us to think about how we can partner among ourselves to serve the needs of our students and the community."
Regarding DirectConnect, McGee has seen the transfer program dramatically grow in popularity at her institution. In two years, the number of students enrolled in the program at Seminole State more than tripled. In fall 2007, more than 2,100 students were enrolled; now, more than 6,500 are enrolled.
“There’s been a huge increase in the number of students who transfer to UCF,” McGee said. “I think that’s because, before DirectConnect, hometown kids weren’t getting into their hometown college. And that’s become even more critical with the downturn in the economy. It was prophetic that we had this program in place before the economy crashed. The only thing I worry about is the pressure, in terms of the number of students, we are putting on UCF. If you had told me that the number of Seminole students in this program would triple in two years, I wouldn’t have believed you. I just wonder when the pressure of these students may become too great for UCF.”