USF funding takes a hit despite preeminence bump

How, exactly, does USF become preeminent and yet lose out on that performance-based funding in the same year?
The Marshall Center on the USF campus in Tampa. [Times]
The Marshall Center on the USF campus in Tampa. [Times]
Published Aug. 21, 2018

TAMPA — It was just a few months ago that the University of South Florida was celebrating its ascent into the official ranks of the state's 'preeminent' universities, a signifier of prestige that came with $6.1 million in bonus funding.

But even as USF's performance improved, and even as the university gained that extra money, the state still ended up giving the USF System less performance-based funding than last year. Ultimately, USF missed out on millions more in bonus dollars.

If that disappointing result leaves you scratching your head, here's a brief explainer.

The way the state Board of Governors divvies up university funding is a tricky calculus. Schools get base budgets, then extra dollars for good performance and/or improvement.

The USF System's performance has been climbing for years, as measured in certain metrics like graduation rates. Normally it lands in the top three schools for performance, winning extra money. (The top three schools get the most state money, while the bottom three get none.)

But this year, it landed in a three-way tie for third place alongside FSU and the University of West Florida, and it lost the tiebreaker. FSU got nearly $10 million more. USF came away with $7.5 million less than last year.

So how does USF become preeminent and yet lose out on that performance-based funding in the same year?

In terms of performance-based funding, the state scores schools on 10 metrics, such as the median wages of recent graduates and retention rates. Schools can get points for either performing highly or improving significantly. That focus on improvement allows some schools with lower overall metrics to rack up extra points, meaning some schools can leap up the ranks in a slightly unpredictable fashion.

Sometimes that costs USF, even as its performance remains steadily high.
So this year, USF tied with FSU and UWF, as the latter two schools scored points for improving in arenas like tuition costs. In a tiebreaker, the state compared all three based on performance and improvement together, and FSU came out on top.

That was disappointing, USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said, but he took pride in the fact that USF performed highly enough that none of its points came from improvement.

"I think the fact that we missed out through a tiebreaker has only served to motivate our faculty and motivate our staff across the university even more to ensure that we do our very best to continue as we have done," Wilcox said. "We can't worry about those other universities that perhaps in any given year show considerable improvement in one or two or three metrics."

Florida International University, for instance, came in second this year after scoring full improvement points in three categories, including graduation rates.

The money that USF missed out on would have gone toward one-time costs, such as library holdings and computer upgrades for faculty and staff. To cover some of those expenses, Wilcox said, USF will have to pull from other sources, such as research overhead.

Overall, Wilcox said, USF still came away with a good amount of new funding, including more than $4 million to invest in top faculty and graduate programs, plus the preeminence boost. (Preeminence is judged on metrics that focus more heavily on research, where USF fares well.)