Around Orlando and its spread of surrounding towns and suburbs, an impressive new college access network has coalesced over the past few months. Known as the Central Florida College Access Network, several groups, ranging from non-profits to financial organizations to school districts to public agencies to higher education institutions, have combined their talents in service of a singular agenda: improving college access and building a college-going culture in Central Florida.

It’s an impressive collective of organizations, including:

The Heart of United Way has taken on a leadership role in convening and organizing the network.

“We began to analyze the work we were doing in grants and programming,” said Ray Larsen, Assistant Vice President of Children’s Services at the Heart of Florida United Way. “We weren’t doing much around college access. We also knew that there were a number of organizations really focused on that issue.”

Larsen, along with several other partners in Central Florida, began forming the local college access network (LCAN) after attending the Florida College Access & Success Summit held last June in Tampa. With personalized help from the Florida College Access Network and its sister organization, the Michigan College Access Network, the network partners began to fashion their goal—lowering college access barriers for students. They also started identifying local services and resources. Most importantly, they began developing a practical alliance of community and education-based groups with a wide array of talents and strengths.

“We’re about a half-year old and we have 19 partner organizations. Some of those partners are our local colleges and universities. There’s Valencia College, they have college staff that are assigned to certain high schools. They are really focused on support and trying to understand the things that really support the transition from high school to college,” Larsen added. “Another new member of our LCAN is Workforce Central Florida. Their expertise in connecting the dots between college access, post-secondary experience and meaningful placement in the workforce is invaluable.”

Though Heart of United Way is based near downtown Orlando, the LCAN is uniquely adapted to the sprawling tri-county landscape of rapidly growing central Florida. “Our geographic areas go beyond Orlando and include Orange, Osceola and Seminole Counties. We are currently working on having a partnership with high schools in each of these counties,” Larsen added.

Currently, the LCAN has a collective goal of improving FAFSA completion rates, fostering a college-going culture and increasing college participation and completion rates within their region. It has adopted Goal 2025 as its postsecondary attainment goal: for 60% of working-age central Floridians to hold a high-quality post-secondary degree or credential by the year 2025. Through the soft launch of the “Going to College Project,” an automated text messaging program to remind students to complete college deadlines, the young LCAN has already initiated a community-based collaborative initiative.

At its heart, a college access network is a way for a community to coalesce, build a college-going culture and dramatically increase college readiness, access, and completion rates for students within their communities. LCAN members work together to coordinate and expand programs, services and resources that lower the barriers that prevent students from pursuing and completing postsecondary educational opportunities.

“One of the core messages that has to be delivered to the families of first-generation students is that it’s possible for them to further their education,” said Larsen. “Sometimes before any of the services can even begin, there’s a step before that. It’s a type of outreach that convinces skeptics that higher education is even possible.”

“We are thrilled with the progress that the Central Florida College Access Network has achieved in such a short time,” said Laurie Meggesin, executive director of the Florida College Access Network. “We look forward to seeing the impact of their good work in increasing post-secondary attainment for the students of central Florida.”

For more information about the Central Florida College Access Network, contact Ray Larsen, Assistant Vice President Children’s Services, Heart of Florida United Way at (407) 429-2202 or

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