“Culture” is often treated as a mystery ingredient in the recipe for promoting student success. A good culture catalyzes well-designed interventions and produces positives results. A bad culture impedes the take-up or spread of practices that should otherwise work, leading to disappointment. But like airborne yeast in a sourdough, an institution either has good culture or it doesn’t.

But what if culture weren’t a background condition? What if, instead, it can be designed, intentionally? And if so, how?

Valencia College, a five-campus community college that in 2014-15 served more than 60,000 students in and around Orlando, Florida, provides a particularly illuminating example of large-scale change to institutional culture, with dramatic effects on student success. Between 2005 and 2014, Valencia more than doubled the number of associate’s degrees it awarded while keeping student costs exceptionally low: over the past five years, Valencia’s tuition has increased once, by a mere four dollars per credit hour. Valencia has been recognized widely for these improvements, including being awarded the inaugural Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence in 2012.

In our new case study, “Collaborating for Student Success at Valencia College,” Jessie Brown and I delve into Valencia’s transformation. Our research reveals the deliberate and self-conscious way in which its leaders have endeavored to shift the culture. Valencia has embraced an approach that president Sandy Shugart calls “collaborative design.” Distinct from garnering buy-in, collaborative design incorporates insights from stakeholders into program design and implementation, and is grounded in a process of inquiry rather than advocacy for pre-determined outcomes. It is guided by the notion that the most effective ideas for promoting student success come from those stakeholders who work on the “front-lines” with students (such as faculty and support staff), and propelled by the belief that the best way to develop these ideas into broadly adopted practices is through collaborative analysis and decision-making.

The distinct processes and structures that Valencia has developed to facilitate collaborative design include a flexible shared governance model, annual Big Meetings in which hundreds of faculty and staff reflect on institutional data and develop institutional priorities, and Valencia’s Big Ideas, a set of shared principles that guide decision-making. One noteworthy set of processes is Valencia’s uniquely robust faculty development programs. It is through these programs that Valencia faculty members learn about, elaborate, and integrate organization-wide initiatives. In addition, these programs provide a forum for surfacing and incubating faculty innovations.

Valencia’s initiatives, culture, and specific tools of collaboration are unique products of a contextualized process. As President Shugart emphasized to us, other institutions can’t just dig up Valencia’s trees and plant them; they will have to start with the soil.

However, other institutions—and especially other community colleges—can learn from many aspects of Valencia’s collaborative design methodology, especially its emphasis on broad based participation, its investment in data-driven inquiry, and its success in integrating new initiatives with long-held philosophies and goals.