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'I have my future': USF opens new path to admission for community college students

The Marshall Student Center is one of the focal points of the University of South Florida campus in Tampa, where school officials have announced a new program that will guarantee admission to students who leave community college with an associate's degree and a 2.0 GPA. [Times files]
The Marshall Student Center is one of the focal points of the University of South Florida campus in Tampa, where school officials have announced a new program that will guarantee admission to students who leave community college with an associate's degree and a 2.0 GPA. [Times files]
Published Oct. 25, 2016

TAMPA — The rejection letter came midsummer.

Without a shot at his dream school, the University of South Florida, Logan Emerson's plans fell apart. Despondent, the Tampa teenager enrolled at Hills­borough Community College, hoping a path would materialize.

He felt like he was holding his breath.

Then Emerson, 18, got a phone call that seemed too enticing to be real. How would he like to be part of a new program that would guarantee him admission to USF?

"Now I can let that breath go," he said. "I have my future, and that's all I care about."

Florida students who complete an associate's degree are able to count on guaranteed admission to a state university — just not necessarily the one they want. The new FUSE program gives them 100 percent confidence they'll end up at USF, at the institution of their choosing, in any one of a dozen select degree pathways.

That's big news for students at participating regional colleges. FUSE's fall pilot program drew more than 40 students from HCC and St. Petersburg College. Next year, five more regional colleges will join.

"If we get this right today, and we take care of our students and put them first and position them to be successful — 15, 20, 30 years from now, we will all celebrate that," USF board of trustees chair Brian Lamb told an animated crowd at the Marshall Student Center on Friday, heralding the program's ceremonial launch.

Emerson sat with a dozen other students in white FUSE T-shirts, nervous about all the attention. He had heard the program's talking points before, but the pomp and circumstance made it all feel real.

"I felt secure," Emerson said. "I felt like, they're taking care of us."

FUSE students will get dual academic advising from their home college and USF. They'll get priority course registration, designed to keep them on a speedy track to graduation, and their courses will be designed to transfer without a hitch. And they'll be encouraged to take advantage of USF activities like free Bulls football games.

Students who are beginning community college out of high school are eligible for the program. So are students who didn't get into USF right away, like Emerson. To make the transition to USF, they'll need an associate's degree within three years, a minimum 2.0 GPA, and completion of whatever requirements their chosen degree pathway demands. So far, pathways include topics as diverse as art history, biomedical sciences and elementary education. They vary by USF institution.

For some students, the FUSE path is a better one, said SPC president William Law. They can save money and focus while preparing to come to USF in full standing.

"The profile of USF is going up and up and up," Law said. "There are a lot of students who in times past would have been received with open arms. Good, solid students: B-plus, A-minus, strong board scores, all of the things that you would hope for. And they apply, and they get a letter back that says, 'Sorry, you didn't make the cut.' Now they get a letter that says, 'Wait, there's more.' "

Plans for FUSE have been in the works for a couple of years, said Paul Dosal, vice provost for student success. What began as a conversation about boosting Hispanic student success evolved into a plan to expand access on a broad scale. Working with seven regional colleges and three USF institutions was no easy feat, but Dosal said common goals of promoting students and breaking down barriers kept the plans moving.

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And the broader Tampa Bay area will benefit for it, said USF provost and executive vice president Ralph Wilcox.

"This is all about charging the pipeline of talented graduates to move out and sustain and support a strong economic foundation across the Tampa Bay region," he said. He called FUSE "transformational."

FUSE is far from Florida's first "2+2" articulation program. DirectConnect at the University of Central Florida works similarly to FUSE and offers academic advising and access to UCF sites and activities. At Florida International University, Connect4Success draws students from any state college and boasts fast-track enrollment, dedicated advising and access to on-campus events.

FUSE is a little different, USF officials said, because of its focus on giving first-time-in-college students seamless degree pathways, propelling them quickly toward their degree.

After USF representatives signed a letter of intent at Friday's ceremony, students broke away for activities and a campus tour. They meandered through campus in the sharp October sun behind a guide in a green polo, who rattled off statistics on study abroad and undergraduate research.

Some students, like 18-year-old Alejandra Dallo, were wide-eyed, absorbing the sprawl of her future university in her first time on campus. Others, like Emerson, had visited before. Walking past skateboarding students, strolling from the airy student center to the man-made beach with its green and gold umbrellas, he felt a twinge of envy. He could have been a student here already.

But he stopped himself. "I made the right choice," he said.

He's saving money, and he's already chipping away at classes. When he gets to USF, he'll get to jump right into the criminology pathway.

He knows exactly what he wants to do.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.