At a news conference Monday morning with state officials, University of Florida board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini put a question to HiPerGator, the school’s much-touted supercomputer.
“Big shot HiPerGator,” he asked, “where is University of Florida in ranking?”
In an automated voice, the computer responded with the latest annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report, announced Monday. “The University of Florida is now a top 5 public university. Go Gators.”
The school tied for No. 5 in the nation with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of California, Santa Barbara, breaking into a long-coveted top-tier spot and rising from its No. 6 ranking last year.
Florida Board of Governors chairperson Syd Kitson said UF president Kent Fuchs and Hosseini had promised him two years ago that the university would break into the top five.
The ranking “elevates not only the entire university system, but the state of Florida,” Kitson said.
”I think it’s something all Floridians, regardless of your allegiances, should be proud of,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, who was presented with a No. 5 baseball jersey during a ceremony in Gainesville. “No. 5 in the country is quite impressive, and I know you guys are not done.”
House Speaker Chris Sprowls praised UF’s leaders, calling them “audacious.”
“This is about our kids, our children and our state,” he said. “A rising tide lifts all boats and this is a big rising tide.”
The latest set of annual rankings — the one that educators, parents and many students take most seriously — used 17 metrics. Most of the weight was placed on outcomes, including graduation rates of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and graduates’ financial debt.
Other Florida schools also climbed in ranks or held their place from last year.
Florida State University was listed at No. 19 among public universities for the second year in a row, but climbed three spots to No. 55 in a separate ranking of all universities, public and private.
The University of South Florida was listed at No. 46 among public universities for a second year in a row, and retained its title as the nation’s “fastest-rising university,” having improved from No. 94 a decade ago.
The University of Central Florida moved up 10 spots, coming in at No. 67 among public universities. And Florida International University climbed 17 spots to No. 78 in the same category, the steepest climb among Florida schools this year.
Other schools made notable showings among the many categories tracked by U.S News. Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, for example, was ranked as the No. 1 regional public college in the South.
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In the separate category of regional universities in the South, Rollins College in Winter Park came in at No. 1 and also nabbed top-five spots in the “most innovative” and “best undergraduate teaching” categories. Keiser University, based in Fort Lauderdale, ranked No. 5 among national universities for social mobility.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Fuchs said joining the higher ranks was “magical” for UF. In a sense, he said, it was part of rewriting the narrative of the South.
“There’s been a perception in the past that only people in the Northeast or West Coast or maybe the Midwest value universities — that they have the prestigious universities,” he said. “But because of what’s happened across the state university system ... that is changing the way the nation looks at our state.... It’s a place where young people can thrive and companies can come and hire these amazing graduates.”
The secret to UF’s ascent, Fuchs said, is in the university’s focus on metrics and a board of trustees that “hold our feet to the fire” on them. He said the university has closely monitored over 100 metrics, from graduation rates of Pell Grant-eligible students to incoming freshmen who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class.
The university has a 97 percent retention rate, a measure of how many students keep going after enrolling as freshmen, and 89 percent graduation rate — both among the highest in the country. In a news release, the school said more than two-thirds of its graduates enter the workforce with no debt.
Over the last 20 years, UF has tripled its research volume and is on the cusp of its goal to generate $1 billion in annual research expenditures, the release said. The university also has embarked on what it calls “the most aggressive hiring plan in the nation,” bringing in more than 500 full-time faculty, some through its initiative to infuse every part of the curriculum with instruction in artificial intelligence.
At a cost of under $6,380 for in-state students per year, UF’s tuition is less than half that of the top three schools in the U.S. News ranking and less than a third of what students pay at the University of Virginia, the fourth-ranked school.
“We’re actually very proud of that,” Fuchs said.
He credits the university’s ability to stay affordable and compete nationally to the state’s investment in higher education.
And much of the credit for that, Fuchs said, goes to Hosseini, an architect of the state system that funds universities based on how well they perform on a number of metrics. Before joining the UF board of trustees, Hosseini was a member of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System.
”If we didn’t have that funding that came through those programs that our state government agreed to do because of Mr. Hosseini’s working with them, we would not be here today,” Fuchs said.
Hosseini praised Fuchs’ leadership for maintaining the university’s upward trajectory through the pandemic.
The president’s compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures set by the Board of Governors has drawn criticism from faculty, graduate students and Alachua County officials wanting stronger action. But Hosseini said the situation has highlighted Fuchs’ abilities as a leader.
“You have a choice,” he said. “You can go home and just wait for the pandemic to go away or you can double up your effort. Certainly our president doubled up his effort.”
Top 10 public universities for 2022
As ranked by U.S. News & World Report
1) University of California, Los Angeles
2) University of California, Berkeley
3) University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
4) University of Virginia
5) University of Florida *
5) University of California-Santa Barbara *
5) University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill*
8) University of California, San Diego
9) University of California, Irvine
10) Georgia Institute of Technology