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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Editorial: USF meets state’s challenge

The Florida Legislature should recognize that no university has embraced the state’s accountability challenge with as much drive and commitment as USF.

Lawmakers can make sure USF is properly rewarded by supporting the state’s performance funding program. They also should support USF’s legislative agenda, which includes construction funds for its Heart Institute in Tampa and a USF St. Petersburg College of Business facility.

The university also is requesting funds for the establishment of a Florida Center for Cybersecurity, which would be located at USF in Tampa. The center would perform research as well as develop workers for this rapidly growing field.

So far, thanks to the efforts of local lawmakers such as state House Speaker Will Weatherford and Sen. Jack Latvala, the Legislature has been supportive. But there is still plenty of time for mischief or neglect.

Lawmakers should pay particular attention to how USF responded to the state’s accountability mandates.

Last year, USF tied with the University of Central Florida at the top of the accountability rankings, which had three benchmarks.

Both schools got $2.6 million for their performance.

This year, the state Board of Governors adopted 10 benchmarks, and USF ranked second only to the University of Florida.

This should result in extra dollars for USF and other schools that fared well on the benchmarks. As the Tribune’s Jerome Stockfisch reports, if the Legislature allocates $50 million for performance funding, UF would receive $11.7 million and USF would receive $8.9 million.

Lawmakers should make sure USF, which was treated poorly during the Florida Polytechnic debacle, receives fair treatment now.

Former state Sen. JD Alexander of Polk County threatened USF with a massive budget cut a few years ago in his quest to separate the Polytechnic branch campus in the Lakeland area from USF.

In a disgraceful, money-wasting episode, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott approved Polytechnic as a new university, even as they were slashing budgets for the existing 11 universities. Now taxpayers are stuck with an unaccredited state university, created on a political whim.

But that chapter is over. The ordeal did not diminish USF’s focus on academic excellence, as the state’s rankings illustrate.

Its performance is notable because USF is a commuter school with many older, working students. Graduation rates, a key metric, can be a challenge for such schools.

But President Judy Genshaft and her team have made remarkable progress, increasing the six-year graduation rate from 48 percent in 2008 to 63 percent last year.

This was a result of a university-wide task force developing a strategy to retain and graduate students. Actions included requiring freshmen to live on campus, instituting a professional advising system, improving on-campus employment opportunities, making more tutors available and providing more study resources.

USF also performed well in other metrics, including university access, which is based on the percentage of undergraduates receiving the federal needs-based Pell grants, and in full-time wages for undergraduates employed in Florida a year after graduation ($34,600).

USF is a vital economic engine, with an annual economic impact of $4.4 billion. Any fair-minded review will show the school is executing the state’s demands and meeting students’ needs. There should be no debate about whether USF merits lawmakers’ strong support.

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