The Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, asked some tough questions last week about unflattering comparisons between the University of South Florida in Tampa, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee campuses. Board vice chair Morteza Hosseini noted differences in graduation rates and other measures and told USF president Judy Genshaft, "Someone told me you treat them like a stepchild.'' That didn't sit well with Genshaft, and it shouldn't with anyone who cares about higher education in Tampa Bay.
USF in Tampa has made great strides in recent years. Its incoming students have higher test scores and grade-point averages, and it is doing a better job retaining its freshmen and graduating students attending college for the first time. But while USF in Tampa had average student SAT scores of 1777 in 2011-12, USF St. Petersburg's average SAT was 1602. USF's freshman retention rate in Tampa was 87 percent; at USF St. Petersburg it was 72 percent. The six-year graduation rate at USF in Tampa was 52 percent; at USF St. Petersburg it was 30 percent. Because many students move between the campuses, the numbers are inexact. But the questions are provocative.
Should admission standards be lower at USF St. Petersburg than at USF in Tampa? Why is the freshman retention rate and graduation rate higher in Tampa than in St. Petersburg?
The two campuses are very different. USF in Tampa is a large, urban research university with big lecture halls. USF St. Petersburg, with its intimate waterfront setting, has the vibe of a small college with smaller classes and more individual attention for students. USF St. Petersburg has only recently added student housing, and it has no Greek system, major athletic teams or doctoral programs. Both campuses recruit students, and both should be just as aggressive in retaining students after they start classes.
Genshaft told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board she was "very upset" by the characterization of USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee as stepchildren and said she does not treat them that way. While there has been friction between the campuses over the years, that has largely dissipated and USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee are now separately accredited. For example, Genshaft recently was instrumental in the effort to persuade Gov. Rick Scott not to veto money for a new building for the business school at USF St. Petersburg.
As for varying admission standards, Genshaft said it is up to USF St. Petersburg to "decide what the level of student mix is they want.'' But she said there should be more overall scrutiny about student retention and the way the numbers are compiled because of the way students move between the campuses in Tampa and St. Petersburg. USF St. Petersburg is accepting fewer referrals of students who were not admitted in Tampa, and it is making greater efforts to increase its retention rate.
It benefits both campuses to pull together in these efforts. Success at USF St. Petersburg reflects well on USF overall, just as USF's rising prominence in research and other areas in Tampa reflects well on the university brand. USF St. Petersburg's new chancellor, Sophia Wisniewska, takes over in a few days. She and Genshaft should seize the opportunity to work closely on examining issues such as admission standards and student retention rates. They are both Bulls, after all.