When I became chair of the Board of Governors last year, I made a public commitment to build on the gains made under my predecessors. I said we would continue the system’s focus on quality, while not losing sight of the fact that a university education should also be accessible and affordable.
I’m pleased to say we’re not only continuing the State University System’s forward momentum, we are accelerating it. By so many measures, the State University System is stronger than at any time in recent history. During our recent board meeting in Tallahassee, I made two big announcements that speak to that progress: Our graduation rates are up by 9.5 percent in the past five years, and our cost-to-the-student for a four-year degree is less than $10,000, representing a dramatic 31 percent year-over-year decrease.
The Board of Governors has focused intensely on graduation rates for many years, and for good reason. When students graduate quickly, it’s a slam dunk for all involved: the student, the institution and the taxpayer. It means that students are moving faster into the workforce, paying less for their degrees, minimizing their debt and making room for the next group to get an education. High graduation rates also minimize costs for the university and the state, stretching the taxpayer dollar and maximizing the impact that graduates can have on Florida’s economic success. When our graduation rates are on the upward trend, it’s a key indicator that our State University System is on the right track.
Graduation rates are notoriously difficult to budge. So how did our system manage to raise rates by such a large margin? The University of South Florida has earned national accolades for its push to raise graduation rates by hiring academic advisers and counselors as well as investing in software to support students and help them map their degree paths. Florida State University, which boasts the highest four-year graduation rate in the state, has decreased the size of its classes and assigned every student a “success team” made up of academic advisers, career advisors, college life coaches, peer mentors, faculty mentors, alumni and others.
Graduation rates and affordability are closely tied, which is why once financial aid is included, our average cost for a four-year degree has plunged to $9,450. This remarkably low number is a result of elected leaders injecting $1 billion to the State University System in the past six years and expanding the state’s need and merit-based aid, including Bright Futures. The Board of Governors is also working to decrease textbook costs and — through performance funding — incentivize universities to direct money toward student financial aid.
The State University System of Florida is one of our state’s finest assets, and having high-quality, accessible institutions is something all Floridians should be proud of. While we guide our decision-making with data, behind these huge improvements are thousands of students who are graduating with minimal debt and whose education and experiences are setting them up to live productive, prosperous lives.
Ned Lautenbach is chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System.