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USF invests $20 million in scholarships, tuition waivers for fall semester amid COVID-19

The university, which ranked first in performance-based metrics this year, hopes to keep students graduating on time.

As Floridians face increasing financial hardship amid the coronavirus, the University of South Florida announced a plan to help its students stay on track to graduate on time.

USF announced the “We Got U-SF Scholarship and Waiver” program Tuesday, a $20 million investment in scholarships and tuition waivers to encourage new and currently enrolled students to enroll full time in the fall.

The $20 million, funded from multiple sources including tuition dollars earmarked for financial aid and carryforward funds, is expected to reach around 22,000 eligible undergraduate and graduate students. The one-time payments will range from $500 to $2,060.

To be eligible, undergraduate students must be enrolled for at least 12 credit hours and graduate students for nine. They must not have their full cost of attendance covered with other need-based financial aid or have an existing tuition waiver, assistantship or third-party form of payment. The university has begun reaching out to eligible students.

“Especially in light of COVID-19, many students and families may lack sufficient funds to enroll in college full-time as traditional scholarships and financial aid may not cover the full cost,” a statement released by the university said. “USF developed this solution to help new and continuing students avoid having to make difficult decisions about their educational futures.”

A survey released Tuesday from the Florida College Access Network reported 42 percent of Floridians currently enrolled in colleges or postsecondary programs have reported changing their plans, including taking time off or transferring schools.

Laurie Meggesin, executive director of the network, said in a statement that while education was becoming more essential, it is also growing more out of reach. More than 58 percent of Floridians surveyed have reported job loss, pay cuts or loss of hours.

“These findings are troubling because education is the key to getting Floridians back to work in well-paying, in-demand jobs,” Meggesin said in the statement. “If Floridians are having to put off education, it will be harder for our economy to recover.”

Keeping students on track to graduate also helps the university secure state funding.

Since 2014, the state has tied funding to performance-based metrics. In 2012, the university’s graduation rate fell below the University of Florida, Florida State University, New College and the University of Central Florida. But the percentage increased by 25 percent between 2008 and 2018, the largest increase among any public university in the country over that time, according to university officials. In May, the Board of Governors released performance-based rankings and USF placed first across the system and in 10 student success metrics, including four-year graduation rates. The improved performance numbers have led to increased funds from the state.

Related: RELATED: USF to lose out on millions because of last-minute bill change
Related: RELATED: USF in Tampa sees large increase in graduation rates

Paul Dosal, USF’s vice president of student success, said it’s more than metrics. He said the university understands students are facing unprecedented financial and health challenges and responsibilities.

“We might have eased up on the metrics-driven approach,” he said. “We know we’re dealing with circumstances beyond our control. ... It’s a different environment for student success work. We’re still trying to imagine the impact this has had on our students.”

Still, he said, he believes maintaining graduation rates is in the best interest of students to be able to enter the workforce with limited debt. Many of the student success initiatives the university launched over the past decade have been able to transition online, from learning communities to remote career counseling sessions.

“Despite the challenges, our students are still resilient,” he said. “ We need to level the playing field for students to be able to concentrate on their studies. ... Access to a successful higher education is still the best means we have of promoting social justice and social mobility in this country. ... We can’t take our eyes off that.”

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