1. The Education Gradebook

BOG grills USF on graduation rates

Published Jun. 20, 2012

The Florida Board of Governors had warned universities that new tuition increases this year would be a tougher sell than ever. They weren't kidding.

The University of South Florida got an earful Wednesday during the presentation of its annual work-plan, which precedes tuition hike requests -- mostly in the area of graduation rates. Just 34 percent of USF's first-time-in-college students graduate in four years. A little more than 50 percent graduate in six years.

That's much too low, said board chairman Dean Colson, "for a school of your caliber." And if it's not better in a couple years, perhaps USF should put further tuition hikes on hold, Colson said.

USF's goal is to increase those numbers to 38 percent for four-year completion and 56 percent for six-year completion by the 2014-2015 school year. They hope to have the six-year rate at 65 percent a couple years beyond that.

Ambitious, to be sure. But USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said it's attached to a plan that USF has been working on for some time.

"This isn't something we've just awakened to," Wilcox said.

USF has some unique challenges that factor into the equation. For one thing, a large number of students, about 46 percent, come from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify them for federal Pell Grants. That means that they often have to work full-time while taking classes, making them slower to graduate. They also often have lower test scores coming into college, Wilcox said, perhaps because they don't have the same resources at home, like computers and books, as higher-income peers.

What is the university doing to improve those rates? They've begun requiring freshmen to declare majors as soon as they walk in the door. They also have all freshmen live on campus for their first year, which has been linked to better academic performance and retention.

But, at the end of the day, there's something else they need: Money.

More specifically, money to hire more faculty, which would open up more courses, which would help students through the university quicker.

And not just tuition, said Wilcox.

"Much depends on what the state chooses to do, the path it chooses to go down in investing in higher education," he said. "Whether or not it would be fair to expect or request tuition increases has everything to do with whether we can continue to see an attrition of our base budget."

USF, like the rest of the state's 11 universities, is preparing to absorb a portion of a $300 million state budget cut. It's included in a budget that assumes universities will raise tuition to a 15 percent cap. USF is one of only three universities not requesting the max with an 11 percent differential request. The University of Florida is asking for a 9 percent hike, and Florida Gulf Coast University is asking for 14 percent.

The Board will vote on those requests at its full meeting Thursday.