The University of Florida has demonstrated once again its academic excellence in teaching and scholarship with its ranking as a top-five public research university by U.S. News & World Report — an accomplishment that signals, among other things, the transformative value of the degrees our students earn.
It is worth noting, too, that UF is the first public university to have entered and stayed in the top five for two consecutive years, not including the institutions that have been there since the beginning: UC Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Virginia and UNC-Chapel Hill.
In becoming a No. 5 public research institution, however, UF has never lost sight of our ability and our duty to make a life-changing difference in our students’ lives, particularly for first-generation and low-income students. We have worked diligently to improve access and affordability and to make sure students understand the value of a UF degree.
And we are beginning to see a turnaround in enrollment of these students, as indicated by a 9% increase in Pell grant recipients in UF’s 2023 first-year class.
Our current four-year Pell enrollment is 23.4%. According to the most recent data available, reported in 2020, that is slightly above the 22% average enrollment of our peers in the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), an invitation-only group of 65 public and private universities in North America.
But this is not good enough. We know we can do more to bring first-generation and low-income students to our campus, and we are taking measurable action do that.
Let me explain how.
The students and families who most need financial support to attend college are the least likely to have the kind of support and encouragement needed to file federal financial aid forms. This has been especially true throughout the pandemic, when strong support networks of college counselors, teachers, coaches and employers became more difficult to access.
So, we redoubled our efforts in outreach and support, led by new leadership in enrollment management. We are making students aware of the financial aid available to them and guiding them, with real-time assistance, through federal, state and UF-specific applications.
At UF, low-income students receive not only Pell grants and Florida Bright Futures scholarships, but also generous institutional funding including the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship and, newly introduced in 2021-22 at my direction, the UF Excellence Grant.
The excellence grant, backed by a commitment of $25 million, is an example of UF’s institutional investment in access and affordability. This grant program recognizes our in-state, high-achieving students who have never attended college and offers them a debt-free path to a degree.
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Available over four years, it meets financial need with a combination of scholarships, grants and work-study opportunities — which help students gain valuable experience, build their resumes and make connections across campus. Nearly 800 students received an excellence grant this fall, twice as many as last year, and we expect to make it available to even more students in the years ahead.
We have work to do as well in communicating the value of a UF degree. Earlier this year, a nationally representative survey found that only about half of 1,500 adult respondents think Americans can get an affordable, high-quality education that represents a good return on investment after high school. This is wrong.
Our messaging to low-income students centers on communicating our value and our affordability. Our tuition is the lowest of any AAU institution. UF graduates on average receive the highest median pay — $48,500 — of any other state institution in Florida. And two-thirds graduate without any student loan debt.
While we are helping more first-generation and low-income students attend UF, we also are ensuring they leave with a degree. Our graduation rate for students who receive a Pell grant is 89%, among the highest in the country. By comparison, the graduation rate for Pell grant recipients at AAU institutions overall is 77% and 45% at other four-year public and private not-for-profit institutions.
The University of Florida offers a top-tier education and experience that sets our graduates up for success throughout the rest of their lives. And we are committed to making it possible for any academically qualified student to become part of the Gator Nation.
That is truly in the spirit of making the American dream a reality.
Mori Hosseini is the chair of the University of Florida’s Board of Trustees.