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USF launches wide-ranging effort to improve retention, graduation rates

Graduate student Boaz Anglade tutors economics major Rob Casteleiro at the Tutoring and Learning Services center at the University of South Florida’s library in Tampa on a Friday afternoon this month.


Graduate student Boaz Anglade tutors economics major Rob Casteleiro at the Tutoring and Learning Services center at the University of South Florida’s library in Tampa on a Friday afternoon this month.

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."

For freshmen

• The admissions office put the most weight on the rigor of an applicant's high school curriculum and GPA.

• Orientation expanded to two full days with a required overnight stay to help freshmen bond with USF, make friends and understand what they need to do to succeed.

• Freshmen must live on campus, though those from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties can get an exemption to live at home. With the opening of a new $65 million dorm, the percentage living on campus has risen from 56 percent to 75 percent.

• The university spent $1.5 million hiring 33 additional academic advisers. Advising is required for freshmen and students on academic probation.

• A new summer school program targets moderate income, first generation in college and Bright Futures freshmen.

• Freshmen must complete an online course on academic integrity, alcohol awareness and financial literacy.

• USF uses a national survey of college expectations along with its own data to assess students' risk of dropping out. Factors include: plans to work off campus (not good), plans to read assigned texts (good) and, interestingly, plans to read non-assigned books (not good; this may suggest that a student expects to have more free time than he or she really will). Students deemed most at risk are offered mentoring.

• The Office of New Student Connections was created to coordinate mentoring, coaching, online networking and programs to involve freshmen and transfers in campus life.

• The "University Experience" elective course teaches freshmen about campus resources, developing academic skills and character and values.

• "Living-learning" communities were created to foster engagement among business, engineering, honors and other students.

For everyone

• Tutoring was consolidated in a one-stop center offering help with math, science, foreign language and writing. Tutoring sessions rose from 3,352 last fall to more than 5,600 so far.

• Small-group breakouts were added to mass lecture math and chemistry classes that had lots of students failing, getting Ds or withdrawing. The rate of withdrawals, Ds and Fs has dropped 9 percent in one math course, 2 percent in another.

• To make sure all eligible students apply for financial aid, they are warned pointedly about the consequences of failing to do so. Applications are up 15 percent.

• Students are discouraged from dropping classes needlessly. Each extra semester costs $9,500.

• Bright Futures students whose GPAs drop below 2.75 are told steps they can take to regain the scholarship. In three years, the number of students losing Bright Futures has fallen from 2,700 to 2,000.

• The Don't Stop, Don't Drop program was created to provide small grants, referrals for aid or other help to needy students facing unexpected emergencies. Last year, 188 students appealed for help.

• Class schedules were expanded to make better use of classrooms, especially on Fridays, early mornings and evenings to give students a better chance of getting classes they need.

• An online degree audit system was purchased to track student progress.

Comparing the schools

How USF compares to Florida's other big universities, along with a similar metropolitan university (North Carolina State) and a university that USF aspires to be like (Georgia Tech), on measures with a bearing on student success.


graduation rate
Freshman retention rateAverage

freshman high school GPA
Percentage of

undergraduates who need financial aid

faculty ratio
USF48 percent85 percent3.6750 percent27.5 to 1
UF82 percent 95 percent3.9 to 4.3 (middle 50 percent)37 percent20.3 to 1
FSU70 percent89 percent3.7235 percent20.5 to 1
UCF63 percent86 percent3.6742 percent29.9 to 1
NC State 69 percent90 percent 4.1742 percent17 to 1
Georgia Tech77 percent 93 percent 3.7533 percent14 to 1

Source: Common Data Set for each university

USF launches wide-ranging effort to improve retention, graduation rates 11/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 30, 2009 11:41am]
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