After a year when Florida’s public university system faced national scrutiny, the state’s schools continued to climb or maintain their high ratings, according to the latest “Best Colleges” rankings released just after midnight Monday by U.S. News & World Report.
The University of Florida, the state’s flagship school, kept its spot at No. 5 among public universities in a tie with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The top ranking came despite concerns over academic freedom that put UF faculty and administrators at odds, triggered a lawsuit and further roiled the state’s fractured political landscape.
On multiple occasions in recent months, UF board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini bemoaned the unwanted attention, saying it could harm the school’s reputation. But in June the organization that accredits the university released a report saying the school had acted with integrity and taken adequate steps to deal with the controversy.
While U.S. News rates schools on 17 metrics, 20% of the score is based on “peer assessment surveys” from colleagues throughout the nation — presidents, provosts and deans of admission. It was unclear whether UF received any dents in that category, as the peer survey scores were not immediately released.
The No. 5 ranking “demonstrates that last year wasn’t a fluke (and) that we are producing sustained excellence at the University of Florida,” UF provost Joseph Glover said in an interview. “I think it’s a reassurance to parents and students and quite frankly the legislators of the state who have generously invested in higher education. I think this assures them they’re getting a return on investment.”
Monday’s release also saw Florida State University keep its spot at No. 19 among public universities for the third year in a row, while the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida climbed to their highest rankings yet.
USF rose four spots to become No. 42 among public universities and ranked No. 97 among all public and private universities — the first time it has broken into the top 100 in that category.
In a statement, USF president Rhea Law thanked faculty, staff and students and noted that the school’s goal is to eventually become a Top 25 public university.
The University of Central Florida rose three spots to become No. 64 in the public universities category.
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Also Monday, Florida A&M University came away with a No. 7 ranking among public and private historically Black colleges and universities and was rated No. 103 among all public schools.
The University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles, tied for the No. 1 spot this year among public universities.
Florida schools also performed well in the social mobility rankings based on graduation rates and the percentage of low-income students receiving a federal Pell Grant. Florida-based Keiser University, a private school, ranked No. 1 in that category. Among public schools, Florida International University topped the list at No. 4.
The University of Florida also ranked No. 22 for its undergraduate nursing programs, No. 23 in the undergraduate business category, No. 33 for engineering programs that offer a doctorate and No. 46 for undergraduate computer science.
UCF and USF tied for No. 51 for undergraduate nursing programs.
Among universities graduating students with the least debt, UF topped Florida schools at No. 44 overall with the median student debt on federal loans of $15,580. The University of North Florida followed at No. 46, with a median debt of $16,331.
While university rankings are sometimes dismissed as subjective and flawed by critics, the nation’s higher education leaders generally view the annual results from U.S. News as a well-founded measure of school performance.
The academic freedom controversy at UF began after a group of professors was initially forbidden from testifying in a lawsuit challenging the state’s new elections law, with university officials telling them their participation was not in the best interest of the school. The move sparked a strong reaction, including a lawsuit by some faculty members and charges the university was being influenced by the Republican politicians who run the state.
After an internal investigation, the university changed its conflict-of-interest policy and added an appeals process. The professors were later cleared to testify on their own time.
Glover, the UF provost, said much of the attention UF received over the past year was largely the result of Florida’s broad open record laws.
“Many stories that would never see the light of day in other states do see the light of day here,” he said. “Despite all of the occasional stories of disharmony, I think you can see from this ranking everyone is doing the work the university is here to do.”
Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.