TAMPA — The University of South Florida is getting more serious about the problem that too many students take too long to graduate.
"Our six-year graduation rate remains a major, major weakness" when it comes to USF's goal of joining the elite Association of American Universities, provost Ralph Wilcox told the Board of Trustees on Thursday.
The six-year graduation rate, a common measure of academic success, is 49 percent. The national average is 55 percent.
Moreover, the graduation rate is tied to a second challenge that acts like an anchor on USF's ambitions: a 27-to-1 student to faculty ratio.
There are bright spots: research grants won, the impact of faculty scholarship and freshman retention.
But the graduation rate and student-to-faculty ratio are major academic challenges, officials said. In both, USF trails all 35 public universities in the AAU. The invitation-only organization includes the top academic and research universities in the nation, among them the University of Florida.
USF managed to hire 150 faculty members in a tight budget year. Still, the gap is huge.
"While we've made limited progress over the past year, we have a very, very long way to go," Wilcox said.
USF would need to hire 300 faculty members at its Tampa campus to have a student-to-faculty ratio as low as UF or Florida State University, Wilcox said.
That would cost $30 million. While the Legislature has given universities leeway to raise tuition, the top tuition rate allowed brings in another $10 million a year, with 30 percent going to financial aid for needy undergraduates.
While Thursday's discussion was especially candid, USF has worked for years to help students graduate at its Tampa campus.
Starting in 2004, it began seeking freshmen with higher test scores and better high school grades.
It spent tens of millions of dollars on new dorms and requires most freshmen to live on campus, something shown to help students academically.
It now identifies and mentors those at risk of dropping out. It has added academic advisers, tutors and crisis specialists.
Last year, a student success task force led to the creation of a council to work on other strategies.
USF students need help, officials say, because they come from less affluent families than kids in Gainesville or Tallahassee.
More than a quarter of USF students qualify for need-based Pell grants.
Fewer have prepaid tuition. Many are the first in their families to go to college. They take out more loans and work more while going to school.
Among other things, USF president Judy Genshaft said the university should help students work on campus.
"When students work on campus they're more likely to finish on time," she said. Off-campus jobs are more distracting, "and it just takes longer."
Trustee Brian Lamb said trustees should talk regularly about the problem. He also wants to hear more from faculty and staff.
"They are going to drive retention," he said. "If they aren't engaged, you can have all the tactics you want and you won't get home."