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USF reviews USF Poly plans, says they are overly optimistic

The University of South Florida Polytechnic hopes to become the state's next public university.

EDWARD LINSMIER | Times

The University of South Florida Polytechnic hopes to become the state's next public university.

TAMPA — The University of South Florida Polytechnic's plan to become the state's next public university may include overly optimistic enrollment projections and fall short detailing how it will pay for the split.

Those are among two dozen concerns outlined by the senior staff of USF's academic affairs after they reviewed a version of the 50-plus-page plan at the request of the Florida Board of Governors.

Until now, USF's administration has been largely silent on the independence debate. In an e-mail sent Tuesday and provided to the Times on Wednesday, USF offers its first feedback, saying the plan fails to give enough specifics.

For example, the Lakeland branch campus currently shares a bevy of services with the main USF campus. But the plan, wrote John Long, USF's chief operating officer, "may not address the full cost of establishing a separate corporate identity."

That financial uncertainty could make it difficult for USF Poly to secure separate accreditation, particularly on the optimistic timeline laid out in the plan. And that, Long wrote, could put USF's own accreditation at risk.

"The longer the transition period, the greater the risk," he wrote.

USF stressed that the staff evaluation was "informal." It focused on the basic functions of operating any university: financial aid, accreditation, students and faculty, strategic planning, and of course, budgeting.

A sampling of other concerns:

• Enrollment growth projections, which estimate a jump from about 1,300 students to 16,000 in 15 years, are "unusually high."

• The branch campus has implemented few new programs in recent years. Adding new degree programs, like the 48 listed in the plan, "will require intense effort to be accomplished in the designated time frame."

• There appears to be no allotment for financial aid or scholarships.

• For facilities, the plan relies on money from a state matching gift program that has not been funded in several years.

• Buying in bulk, USF gets technical purchases at a discount. USF Poly does not seem to take that into account when estimating its own costs.

• USF Poly promises significant interaction between students and faculty, but the low student-to-faculty ratio required for such interactions "would tend to drive the cost of instruction up rather than down."

"Readiness for the major substantive change . . . will be achieved at a significant cost," Long wrote.

A USF Poly spokeswoman said late Wednesday in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times that USF may have seen only an early draft of the plan. "However," Samantha Lane wrote, "we are happy to sit down with them and provide any clarification needed."

USF Poly released its ambitious plan Monday. It was sent to the board that oversees the state's 11 public universities — the first entity that would need to sign off on the independence bid. The board will consider the proposal when they meet early next month.

In his e-mail to the Board of Governors, Long wrote that while USF's main campus answered many questions USF Poly had as it developed that plan, many were not included. And, "As of this date, we have yet to receive a copy . . . and therefore cannot validate any of their numbers."

The plan says "sufficient funding is in place to start the new polytechnic university and continue its growth through 2026 and beyond." A few pages later, it says Phase I of its 15-year plan is the only phase that requires no additional funding, with expenses jumping to more than $222 million by 2018.

USF Poly says additional funding will come from tuition, which the school hopes to charge at higher rates than Florida's other universities. The plan includes a chart that compares USF Poly's current rate, $170 per credit hour for undergrads, to other polytechnics across the country that charge two, three, even four times as much.

The Times asked USF Poly to better explain a final price tag and funding sources, and as of late Wednesday, no explanation was given.

USF seems to be waiting as well.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Here's some other concerns raised about USF Polytechnic's plan to go solo:

* Research faculty are normally recruited with start-up packages. It is unclear here whether any prospective start-up packages for faculty are included with the expenses.

* The documentation indicates transition IT systems capital of $1,022,000. This appears to be low in today's market when talking about new financial, human resource, and student systems.

* The narrative indicates the hiring of a new Financial Aid Director, but the cost detail doesn't show this additional cost.

* Estimated amounts for E-Library seem to be significantly less than what Polytechnic will require when independence is achieved (estimated amounts could be a third of what may be needed).

* Polytechnic strives for a robust international presence. This may require costs that don't seem to be reflected here (processing and monitoring of visas, etc.).

* It is unclear what the private capital financing may be for the residence halls.

* It is unclear whether Polytechnic has considered licenses to support the technologies that are mentioned...there are many USF System license arrangements that Polytechnic relies on.

* The Polytechnic Plan states that "Students will work in a technology rich learning environment, including the use of university-issued computers and/or mobile technologies and software applications". In addition, Poly institutions would seem to be equipment intensive. It is difficult to determine if the costs included here reflect these initiatives either in research & technology capital (beginning in 2015) or miscellaneous equipment.

USF reviews USF Poly plans, says they are overly optimistic 10/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 11:54pm]
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