ORLANDO — State higher education leaders had warned universities that tuition increases this year would be a tougher sell than ever. They weren't kidding.
The University of South Florida got an earful Wednesday as it presented its annual work-plan, which precedes tuition hike requests, mostly about its graduation rates.
Just 34 percent of USF's first-time-in-college students graduate in four years. A little more than 50 percent graduate in six years.
"Too low for a school of your caliber," said Florida Board of Governors chairman Dean Colson. If it's not better in a couple years, perhaps USF should put further tuition hikes on hold.
The goal is to get those rates up to 38 percent and 56 percent, respectively, within three years.
USF provost Ralph Wilcox said it's a work in progress.
"This isn't something we've just awakened to," Wilcox said.
The university has already begun requiring freshmen to declare majors as soon as they walk in the door, he said. In addition, all freshmen also have to live on campus their first year, a practice shown to better academic performance.
But USF has some unique challenges that factor into the equation.
A large number of USF's students, about 46 percent, come from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify them for federal Pell Grants, he said.
That means that they often have to work full-time while taking classes, making them slower to graduate. They also often have lower test scores coming into college, Wilcox said, perhaps because they don't have the same resources at home, like computers, as higher-income peers.
By comparison, the University of Florida's four-year graduation rate is about 65 percent and its six-year rate is more than 80 percent. But, Wilcox pointed out, UF has only about 20 percent of students receiving Pell awards.
On the other end of the spectrum is Florida A&M University, with a four-year rate of 12 percent and six-year rate of 39 percent. FAMU's Pell students make up 66 percent of the student body.
USF, like the rest of the state's dozen universities, is preparing to absorb a portion of a $300 million state budget cut. It's included in a budget that assumes universities will raise differential tuition by 15 percent — the maximum allowed by law.
USF is one of three universities not requesting the max, with an 11 percent request. The University of Florida is asking for a 9 percent hike, and Florida Gulf Coast University wants to go up 14 percent.
The board will vote on tuition requests at its full meeting today.
USF's grilling session on Wednesday seemed like a cakewalk compared with the reaction the presentation FAMU President James Ammons sparked to justify a 15 percent hike.
Board members expressed frustration over the low number of FAMU students passing professional exams (like the bar exam for law students), the high number of profile admits (students admitted to the university without meeting certain academic standards) and the average amount of student debt at FAMU (higher than any other university in the state, about 84 percent of students having debt of almost $30,000).
"I think FAMU is an incredible asset to our state that should be preserved and enhanced... I want to see FAMU go forward," said board member Mori Hosseini. "I don't see FAMU going forward today."
Ammons agreed that "we have challenges" and said he would return to the board in September with more detail on graduation rates and student loan patterns.
It comes at a particularly prickly time for the state's only historically black public university. Recent troubles include the November death of one of its student band members and a subsequent criminal investigation into hazing, a report that revealed more than a dozen FAMU audits delivered to state higher education leaders had been fabricated, issues raised by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation agency and more.
Those mounting issues led to a vote of "no confidence" in Ammons' leadership by his Board of Trustees earlier this month — a fact not lost on Hosseini.
"I mean, I personally am going to have a hell of a time approving anything when, you know, you come before us with a vote of no confidence from your own board," he said.
Board member John Rood felt FAMU needed to rethink its top priorities, which are listed in its work-plan as research, online learning and retention.
"I would really hope, for the sake of the students, you would focus on excellence, student success and come up with a plan on achieving it and then look at student debt," Rood said.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.