There was a time when it would have been unusual, maybe even unthinkable, that the University of South Florida — let alone the welcoming USF St. Petersburg — would reject a solid B student.
But the USF System has honed its focus since those open-door days, seeking and attracting sharper applicants and climbing in prestige. That evolution will soon accelerate as admissions standards rise at all three USF institutions.
For an urban university system that has long prided itself on giving underrepresented students a path to college, the higher bar has some local leaders worried about potential tradeoffs with diversity and access, even as USF leaders say those commitments will not waver.
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The push, the university says, is all about prioritizing high scorers more likely to stay on track in college.
"I’ve fielded many calls from alums who say, ‘I’m disappointed that my son or daughter was not admitted to the University of South Florida, and by the way, their SAT scores and high school grade point average are much better than mine,’" Provost Ralph Wilcox said. "What I share with them is, ‘Thank you, I understand that, but our sole interest is in ensuring that your son or daughter can be successful at the University of South Florida today.’"
This fall, USF Tampa will shoot high, seeking an average 4.2 weighted GPA and a 1300 SAT for incoming freshmen, surpassing Florida State University’s aims and nearing the flagship University of Florida’s plans.
At Sarasota-Manatee, the goal is a 4.0 GPA and 1225 SAT, a slight bump up.
And in St. Petersburg, the goal is a 3.8 GPA and a 1200 SAT — mirroring the stats of its most recent class, with expectations that standards will rise the next year.
"There was a time many moons ago where we opened the door to all comers and we swept them all in," Wilcox said. "Certainly that was nice for access. Everyone essentially got to enroll at their hometown university, but that was the very reason we had a 41 percent six-year graduation rate when President (Judy) Genshaft arrived here."
Too many students drifted. They hadn’t been ready, Wilcox said, and "frankly hadn’t earned their right" to be at USF.
Undergirding USF’s lucrative ascent to the state’s top ranks is an aggressive focus on data — who’s graduating, who isn’t — all while state lawmakers dream of Florida universities joining the nation’s elite.
Faster graduation, fewer dropouts and less student debt is the ideal. That’s proven easier to do with 4.0 students.
"It will be a question of where some of those students — who are good, solid B-minus students, who will still graduate, who score 990 on the SAT — where will they go?" said Donald Hossler, an educational policy expert at Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Southern California.
To calm anxieties about the potential erosion of diversity, USF points to its track record. USF Tampa has won awards because its white, black and Hispanic students graduate at the same rates. Systemwide, a respectable 41 percent of low-income students have Pell Grants, a number that has held steady.
Wilcox admits he was "scared half to death" that diversity would suffer when Tampa began getting more selective nearly a decade ago. Instead, he said, USF became a destination for the very students he feared it would lose. USF Tampa has 48 percent white students. USF St. Petersburg, by comparison, is 65 percent white.
To some, USF’s assurances ring hollow. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he praised USF just last year for taking in promising minority students despite so-so test scores.
"This somewhat feels like a slap in the face for them to now change admissions standards that will deny the very population that I lauded them and commended them for taking," Rouson said.
Studies show a correlation between family wealth and standardized test scores.
Others said USF should not neglect students who have potential but face systematic hurdles.
Minority students underperform relative to the general student body from kindergarten through high school, said Ken Welch, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission.
"We have to step back and ask, are these admissions requirements becoming unreasonable for the majority of students who are in our K through 12?" Welch said. "It’s the whole adage of putting a frog in water and turning up the temperature slowly and he doesn’t realize he’s being boiled to death until it’s over."
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called USF’s higher standards a natural evolution for an ambitious university. And Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said it fits with USF’s research-driven mission, helping to attract premier faculty and grant funding.
"They’re striving for excellence," he said. "I’m not going to fault a university for striving for excellence."
The push comes as a controversial proposal to consolidate the USF System is sailing through the state Capitol. Under a merger, USF Tampa’s "preeminence" honor, plus millions in bonus funding, would be shared with the regional campuses, but so would the responsibility of meeting benchmarks. One metric requires fall freshmen to have at least a 4.0 GPA and 1200 SAT.
USF St. Petersburg senior Byron Baugh, 27, said distrust of Tampa authority lingers as the potential consolidation looms.
"I know that everybody’s concerned about that due to Tampa leadership’s track record of choosing prestige and more funding and all that over the students’ needs of St. Pete," he said.
Baugh worries that nontraditional students like himself could be limited. He left Hillsborough Community College with a dismal GPA, and when USF Tampa rejected him, St. Petersburg took him in. Now he has a strong GPA in his major and leads a student group focused on climate action.
"There’s a certain amount of failure people need to go through," Baugh said. "It’s the accumulation of, I think, a new dedication to not make the same mistakes again."
Some St. Petersburg faculty worry that the changes will strangle campus enrollment and culture — "that we’re going to be smaller and whiter," longtime professor Ray Arsenault said.
Indeed, in January, USF St. Petersburg officials ran the numbers, experimenting by applying average 4.0 GPA and 1225 GPA standards to its fall 2018 class. (Those are the benchmarks USF Sarasota-Manatee is adopting.) Where 554 students were admitted in reality, 422 made the cut in the experiment.
Another test with the fall 2017 class showed that black student numbers would drop 50 percent, Hispanic numbers would drop 29 percent, and white students 26 percent under those standards.
Campus pushback led to a delay implementing higher standards, buying the campus some time to prepare.
"So many of my best students over the years who’ve gone on for PhDs, several of whom are now distinguished professors in their own right, they never would have gotten in under the new standards," Arsenault said. "They didn’t follow, necessarily, the normal path of coming out of high school with 1400 SATs."
USF does have some freedom in its spring and summer admissions, as well as a strong transfer student pipeline. Those students don’t appear in most metrics and rankings, so universities often have more flexible admissions outside of the fall semester.
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It’s likely that tougher cutoffs at USF will shunt more students to Florida’s state college system, where students can spend two years earning an associate’s degree before transferring to a university — often called the "2+2" model.
Also, the FUSE program gives students at participating state colleges a guaranteed path to certain degree programs at USF, easing the transition.
"There’s always the opportunity to get in their junior year or sophomore year," Brandes said. "I don’t think employers look at a student who went to a 2+2 program any differently. The fact that you graduated is what’s important."
Stephen Burd, senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, said he worries the community college pipeline could become a necessary default for less affluent students.
"You’re really creating inequality," he said.
Some questioned whether the changes would hamper USF St. Petersburg’s role as a regional university.
"Prestige wasn’t at the top of our list of things we’re trying to accomplish in St. Petersburg," chamber leader Chris Steinocher said. "We’re looking for options and the ability to be responsive to our community."
Mariah McQueen, a student government leader, said she chose USF St. Petersburg because of its culture, not its renown.
"We’re not an Ivy League school," she said, "and I don’t think we should be."
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.