TALLAHASSEE — University of South Florida leaders thought this was the year that they would finally claim their prize.
Bills before the Legislature since January had cleared the way for USF Tampa to achieve a years-long goal — being named one of Florida's "pre-eminent" universities — with all the prestige and millions in extra state dollars that come with it. The school was set to join the ranks of only the University of Florida and Florida State University with the state's highest seal of approval.
But a single-digit change to a sweeping higher education bill unveiled in the waning hours of the legislative session will not only block USF's ascension, it also will put it years away.
The original bills required that schools have a four-year graduation rate of at least 50 percent to receive "preeminent" distinction. After years of sharp focus and improvement, USF's four-year graduation rate stands at 54 percent.
But in those final hours, lawmakers changed the required graduation rate to 60 percent, which USF doesn't expect to reach until at least 2020.
"That's probably the most frustrating as anything, how these arbitrary numbers come out," said Brian Lamb, chairman of the USF Board of Trustees. "What changed in the last 48 hours?"
USF issued an urgent "call to action" to students, faculty, alumni and community leaders on Saturday urging them to call Tampa Bay area legislators. It accused the Legislature of "shifting the goal posts."
But little can be done now. Lawmakers can no longer make changes to bills. They can only vote them up or down, which they are scheduled to do on Monday.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said USF supporters shouldn't be surprised by the change. He has led the push for higher graduation rates in return for more state money. Negron said he simply prevailed in an argument he has made all session.
He said USF "reached a premature conclusion" that it would qualify for more money under the original version of the higher education bill.
"As everyone knows, legislation is changed throughout the session," Negron told the Times/Herald on Saturday.
USF president Judy Genshaft has made it her mission for years to have her school join UF and FSU as Florida's third "preeminent" state university. Those schools are slated to divide $48 million next year for meeting 11 of 12 performance metrics in areas such as student test scores, national rankings and research spending.
USF has lagged behind the other two schools in graduation rates for some time. It has made considerable strides to improve, using advanced analytics to identify students in danger of falling behind and the classes that trip them up.
Until now, the state and the university system's Board of Governors judged schools to have met pre-eminent status if at least 70 percent of students graduated in six years. Under that standard, USF projects it would have met the target with this year's graduating class.
So its leaders say they were hardly counting their chickens with the legislation as it was filed in January. The school was on the cusp of reaching the graduation rate benchmark already.
The original House and Senate bills changed the standard to emphasize four-year instead of six-year graduation rates, setting the 50 percent target. That appeared to clear the way for USF to meet its goal a year earlier.
Provost Ralph Wilcox felt confident that years of hard work and helping students achieve would be recognized.
"It isn't correct for a university, that's been focused and disciplined and followed the guide map set up by the Board of Governors and the Legislature, expecting to achieve pre-eminence no later than 2018, to have that expectation be shot," Wilcox said between two of six graduation ceremonies Saturday.
The four-year, 60 percent provision appeared in legislation for the first time Friday afternoon on page 232 of a 292-page higher education bill, SB 374, that will pass Monday as part of the state budget.
Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, agreed to the percentage increase at a public meeting Friday — and no lawmaker from Tampa Bay publicly questioned it.
Negron said the Legislature is not trying to harm USF. He noted that the new budget has $42 million more for the school in operating and construction money, including $12 million for the new Morsani College of Medicine in downtown Tampa, plus $3.1 million for Davis Hall at USF St. Petersburg.
Negron credited Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, for helping USF to get that money.
"The good news," Negron said, "is that USF is right on the edge of reaching preeminent status."
Wilcox, however, feels like his school was already nearing the finish line — and then the Legislature decided to move the tape. He wondered if the next time USF approaches its mark, the target will simply be shifted again.
"You will not find any reasonable mind across Tampa Bay or the state of Florida to believe this increase happened at the last minute on the last day of the session for any reason other than to deny the University of South Florida its hard-earned and rightful distinction," Wilcox said.