Regional academic leaders gathered Thursday at the University of Central Florida to discuss expanding students’ access to college despite budget cuts and changing admissions processes.

At the third College Access Summit, held in the Fairwinds Alumni Center on UCF’s main campus, more than 150 superintendents, principals, guidance counselors and UCF and community college leaders worked together to come up with a plan for expanding local high school graduates’ access to college.

David Harrison, vice provost for UCF Regional Campuses, began the meeting with a history of UCF’s partnerships in the education community.

In Spring 2005, Brevard, Lake-Sumter, Seminole and Valencia community colleges partnered with UCF and established the Central Florida Consortium. Early goals of the consortium included expanding capacity and guaranteeing opportunities to students.

Among the consortium’s successes is the establishment of DirectConnect to UCF, which guarantees university admission to graduates of those community colleges and closely aligns students with UCF’s admissions policies and procedures to ensure an easy transition.

The first College Access Summit, held in Fall 2007, discussed what a regional strategy might look like. Harrison described it as “conversation starter.”

Harrison said the third College Access Summit, held Thursday, was a benchmark to move forward and “the fulcrum to launch us into action.”

“Even during these trying budget times, we’re not only staying true to what we established that first meeting, we’re strengthening it” said Harrison.

Throughout the summit, the importance of informing students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade that college is an option for them was stressed. Additionally, many leaders addressed the economy and its effects on education.

“Most of us don’t even remember when the last recession happened and how we got through it,” said Sanford “Sandy” Shugart, president of Valencia Community College. “Is this serious? Yes. Is this long term? No.”

Shugart also spoke about the challenges of the economy and put it in perspective for attendees.

“We might be a squall, or even on the edge of a hurricane, but the hurricane isn’t the point — it’s the journey,” Shugart said. “We need to come out of this in better shape than we went in.”

In small teams, academic leaders listed benchmarks they thought were most crucial to the region and created a scorecard for improvement. Several teams shared their thoughts with the group.

All of the lists will be compiled, published online and further addressed at the next summit.

In the meantime, leaders were asked to work on implementing some key practices at their schools. Creating a high school plan, preparing students for college, and training faculty to properly guide students to post-secondary success were among the suggested practices.

“This is a process, and today is an important step in that,” Harrison said. “We’re in this together.”