USF administrators faced a harsh line of questioning from the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) on Wednesday, the day before the BOG will decide whether to grant the university the requested 11 percent increase in tuition differential fees.
USF President Judy Genshaft emphatically expressed the state of the university’s funding as administrators presented the university’s workplan at the three-day meeting in Orlando.
“Over the past five to six years, we’ve lost $125 million in state revenue,” she said. “We’ve lost 267 faculty. We’ve cut purchasing, travel equipment operations, we’re energy efficient. We’ve had early retirement implemented. We’ve had to increase class sizes and we’ve terminated 12 programs. We’ve closed underperforming centers and institutes, and … we’ve combined colleges for greater efficiencies.”
Genshaft said raising tuition is imperative – though not by the 15 percent authorized in an effort to stop “masking” the state’s cuts to education.
“Eleven percent is our minimum request,” Genshaft said. “If possible, we would love to have 15 percent. We could do more with it. But the minimum is an 11 percent request. This is the minimum of what we need to meet the needs of the students at the University of South Florida.”
But members of the BOG said they felt other elements in USF’s workplan didn’t measure up to what the university was requesting.
BOG member Mori Hosseini questioned USF’s commitment to STEM education. Though USF is currently the second highest producer of STEM degrees in the state, the workplan estimated an increase from 20.5 percent of graduates having STEM degrees to 21 percent across the system over the next three years.
“We’re looking for more STEM graduates and more people getting out of school in four years,” Hosseini said. “Everything else becomes a tremendous add-on. I truly believe what you said about USF being an economic driver for the Tampa area. But we have to protect the taxpayers and protect our state. We have 200,000 STEM jobs available in the state and no one is taking them. It kills me that we have to go outside this country to fill them.”
Genshaft assured him that he was “preaching to the choir,” and said that USF Tampa alone was looking to increase the production of STEM degrees, but the branch campuses did not have the infrastructure to increase the total number of STEM degrees.
Due to limited funds, the branch campuses are the parts of USF looking to grow enrollment rates to meet the BOG strategic goal of increasing the number of graduates, as the Tampa campus has reached capacity.
“We are not looking to grow on the Tampa campus, but as a system it works out very well,” Genshaft said earlier in the meeting.
Some said USF’s current four-year graduation rate of 35 percent and six-year rate of 52 percent was too low. The University’s three-year workplan goal is to raise these numbers to 38 and 56 percent, respectively.
“That’s too low for a school of your caliber,” BOG Chairman Dean Colson said. “I think it’s related to the fact that your student debt number is one of the highest in the state as well, and I assume it’s because they’re taking five or six years to graduate instead of four. I think it’s critical enough for your school that we ought to tell you if this isn’t significantly better in two years, you’re not getting any more tuition increases. You’ve got to target this differential on building those numbers significantly. I don’t see how that’s going to happen over the next three years.”
USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said the university has been concentrat¬ing on raising graduation rates, and that the lack of state funding was adding to the problem.
“This is not something we’ve just been awakened to,” he said. “We’ve had a plan in place for the past four or five years. You don’t turn around a six-year graduation rate overnight. It’s a multi-faceted plan.”
USF has addressed the issue over the past few years, he said, by focusing on college-readiness and implementing policy changes to keep freshmen on campus through residential programs to maintain academic focus.
But another problem that contributes to low graduation rates, he said, is USF’s income demographics.
According to USF’s workplan, for the 2011-2012 school year, 38 percent of USF students came from families whose total incomes fell below $40,000 per year. Thirteen percent of students came from families whose incomes fell between $40,000 and $59,999, 10 percent from families whose incomes fell between $60,000 and $79,999, 8 percent from families whose incomes fell between $80,000 and $99,999 and 24 per-cent from families whose incomes were greater than $100,000.
Wilcox said USF’s growing low-income population is often unable to complete degrees within four years because of financial need.
“One of our biggest challenges is the growing number of Pell recipients,” Wilcox said. “As our students have been required to file FAFSA, many of them have come to realize they are eligible for Pell when in years past they had missed that. That’s certainly the reality of the economy. We have tremendous unmet financial needs that we have to address.”
If the differential increase was to be approved, he said, 40 percent of it would be devoted to need-based aid — 10 percent more than the amount required by state law.
But BOG member Norman Tripp questioned the need to raise tuition differentials if the population was facing financial hardship.
“You’ve really got a popula¬tion that’s struggling, okay?” he said, addressing Genshaft. “And you’re coming in and asking us to increase the tuition that they pay. But then your provost said you’re not doing that because of ‘the reality of the economy.’ I have a tough time approving more costs to that population that you’re serving with ‘the reality of the economy’ you’re facing. I don’t know how you can come in and expect those people to pay more money, okay? It’s not, in the long run, going to help the state of the economy.”
Other BOG members were not satisfied with the response.
“(Graduation rates are) significantly within your control,” BOG member Thomas Kuntz said. “Other institutions are doing better, and they have the same strengths. I take your point that while the state revenue is a factor, to say that ‘our graduation rates are entirely dependent on what money the state gives us’ is a flawed answer.”
Wilcox reassured BOG members that they would see improved numbers over the next few years.
The BOG will make all tuition and fee related decisions today.
Genshaft assured BOG members that USF was on the right trajectory, and that despite “dimin¬ished investment,” the university was increasing its productivity.
“We like to think of ourselves as fiscally conservative and academically innovative,” she said. “I think we’re a very good bet in putting money toward us, and if we don’t reach our goal, then, yeah, have the conversation with us.”