While standing up on stage at a commencement ceremony May 5, USF Provost Ralph Wilcox felt his phone “start to blow up” with questions about the school’s four-year graduation rates.
The questions came about as the Florida Legislature made an amendment to a bill that would have put USF as one of the top three schools in state as pre-eminent with a funding to go with the status. According to Wilcox, the majority of the extra money was intended to go toward hiring new professors.
USF is classified as emerging pre-eminent, along with UCF, and currently splits a pool of $10 million in state funding. However, the pre-eminent universities of UF and FSU split a pool of $48 million in state funding.
The Legislature started looking at changing one of the requirements for pre-eminence from a six-year graduation rate of 70 percent to a four-year graduation rate of 50 percent. USF currently has a 54 percent four-year graduation rate. On the last day of the session, a proposed amendment changed it to a four-year graduation rate at 60 percent.
“What mystifies us as an institution, and quite frankly it was immensely disappointing, was the lack of transparency within the legislative process and the absolute paucity of consulting with the Board of Governors apparently as well as the universities,” Wilcox said. “But rather, just simply out of the blue on the last day to change the performance threshold.”
USF responded by asking the local area to speak up to their representatives. Within the first 48 hours over 20,000 messages were sent, according to university spokesman Adam Freeman.
The Legislature ultimately voted for a 60 percent requirement. USF’s latest rate is 54 percent. Wilcox said the rate is expected to reach 60 percent by 2019 through continuing the programs already set in place.
“We are not where we want to be,” Wilcox said. “Yes, we’ve achieved our 70 percent six-year graduation rate goal which was and technically still is the measure for pre-eminence. But we’re not going to stand still. We continue to ensure students at the university are provided a four-year, eight-semester plan to graduate. We invest in support for their success.”
Wilcox said these programs include offering access to tutors and advisers. Additionally, the university plans to continue seeking out students who are in need of assistance through a case-management program.
The case-management program focuses on student persistence, this program then pushes for students to graduate in time.
“Case management is a methodology that we use to identify the best sources for providing support for students who might benefit from support,” said Tom Miller, associate professor of education.
Miller chairs the persistence committee, which reviews reports concerning students who may show evidence that they’re not doing well. The committee then discusses who would be the best person to help out this student.
“If it’s a student who lives in housing, it should probably be somebody from housing,” Miller said. “If it’s a student who’s an athlete, it should probably be something in athletics. If it’s a student who works on campus, perhaps the student’s supervisor would be a good contact.”
He said that over the years, students have not responded well to aid from a stranger so it’s better to get somebody who has a relationship with the student to get involved.
“We can’t know at this point whether or not what the effect will be — but we’ve demonstrated very affectively that the work of the persistence committee is directly related to student success in multiple ways,” Miller said. “We can’t know for certain what the future holds. We can’t know for certain how this is going to play out, but I would certainly suggest that we’re hopeful that we can continue to improve.”
The provost echoed Miller’s optimism that the school community can rise to the challenge presented by the legislative change.
“The University of South Florida community, our world-class faculty and our dedicated staff and our talented students, are a determined bunch,” Wilcox said. “This is a university that has shown itself to flourish in the face of adversity and this is an adverse situation that we’re facing. It’s something that we didn’t expect.”
“So we’re going to roll up our sleeves and do our utmost to continue to accelerate toward expected levels of performance.”