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'Preeminence' vote puts USF on the cusp of joining the ranks of UF and FSU

Over 1,000 first-year and transfer students gathered at USF's Corbett Soccer Stadium on Aug. 22, 2014 for the traditional aerial shot of the Class of 2018. The students formed a giant U-S-F and gave the USF Bulls sign as they looked up for the camera. School officials say 2018 is when USF could attain "preeminent" status from the state, joining the ranks of the University of Florida and Florida State University. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]

Over 1,000 first-year and transfer students gathered at USF's Corbett Soccer Stadium on Aug. 22, 2014 for the traditional aerial shot of the Class of 2018. The students formed a giant U-S-F and gave the USF Bulls sign as they looked up for the camera. School officials say 2018 is when USF could attain "preeminent" status from the state, joining the ranks of the University of Florida and Florida State University. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Jun. 22, 2016

The University of Florida and Florida State University soon may have some competition for their storied spots atop Florida's higher education food chain. The University of South Florida was the only state university Tuesday to be awarded "emerging preeminence" status by the Florida Board of Governor's Strategic Planning Committee.

It's more than just a title. If USF's plan is approved by the full board of governors on Thursday, its Tampa campus will earn an extra $5 million from the state, as well as bragging rights among state universities and more prestige nationally.

"The drumbeat of USF's national reputation is being heard all across the nation," USF president Judy Genshaft told the committee Tuesday. "Our sights are firmly set on achieving full preeminence status in the next two years, by 2018, and we will use this momentum and the resources that come along with it to make this vision a reality."

In 2013, the Florida Legislature created the Preeminent State Research Universities Program, granting an extra $5 million to $15 million in state funding to universities that could meet 11 of 12 performance benchmarks the state uses to measure success. Among them: the ability to keep freshmen enrolled beyond their first year, timely graduation of undergraduates and financial growth of the institution.

Only UF and FSU have achieved "preeminence" since the program's inception, using the extra funds to grow their global reputations and attract the best and brightest year after year.

But this year the Legislature created the "emerging preeminence" category for institutions that meet at least six of the 12 criteria. The money should be invested in a way that would help the schools one day reach "preeminent" status, legislators said.

USF was the only school that would have met the criteria for "emerging preeminence" in 2015, and now meets nine of 12 benchmarks in areas such as national rankings, average GPA and SAT scores for incoming freshmen, annual research expenditures and numbers of doctoral degrees awarded each year.

The university isn't too far behind in the remaining three "preeminence" categories, either, said USF's provost and executive vice president Ralph Wilcox.

To qualify for full preeminence, USF must:

• Enroll or "retain" 90 percent or more of freshmen for their sophomore year. USF's freshmen retention rate is at 88 percent.

• Graduate at least 70 percent of undergraduate students within six years. The current six-year graduation rate is 68 percent.

• Build an endowment of $500 million or more. USF's endowment sits at $417 million right now.

"I'll be quite frank: This is not a challenge for the University of South Florida," Wilcox said. "It's really an extension of a plan we've been working on for the past 15 years or so, and we've been steadily moving past the milestones."

That plan, put in motion before preeminence even existed, was for USF to become a member of the Association of American Universities, a group of 34 public and 28 private universities deemed the best research universities nationwide.

Florida boasts only one AAU university: UF. The benchmarks required to become an AAU university align with those set by the state for preeminence, Wilcox said.

Wilcox said USF officials are optimistic the school will achieve a 90 percent freshmen retention rate by this fall, given the academic profile of the incoming class. The composite SAT score for the freshmen class is 1806 and the average GPA is 4.08, the highest in USF's history.

Improving the six-year graduation rate, though, likely won't happen until 2017. The students that would graduate this year after six years in school would have enrolled in 2010, a year in which more students enrolled in the university than admissions officials anticipated, Wilcox said.

"Recruitment and enrollment at the university is part science and part art," Wilcox said. "That year we had a lot more students enrolled, particularly those that, perhaps, didn't present an academic profile that would have ensured a high probability of continuity."

The high school class of 2011, however, had higher SAT and ACT scores and GPAs that suggest more students would be on track to graduate within six years, he said, positioning USF to join the ranks of UF and FSU in that category by 2017.

"Four years ago we had a conversation about graduation rates — they just weren't good," Board of Governors chairman Thomas Kuntz told Genshaft at Tuesday's meeting. "Now they're dramatically different. And for all those who say it can't be done, or it would take a generation, you've proven them wrong."

To keep more freshmen students enrolled and others engaged in school, USF is focusing on improving the "student experience," said new Board of Trustees chairman Brian Lamb.

The university is constantly refining its new student orientation and is looking at the feasibility of building an on-campus football stadium, Lamb said. USF will become the first college to have a Publix supermarket on campus, and is working to open an expansive new student housing project called Andros Village by fall 2017. The new mixed-use residence hall will boost the number of students living on campus from 5,600 to about 7,000.

"There are great students that have choices to go around the country, and if we can provide a campus experience that is competitive, that families and parents feel really good about and enjoy, then we can do both — we can have an outstanding student experience and preeminence," Lamb said.

Lamb also said he wants to ensure that boosting USF's academic profile doesn't limit students' accessibility to the university. About 40 percent of USF students received need-based Pell grants this school year, he said.

"We are proud to have a highly diverse student base," Lamb said. "We think that's our responsibility as a state institution."

The one sticking point for the university on its path to preeminence is growing USF's endowment. Part of the problem is the university, founded in 1956, is relatively young, which means fewer alumni and fewer years to grow a savings account.

Still, only two other universities established after 1950, the University of California at Irvine and the University of California at San Diego, have endowments larger than USF's.

Another issue is ensuring money is invested where it's needed.

"A lot of our donors don't want to contribute to an endowment, because that's like investing your dollars in a savings account," Wilcox said. "A lot of them want to invest in a checking account and see their precious and valued gifts go to work today."

USF plans to invest its extra $5 million in heart health and medical engineering, which aligns with ongoing development of the new USF Health Heart Institute and Morsani College of Medicine in downtown Tampa, Wilcox said. Targeted investments in those areas could provide the university a "competitive advantage to take us to the next level," he said.

"We at USF are in the top 25 of all public research universities in the country," Genshaft said. "That means move over UNC Chapel Hill, move over Ohio State and University of Michigan. USF is in the top 25 with you, so there."