The number of lollygaggers and non-finishers is shrinking at the University of South Florida.
School officials announced Friday that USF has reached an all-time high graduation rate, with 63 percent of students graduating in six years or less. The data came from full-time students who started as freshmen on the Tampa campus in 2007.
"We've made some pretty significant gains in a short period of time, and we should have expected that of ourselves," USF provost Ralph Wilcox said. "I've been waiting for this significant bump. And it really came with this 2007 class."
It's a 15-point jump from five years ago, when the graduation rate was 48 percent. Graduation rates at Florida's state universities range from 39 percent at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University to 86 percent at the University of Florida.
"That is highly unusual," Jan Ignash, vice chancellor for the Florida Board of Governors, said of USF's improvements at the board's meeting Wednesday. "These are slow-moving metrics, and to even get a percentage or 2 point gain is huge."
Graduation rates are an indication of how well a school is performing, if students are focused and engaged, if the school is able to carry them to the finish line in a timely fashion.
They also can help the university financially. Just Thursday, state university leaders approved a plan to both reward and penalize schools based on performance markers. One of those markers? Graduation rates.
USF started looking critically at graduation rates as far back as 2003, Wilcox said. Back then, the state's direction had been to create access, to take in as many students as possible.
It resulted in a lot of bodies without, necessarily, a lot of direction. Some students would dabble in several different majors. Others would take a semester off to work, then get seduced by the paycheck and finish slowly or drop out.
At USF in particular, long known as an urban commuter campus, a mentality of disengagement reigned, an idea that students came to campus only to go to class, then left.
USF leaders began to combat the problems in 2005. Wilcox described the plan:
They recruited high school students with higher grade point averages and SAT scores.
They required freshmen to live on campus for a year. They created living and learning communities where students could find people with the same interests. They offered an undergraduate research program for a head start on work that could lead to graduate school or jobs.
They hired more academic advisers and invested in software to help students track progress on their degrees.
And they tried to help students avoid burning out on debt. They started a peer-to-peer financial literacy program and put revenue toward need-based financial aid.
They started giving students priority for campus jobs, whether in an office or a coffee shop.
It all happened fast and simultaneously, Wilcox said.
"We couldn't wait to do this on a slower, systematic pace," he said. "In some sense, a semblance of chaos accompanies innovation. And it has worked, apparently."
At USF St. Petersburg, the six-year graduation rate is 43 percent, up 10 points from the previous year. USF Sarasota-Manatee just recently welcomed its first freshman class and doesn't have six-year data yet.
The six-year benchmark is determined by the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. It's not just for the sake of appearances. As the state moves toward performance funding, there is real money at stake for a university to move its students through on time.
Thursday, the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System, approved a new model of performance funding for the state's universities. It involves a 50-point system of benchmarks, everything from students getting degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, to average wages of graduates, to six-year graduation rates.
Any university that doesn't receive at least 26 points will lose 1 percent of its state funding for 2014-2015 and won't be eligible for any additional performance funding money. Under this year's performance model, USF was one of the top performers, taking home $2.6 million of a $20 million shared pot.
The university has set its next graduation rate goal at 70 percent. And while six years may be the country's official measure for success, university leaders want to shift that mentality, too.
"We're trying to change that culture of expectation from six years to four years," Wilcox said.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3394.