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After complaints, USF outlines plans to enroll more students in St. Petersburg

Leaders discuss plans to bring 650 freshmen to campus next fall. “There will be no excuse for us to not get to that number.”
Enrollment has dropped over the last three years at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, but USF officials said Thursday they have plans to boost recruitment.
Enrollment has dropped over the last three years at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, but USF officials said Thursday they have plans to boost recruitment. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2017) ]
Published Oct. 22, 2020
Updated Oct. 23, 2020

Facing pressure from Pinellas County officials, the University of South Florida’s top leaders reaffirmed their commitment Thursday to significantly grow enrollment on the USF St. Petersburg campus by next fall, with a focus on attracting minority students.

Though applications to the university are down 26 percent due to the pandemic, USF intends to draw in 6,000 additional freshmen, transfer students and graduate students, with about 650 of them headed to St. Petersburg, director for admissions Glenn Besterfield told the St. Petersburg Campus Board.

“We have to have a very strategic plan and there will be no excuse for us to not get to that number,” said Stephanie Goforth, Campus Board chair and a member of USF’s board of trustees.

Enrollment at the small waterfront campus on the southern end of downtown dipped to 3,878 this year — down from 4,981 in 2017. The campus admitted 421 students this summer and fall, which was down 36 percent from three years ago — before USF engaged in a consolidation that many in Pinellas feared would strip the St. Petersburg campus of independence and steer resources to the main campus in Tampa.

Last week, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and state Sen. Jeff Brandes complained that the campus was not faring well under consolidation so far. Also, Brandes and state Rep. Chris Sprowls, both of whom championed the consolidation effort in the Legislature, tweeted a joint statement that they would work with university officials to boost enrollment in St. Petersburg.

Included in that effort is the university’s Guaranteed Admissions Pathway Program, a partnership started last year that has expanded to 17 high schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties that receive federal Title 1 funding for low-income students. The program guarantees admission to USF for students with at least a 3.6 grade point average and 1160 SAT score, though Besterfield said it can be flexible if a student who lags in one area shows exceptional skill in another.

The program also helps students complete their financial aid forms and applications. It was the brainchild of Mike Vigue, principal of Boca Ciega High in St. Petersburg.

“It’s more of a process than a program,” Vigue said. “For some families, even filling out those forms is a very daunting task.”

University leaders also told the Campus Board of other ongoing initiatives to recruit a more diverse pool of applicants. They include a program that brings students to the Tampa campus to experience life at USF and an effort to include more Black and Latino students in USF’s social media presence with specific hashtags.

In addition, the university said it would increase its recruitment of transfer students — a significant portion of the St. Petersburg campus and a population with more diversity. The number of transfer students enrolled on the campus dipped by about 34 percent since last fall, while the Tampa campus saw an increase.

The university also runs a program that allows students from eight state colleges who stay on track academically to join USF after completing their associate degree. A similar but separate program with St. Petersburg College guarantees admission to the St. Petersburg campus.

USF president Steve Currall spoke of plans for “strategic renewal” already in place to grow programs that would likely attract students to St. Petersburg. They include a Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies at the College of Marine Sciences, made possible by a newly announced $9 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Currall also said the College of Arts would be expanding its presence in St. Petersburg and that the finance and accounting departments in the Tampa-based Muma College of Business would be moving to St. Petersburg’s Tiedemann School of Business and Finance. He called those departments the “crown jewels for any business school.”

In order to grow, however, the St. Petersburg campus needs to improve its “student success” metrics, said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. Those include retention rates, which measure how many students stick with their studies instead of transferring or dropping out.

Before consolidation, St. Petersburg had a “disappointingly leaky pipeline,” with a 79.6 percent freshman retention rate in 2015, Wilcox said. The rate has improved to 86.9 percent since then, but still lags behind the 92.6 percent rate for the Tampa campus.

One factor that has tamped down enrollment is that USF raised admission standards to maintain its status as one of three “preeminent” universities in Florida. University leaders said the declines were “growing pains” that were anticipated as USF St. Petersburg gradually worked to become “a destination for the best and brightest.” But others raised concerns that the school was cutting off access to many students, including minorities, who traditionally looked their local university for higher education.

In a recent interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Besterfield, the admissions director, said the university’s focus is not on access, but “access for success.”

“It’s almost a disservice to the community when you’re admitting a student who does not graduate,” he said. “I know that’s harsh to say, but we owe it to our community that, if we admit a student, we’re going to do everything on our part to make sure that student graduates.”

The higher admission criteria under consolidation, he said, were often indicators of performance in college.

Wilcox reiterated that message Thursday.

“We must recruit more freshman, transfer students and graduate students who have ... demonstrated the scholarly aptitude to contribute to and succeed at a pre-eminent research university,” he told the Campus Board. “We would be doing a disservice to a students, their families, Florida taxpayers and the University of South Florida when they drop out along the way.”

But challenges to recruiting still exist, Besterfield said, include limiting testing availability due to COVID-10 and the state’s requirement of testing as an admission factor. Additionally, he said, competition for “the best and brightest Black students” was difficult.

Of the 264 freshmen admitted to the St. Petersburg campus over the summer, 17 were Black. And of 157 freshmen admitted to the campus in the fall, only one was Black.

“Our Achilles heel is the Black student population,” Besterfield said in the interview.

The admissions department, he said, does not look at race, but focuses their recruitment efforts at high schools with diverse populations.

Thursday’s three-hour meeting left little time for questions, leaving some members of the Campus Board with a desire for more specifics. Wilcox encouraged a workshop.

Board member Lawrence Hamilton remained skeptical, saying the growth strategies seemed geared to the university overall and not St. Petersburg.

“We quite honestly need butts in seats,” he said. “I haven’t heard enough to convince me we know enough about the St. Petersburg student. ... I’m just not feeling really warm and fuzzy that that 650 (new students) for 2021 is going to occur.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. A previous version incorrectly stated the total student enrollment at USF’s St. Petersburg campus for Fall 2017.