USF denied by national honor society

It’s an honor that more than 100 faculty members have on their resumes, but USF’s application to host a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) honor society has been denied – again.

The University has applied to be a member of PBK, the nation’s oldest academic honor society according to its website, at least four times, said Graham Tobin, associate vice president for Academic Affairs. Schools are only allowed to apply every three years, he said, and the acceptance process takes an additional three years.

“They look at a variety of things,” he said. “They look at if (students) take enough foreign language requirements, if they take calculus, if they have the right liberal arts education. It is very much a liberal arts-oriented society, so the focus is strong on humanities and social sciences but also backed up with strong science programs. They’re looking for quality.”

Tobin traveled to the PBK headquarters in Washington, D.C., with a committee when the last application was submitted in October 2009. All applications are first reviewed by individuals on a committee and then, if the school meets the requirements, three PBK members conduct site visits where they interview students to determine eligibility.

The University was turned down at the first level of the application process, Tobin said, “as we have been on most occasions.”

“In my eyes and in the eyes of many, we are ready for PBK, and we meet all of their qualification, but there are other things that go into their decision making,” he said. “This time we were turned down for three main criteria.”

The first concern was the faculty-to-student ratio, which is below the national average, Tobin said. At USF, the ninth largest university in the nation, there are 27 students for every faculty member, whereas the national average for similar institutions is 22 per faculty member.

Tobin said that, for a research institution like USF, there should be 18 students per faculty member.

“The perception is that the smaller classes and the closer contact means a higher quality of education,” he said. “To a degree, that’s true, but there are other things that can be done in large classes … some people deal with those very well. It shouldn’t be a breaking point because it’s the quality of our students, or their GPAs and SATs coming in, that really matters.”

Another concern voiced by the PBK committee was a lack in library quality.

“Libraries are changing,” Tobin said. “To get information, you look at the computer first, so library holdings are taking a different form. It may be that’s we’re caught a little bit in that because our library is progressive, and there may be some people evaluating us on older standards.”

However, a major concern was the six-year graduation rate for first-time-in-college students, a number Tobin said is “not high” at approximately 49 percent.

“We’re a large metropolitan-based institution,” he said. “For a lot of our students, who it’s their first time in college, it’s the first time that anyone in their family has been in college. They could be people who maybe are not as wealthy and so they have to work. If you’re working and trying to receive an education at the same time, it takes you a bit longer to graduate. So in some ways, to hold us comparable to the University of Florida in this regard, is unfair because we do have a different clientele. And I think that’s worthwhile, it’s part of our mission to reach out to people.”

Tobin said that, compared to some other metropolitan-based research institutions, USF Tampa’s graduation rate is still higher than some who have been accepted into the honor society, proving that the process is subjective.

“It’s very disappointing,” he said. “I was extremely disappointed. A lot of work went into this by many people across campus, so we were all disappointed when we heard this news. However, the ideals and principles behind it are sound, and it’s important that we continue to move in that direction.”

To correct some of the issues raised in the evaluation process, Tobin said the University will use information gathered from organizations like the Student Success Task Force to increase graduation rates and keep the admissions’ process competitive. Of the 39,852 students enrolled in fall 2009, the average high school GPA was 3.8 and the average SAT score was 1185. Of the 508 students enrolled in the Honor’s College, the average SAT score was 1356 and high school GPA was 4.20.

“We’ll try again in two years,” Tobin said. “We have to be positive about it, we deserve it and the reason for doing it is for the students. Yes, it makes USF look good, but the real advantage is that the students that would get this honor will be well served in the future. And so we hope we can, but like a lot of things, sometimes you have to try and try again.”