TAMPA — For at least the seventh time, the University of South Florida has failed in a bid to win a campus chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation's oldest academic honor society.
USF's bid fell short in two areas: its six-year graduation rate of 49 percent, which is below the national average. And its 27-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, well above what's typical for big research universities.
In rejecting USF's application, Phi Beta Kappa did not say what those numbers need to be.
Nor did it go into detail beyond saying that it also wanted better information about USF's libraries, foreign language requirements and success placing students in graduate school.
News of the rejection disappointed USF leaders who believe the university has turned a corner academically.
"It was a surprise," said Naomi Yavneh, associate dean of USF's Honors College and chairwoman of the application committee. "I think we really felt that we've reached a level, certainly, where our students are very deserving of Phi Beta Kappa."
For top students, being invited to join Phi Beta Kappa means more than having a sparkling honor on a resume. For Yavneh, who joined as a Princeton student, it meant being eligible for a Phi Beta Kappa scholarship that let her do graduate research in Italy. That led to a Fulbright grant to do more research.
Phi Beta Kappa considers applications for new campus chapters every three years. USF was one of several dozen institutions that applied during the latest round. Just seven made the first cut.
Still, the news from Phi Beta Kappa's qualifications committee wasn't all bad.
"The sense of the committee is that the university continues to approach readiness for the establishment of a chapter and is close to the stage appropriate for the next round of consideration," Phi Beta Kappa secretary John Churchill wrote to USF in May.
"The number of Phi Beta Kappa faculty is good, student quality seems strong and support for the arts and sciences seems to have advanced," Churchill added. "… I would look forward to working with you in the years ahead."
For this application, considered to be USF's strongest yet, student assistants ran all over campus to gather signatures of more than 100 faculty members who joined Phi Beta Kappa as undergraduates.
USF also had the support of the local alumni chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and of Eckerd College, which was awarded a campus chapter in 2003, as it put together its application.
To be rejected in large part for having a low graduation rate was puzzling, administrators said, since Florida International University is in Phi Beta Kappa with a graduation rate of 46 percent.
"I ran into (USF president) Judy Genshaft in the CVS pharmacy right after we got the letter," Yavneh said. "She came up me and she said, 'Do you know FIU's graduation rate is lower than ours?' "
The University of Florida and Florida State, both of which have Phi Beta Kappa chapters, have higher graduation rates than USF.
But USF administrators say they also have a different kind of student.
USF has a more working-class student body than Florida's other big schools: Their parents are less affluent. Fewer come with prepaid tuition. More are eligible for need-based Pell grants. More need loans. Many work full time.
To boost graduation rates, USF has spent millions of dollars to raise admissions standards, mentor at-risk students, add academic advisers, expand course schedules and build new dormitories.
It would have to spend millions more to lower its student-to-faculty ratio.
The national average for research institutions with more than 30,000 students is 18 students per professor. UF and FSU have ratios of 20.4-to-1 and 22-to-1, respectively.
To match FSU's ratio, USF would have to hire 285 more faculty members, according to provost Ralph Wilcox. Getting to the national average for big research universities would require hiring 627 new faculty members.
Despite the challenges, USF administrators predict they will apply to Phi Beta Kappa again.
"We really aspire to be a formidable, solid undergraduate institution as well as being a research powerhouse," said Eric Eisenberg, dean of USF's College of Arts and Sciences. "That takes work, and it takes focus and it takes energy. …
"We're all sort of taking a deep breath and saying, 'Okay, we are not going to give up the hunt. We are definitely going to apply again.' "