This now-vacant field on the Polk County side could become the home to a new campus for Valencia College, if Poinciana business leaders have their way. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

POINCIANA – On the heels of getting national recognition as the best community college in the nation, Valencia College looks to continue expanding and opening new campuses in 2012 – including, most likely, one in Poinciana, said the chairman of a local economic development group.
“They did announce that Poinciana is a top priority as far as expansions,” said Nick Murdock, the chairman of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance. “They are very interested in Poinciana.”
Valencia College now has six campuses, including four in Orlando, one in Winter Park, and one in Kissimmee, at 809 Bill Beck Boulevard.
Valencia is the third-largest member institution of the Florida College System, founded in 1967 as Valencia Junior College. The name Valencia Community College was adopted in 1971. In December 2010, Valencia’s Board of Trustees voted to change the name to Valencia College as its academic scope was expanded to include bachelor’s degrees. More than 30,000 students enroll at one of the campuses every year, and Valencia got ranked first in the U.S. for the number of Associate’s Degrees awarded among two-year schools.
Earlier this week, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer used the City Council meeting to announce that the college had received a prestigious award.
“I just got this announcement,” Dyer said to the crowd in the commission chambers. “Valencia College has won the top prize by the Aspen Institute in Washington as the number one community college in the nation.” It was, the mayor said, a great honor and distinction for the city of Orlando to be hosting the college.
The inaugural Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence was announced in a ceremony held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The award comes with $600,000 in prize money.
Sanford Shugart, president of Valencia College, issued a statement noting, “The whole country is looking to us these days, it seems. The nation has discovered that we have this unique instrument at hand. We are institutions where excellence is not defined by exclusivity.”
In a process that took a year to decide, the Aspen Institute worked with a panel of people working in higher education and selected Valencia and four runners-up from a preliminary list of 120 “top” community colleges in the nation, based on student performance and graduation data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.
“Valencia College has proven that devotion to assessment yields results,” said Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program. “The college is an engine for employment in Central Florida, and a model for the country.”
Murdock said he’s well aware of Valencia College’s excellent reputation, which is why PEDA and Avatar, the main developer in Poinciana, have reached out to the college about building a campus in the community that cuts across Polk and Osceola counties.
“I’m trying to set up a meeting with them now, as a PEDA representative,” Murdock said. PEDA was formed last summer, and has been working to bring more jobs and economic growth to the community.
Murdock said Valencia College already has a possible location to build on: a wide open field on the Polk County side of Poinciana, across the street from the Solivita development. This land will break ground next year on a Medical Arts Building that is being constructed by Osceola Regional Medical Center of Kissimmee, which is also building the first hospital in Poinciana.

Nick Murdock and Wendy Farrell, members of the Poinciana Economic Development Alliance, discuss plans for a Valencia College campus in Poinciana. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

As Murdock noted, not all of that land has been slated for the medical office building.
“Another part of it is designated for educational needs,” he said.
PEDA member Wendy Farrell noted that a lot of Poinciana residents already attend Valencia’s Kissimmee campus.
“A lot of kids here have dual enrollment there,” she said.
But it’s not a short drive to get there, said PEDA member Letha Vanderhei, who added that a Poinciana campus would be a lot more convenient.
“It’s still 40 minutes away from here,” she said of the Kissimmee campus.
Among the reasons the Aspen Institute cited Valencia include the dramatic increase in graduation rates among college-ready African American students, nearly tripling in the last decade from 15.4 percent to 44.3 percent today, and graduation rates for college-ready Hispanic students that have jumped from 38.7 to 45.5 percent.
Aspen judges also noted during the awards ceremony a major economic benefit: that Valencia graduates “are employed at rates higher than graduates from any of the other 10 Aspen Prize finalists. This is especially impressive given the region’s unusually high unemployment rate and low job growth rate.”

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