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USF campaign tops in boosting graduation rates

TAMPA — The six-year graduation rate at the University of South Florida has jumped to 63 percent, a 15 percent increase in the last five years in what is considered a critical measure of university performance.

The rate has long been a concern at USF, having dwindled to about 48 percent in 2009. The school in 2009 dedicated itself to combating this failure to complete degrees and what administrators call “drift” – students with no clear academic goals taking up valuable seats and resources.

A task force was formed and a slew of new policies and practices resulted, with USF showing the largest improvement in the graduation rate among all 11 state universities.

Graduation rates and other measures of success were discussed by the university system’s Board of Governors this week as that panel developed a new performance funding model.

At one point, Jan Ignash, the university system’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, assured board members meeting in Fort Myers that USF’s data was not a typographical error in their reports and noted that such improvement was “highly unusual.”

“These are slow moving metrics, and to even get a two-point gain is huge,” she said.

New College of Florida in Sarasota posted the second-highest increase over the 5-year period at 6 percent, with 66 percent of its students now graduating within six years.

“Today, if you walk across the University of South Florida campus, I’d like to think that whether it’s the parking lot attendant, the food services attendant, a resident assistant or a professor, they all recognize and are committed to how important this thing we call student success is,” said Ralph Wilcox, USF’s provost and executive vice president. “It really has become part of the university’s DNA.”

USF’s strategy was to expand living and learning communities, where students in the same fields live together; institute a professional advising system and a new degree-audit system; and make more tutors available.

The construction of the Interdisciplinary Science building provided much-needed lab and research space and the school established a smart lab in the main library that has helped students with challenging gateway courses critical to their degree.

USF has also toughened admission standards, something that “hasn’t come without some pain,” according to Wilcox. But accepting students who clearly aren’t ready for college only sets them up for failure, he said.

“It all comes back to our commitment to see our students succeed,” Wilcox said. “Why lead our students down the garden path if we can see by their performance in high school that they’re not going to be successful?”

Administrators aren’t resting on their laurels. Paul Dosal, USF’s vice provost for student success, said the school has set its sights on the 70 percent level and Wilcox acknowledged, “the work has just begun. There’s room for continuing improvement.”

The 63 percent six-year graduation rate still leaves USF behind the University of Florida, at 86 percent, Florida State University, at 76 percent, and even the systemwide average of 68 percent.

The news came as the Board of Governors passed a performance funding model that will be put into practice in the 2014-15 year, designed to encourage success and reward improvement.

The model uses data from the annual state university system accountability report to determine funding based on 10 measures: The percent of bachelor’s-degree graduates employed or continuing their education; average wages of employed baccalaureate graduates; cost per undergraduate degree; six-year graduation rate for full-time and part-time first time students; academic progress rate, defined as second-year retention with a grade point average above 2.0; bachelor’s degrees awarded in areas of strategic emphasis, including science, technology, engineering and math; and access rate, which is defined as the percentage of undergraduates with a Pell grant.

An eighth metric, graduate degrees awarded in areas of strategic emphasis, applies to 10 of the 11 active state universities, and New College, which offers only undergraduate degrees, will have an alternative measure.

The Board of Governors and individual university boards of trustees will decide the final two measure.

The board made its first performance-based awards last fall, and USF fared well. Only three measures were used, and USF tied with the University of Central Florida as the top earner, bringing in $2.6 million from a $20 million pot. The money augments schools’ traditional legislative allocation.

The board is asking the Legislature for $50 million for the new performance fund.

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