The University of South Florida continues to distinguish itself as an aspirational institution marching ever further from its long-ago reputation as a second-class commuter school. USF is poised to attain "emerging pre-eminent" status among Florida universities, a hard-earned credential that validates its academic strides and solidifies its standing as a fundamentally important institution in the Tampa Bay area.
The Florida Board of Governors' Strategic Planning Committee awarded USF the title on Tuesday. The full board, which oversees the state's public universities, will vote on whether to approve it today. It should.
The status, created by the Legislature this year, brings an extra $5 million in state funding for the school to use toward reaching "pre-eminent" status. Only the University of Florida and Florida State University have that distinction.
USF is emerging from the shadows of its better-known siblings. It easily met the benchmarks for "emerging pre-eminence" in areas such as average GPA and SAT scores for incoming students, research expenditures and doctoral degrees awarded. To meet full pre-eminence, USF must meet other goals in freshman student retention, graduation rate and endowment size. To the credit of president Judy Genshaft and her team, USF is already on the verge of doing so.
Some other impressive figures: The school once mocked with the tag "U Stay Forever" now boasts a 68 percent six-year graduation rate. (The goal is 70 percent.) It has an endowment of $417 million, third in the nation among schools established after 1950. Freshman retention stands at 88 percent, with the incoming class of students boasting an average GPA of 4.08, USF's highest ever. Also noteworthy, 40 percent of students receive need-based Pell grants, which keeps with its obligation to be accessible to students from many backgrounds.
Beyond the numbers, USF has worked to become a place more students want to be. New residences will bring the number of students living on campus to 7,000 by 2017. The new medical school planned for downtown Tampa has proven a draw to medical students even before it has opened. The number of applicants has increased 40 percent over the past two years, with 6,200 students vying for 170 positions in 2016. Last year's class had higher admission test scores than any other first-year medical school class in the state.
The medical school is a prime example of how USF's presence is good for the community at large. The USF Heart Health Institute and the new medical campus, a $153 million, 11-story complex at the center of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's waterfront development project, will both be valuable institutions downtown and provide quality jobs.
Similarly, USF St. Petersburg, though it is not included in the new status, is a pillar in downtown St. Petersburg. That relationship is unique in Florida. No other major research university is located in a large metropolitan area. And even big cities like Miami don't have a public university of USF's caliber. Talk about a win-win.
"Emerging pre-eminence" is a fitting and deserved badge of honor for USF as it continues on a promising upward trajectory in Florida higher education. The Board of Governors should approve it without hesitation.