A handful of new scholarship opportunities and initiatives will aim to boost local access to higher education in Pinellas County, state representatives and higher education officials announced this week.
The goal is to help local students make it all the way through college and graduate school, starting with targeted help in middle school. These efforts, officials hope, will serve as a bridge from those early grades to a higher degree.
Leading the local effort are the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College, with backing from Pinellas representatives Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
The focus on college access should be welcome news to those who've watched the University of South Florida's admissions grow increasingly tougher. As USF climbs in prestige, some have wondered where hardworking B students from local communities who miss the rising cutoffs will go to college.
Complicating that question is the ongoing consolidation of USF's three universities, including USF St. Petersburg, into a single USF. For years, USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee have played a more regional role, rooted in their local communities and often acting as a gateway into higher education for students there. Now, as one USF with lofty academic goals and more stringent admissions requirements, the question of local access remains to be fully answered.
Last legislative session, Sprowls and Brandes, along with other Pinellas County officials, secured new money for USF St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College. Some of that money will fund new scholarships and programs to help SPC students move on to USF St. Petersburg for a bachelor's degree.
In essence, the schools are strengthening an already robust pipeline. Nearly a quarter of USFSP undergraduates transferred from SPC, according to data from the 2017-18 year.
"A major priority of the Pinellas County delegation this legislative session was to secure critical funding that will expand educational access and begin to provide every student in our county the resources to earn a college degree," Rep. Sprowls said in a news release.
Both schools will offer a new Blue Gold Scholarship, hoping to increase the number of students moving from SPC to USFSP.
Another scholarship will increase the number of students eligible for FUSE, a partnership between SPC and USF that lets students work toward an associate's degree at SPC while already getting the perks of being a USF student, such as campus events and advising. Those students, if they attain their associate's degree in three years with a minimum 2.0 GPA, then move on to USF for their bachelor's, with guaranteed admission.
"SPC and USFSP are working collaboratively to ensure middle and high school students in public, private, charter and home schools know there are pathways to higher education in Pinellas County," SPC President Tonjua Williams said in a news release.
The leaders floated other potential initiatives, such as boosting the number of high school advisors and starting education fairs for private and home schooled students.