TAMPA — Students at the University of South Florida often joke that USF stands for "U Stay Forever."
No wonder: Just 48 percent of students earn a bachelor's degree within six years.
That's not good, experts say. Nationally, 55 percent of students at public colleges and universities graduate within six years. The six-year graduation rate is a common national benchmark.
USF's rate also trails those of the University of Florida (82 percent), Florida State (70 percent) and the University of Central Florida (63 percent). And it lags behind schools like Georgia Tech — the kind of high-performing, metropolitan research university USF aspires to be.
So the university is in the midst of an aggressive and wide-ranging effort to raise its six-year graduation rate to 63 percent by 2012.
At stake is prestige and money. USF wants top students. It has a vision of being invited to join the exclusive Association of American Universities (AAU). And it longs to have its own chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Administrators say getting more students in caps and gowns should help the university realize those goals.
It also could help bring in more dollars — from happy alums, from new students paying higher tuition and from Tallahassee, where state officials talk more and more about measuring universities' performance.
The changes USF is making have worked elsewhere, but much depends on how they are implemented and monitored, said George Kuh, director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University.
"It's a reach," Kuh said of USF's 63 percent goal for its six-year graduation rate. "It's about a 15 percent bump. I'll be surprised if they get there."
USF faces several challenges.
First, it has more working class students than Florida's other big universities. Less affluent students need more support to stay on track, research shows.
And for years the institution itself did little to provide that extra support in a focused or systematic way.
"It was kind of Darwinian: If you're meant to survive, you will," says Tom Miller, an associate professor in the College of Education who specializes in identifying and helping USF students at risk of dropping out.
That started to change in 2004 and picked up speed in 2006. So far, USF has spent tens of millions of dollars launching initiatives to:
• Enroll students who are more likely to graduate while maintaining a diverse student body.
• Identify and mentor those at risk of dropping out.
• Provide more academic advisers, tutors and programs to help students who run into a problem, whether it's a tough class or a sudden financial emergency.
• Help students learn not to drag out their education by needlessly switching majors, taking on unnecessary debt or succumbing to distractions.
Along the way, administrators are trying to help students connect to USF so they not only succeed but also feel good about the place.
"I really want each and every student to feel that we care about them and we care about their future," USF president Judy Genshaft said.
When she took over in 2000, the university's emphasis was on enrollment growth.
"It was all about just getting students to attend," she said. "They weren't focusing on graduation rates at all."
Shifting the focus took awhile. After USF's Board of Trustees was created in 2001, the university wrote a five-year plan to raise the university's profile as a center for research.
The plan succeeded. But more and more students started to struggle. Nearly a fifth of freshmen didn't return for their sophomore year. In 2005, one in six landed in academic probation.
The numbers "hit us between the eyes," said provost Ralph Wilcox, who was named to his position in 2008.
The challenges confronting students are not surprising, administrators say, considering that:
• 21.4 percent are the first in their families to attend college. The less educated a student's parents are, the longer it takes the student to finish college, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
• Just 10 percent have some form of prepaid tuition, an indicator of family support. By comparison, 15 percent of all university students in Florida have prepaid contracts covering 100 percent of tuition and fees.
• Half of USF freshmen end up taking out loans to complete their education, and 29 percent are eligible for need-based Pell grants. That's more in both categories than at UF, FSU or UCF.
• 23 percent of seniors work off-campus more than 30 hours a week. At elite AAU universities, just 5 percent of seniors work off-campus as much.
Jolted, USF made changes (see the list accompanying this story). Among the biggest: re-calibrating admissions standards to emphasize high school grades, not an SAT or ACT score.
Now freshmen come better prepared. The number of freshmen needing remedial coursework dropped from 546 in 2003 to 34 in 2008.
And there are other encouraging signs. Fewer students are on academic probation. Fewer drop out. More are starting to graduate in four years.
"The writing's on the wall," said Glen Besterfield, an associate dean in charge of academic success programs for undergraduates. "We're going to be there. But it takes six years."
This fall, USF launched a task force on improving not just graduation rates but other measures of student success, too. It is seeking ideas from every corner, even food services and parking.
One expert said he would be amazed if USF's graduation rate didn't rise.
"I just give this initiative a flat A," said former Princeton University president William G. Bowen, co-author of a new book, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities.
"Nobody," he said, "has brought to my attention as comprehensive and as well-thought-out a list of actions as I find here."