The University of South Florida said Thursday it will phase out undergraduate programs in its College of Education and restructure it to become a graduate school.
The move, attributed to budget cuts, sent shock waves across local education circles as USF’s College of Education has traditionally been a major training ground for teachers in the region’s K-12 schools.
Officials said the change would save $6.8 million over two years. But university officials sought to portray it more as a restructuring to meet changing needs than a budget cut.
In a letter to faculty Thursday, interim dean, Judith Ponticell, announced a “strategic reimagining and reconfiguring” of the college to become the Graduate School of Education, which may be housed under the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.
“This change reflects the evolving demands of students, who are increasingly seeking alternative pathways to teacher certification outside of the traditional baccalaureate degree,” Ponticell wrote. “Going forward, USF education students will have an opportunity to earn teacher certification through a Master of Arts in Teaching degree which may be completed in a fifth year following a baccalaureate degree in a content area, giving education students a competitive advantage among job seekers in the market.”
That explanation did not resonate with Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego, who criticized the decision and said it was made without consulting area school district leaders.
“We depend upon USF’s undergraduate program to fill our teaching needs,” said Grego, also president of the state superintendents association. “I was certainly extremely disappointed to hear about the plans.”
He said he sees the State University System as having an ethical obligation to support the economic and job needs of the regions it serves.
In Pasco County, for example, 1,887 of the roughly 5,000 educators in the district received their degrees from USF.
By cutting its training of future teachers at a time when districts already face a shortage, and have to look outside the state to fill the ranks, USF does not meet that mandate, Grego said.
“I would encourage the college leadership, rather than to close the undergraduate program ..., to reexamine the program,” Grego said. “The colleges have to work to reinvent themselves and make themselves attractive to students.”
USF provost Ralph Wilcox acknowledged the university’s role in training local teachers, but said the university will do that differently from now on.
“We are not abandoning teacher education,” Wilcox said. “But we believe we have a real opportunity to strengthen our contribution to the K-12 community through national leading research initiatives and through post- graduate education, training and opportunity.”
He said it was too early to tell how many faculty and staff would be affected.
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The decision, he said, is a response to enrollment trends. As more options for certification pop up through for-profit education institutions, and more people seek out education degrees via the state college system, USF has witnessed a decline in enrollment.
In fall 2009, the College of Education enrolled 2,893 undergraduates and 2,224 graduate students. By fall of 2019, the numbers had fallen to 1,066 undergraduates and 1,318 graduate students across USF’s three campuses.
The combined number of undergraduate and graduate degrees dropped from nearly 1,500 in 2009 to 804 last year.
Ponticell emphasized the graduate school model was similar to what universities such as Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkley used. She said it aligned with USF’s aspirations to be included in the Association of American Universities, an elite group of 65 research universities in the U.S.
“We will grow forward,” Ponticell said. “Education will still be at USF.”
Wilcox said the university remains committed to helping currently enrolled students complete their degrees. Programs will be phased out after those students graduate.
Wilcox also referred to the University of Florida, which he said “moved on” from the four-year bachelor’s degree in education to offering a five-year “pathway” to certification — where students enroll for a four-year undergraduate degree followed by a one-year master’s certification. Ponticell said the new USF program would attract a diverse pool of students — career changers, those who had other masters or bachelor degrees and veterans.
Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, vice president of the Faculty Senate at USF, called the news shocking.
She said it’s a blow that will hit hard in a region with school districts as big as Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.
“If we’re talking all undergraduate programs across all campuses, we’re talking about a really far reach of impact in the community,” she said. “Let’s just say for example, this past summer, we had about 150 students in a reading practicum. Those 150 students worked with about 150 students across the bay. That’s one instance in one class.”
The university said earlier this month that it planned to cut $37.6 million from its budget over the next nine months. By 2022, it also plans to make more cuts and find new sources of revenue for an additional $56.9 million in savings.
More than $13 million in cuts would come from USF’s various colleges.
In addition, USF president Steve Currall and top administrators plan to take pay cuts.
“This kind of came out of the blue,” said Timothy Boaz, president of the Faculty Senate. “We knew there would be some programs affected, but I don’t think anyone had a clear sense of which they would be. ... This is something the faculty feel we should be part of those conversations. This is going to result in a pretty significant change. I think it’s going to have important implications for the university and important implications for the community.”
Ponticell said a communication about the changes was sent Thursday to superintendents and others in the education community, and that the university intends to follow-up with them. Current undergraduates will continue to get field experience though their partnerships with the school districts, she said.