Despite criticism, USF can improve graduation rates

Though USF received heavy scrutiny at the Board of Governors (BOG) meeting last week for its low graduation rates, USF has already taken action to rectify what appears to be a solvable problem.

Only 34 percent of USFs first-time-in-college students graduate within four years, and about 52 percent graduate within six years.

BOG chairman Dean Colson said the numbers are too low for a school of (USFs) caliber and threatened to deny USF any tuition increases if the university did not improve its graduation rates within the next two years.

A low graduation rate not only taints the reputation of a university, but it also means that fewer resources are available for incoming students as existing students continue to consume resources.

Besides the effects on the university, lower graduation rates mean students are that much further away from a career. It means loans are held for a longer time, which translates into higher interest amounts paid by the students.

But as USF Provost Ralph Wilcox said at the BOG meeting, the university has begun to require freshmen to declare a major upon entrance to the university. First-year living communities are designed to encourage academic focus. College-readiness is being examined. USF has also narrowed its advisor-to-student ratio.

But the low numbers are not surprising in light of USFs demographics. Forty-six percent of USF students qualify for the Federal Pell Grant Program.

These students have to work, often full-time, to pay for their education and for their living. Wilcox said many times these students have lower college-entrance test scores or take lighter course loads to juggle work.

According to Complete College America, a nonprofit organization, 35.6 percent of full-time students and 11.7 percent of part-time students in Florida graduate in four years.

USF had 23 percent part-time students at the Tampa campus and 27 percent in the USF system in Fall 2010.

Whatever the cause, the problem must be solved, especially since the U.S. ranks 20th in global graduation rates.

Though some people tout technical schools and other career-oriented programs as happy alternatives for at-risk students, redefining the role of public universities is not necessary.

Nonetheless, creating more straight-forward programs that students can follow toward college graduation may serve to increase graduation rates.

With its accelerated 5-year BS/MS and 7-year medical programs, along with other such initiatives, USF is headed in the right direction. And compared to UFs 64.8 percent 4-year graduation rate, and FAUs 15 percent, USF is at a medium that can be improved.