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Finishing in Four Years

EdSource Special Report

How a Florida public university helps more students to graduate sooner

Above: Statues of mascot bulls front University of South Florida's student center.

Improvements include closing gaps for Latino and Black students


University of South Florida can count Nicholas Bennett as one of its victories in its campaign to bolster the Tampa school’s graduation rates over the past decade.

USF student Nicholas Bennett was helped back onto a graduation track after difficulties.

As the pandemic pushed classes online, Bennett fell into a downward spiral of poor grades. He stopped, started and stopped attending classes. But then, counselors and campus advisers helped get him back on his degree path.

With special petitioning, he was able to turn some F grades into withdrawals, limiting damage to his grade average, and switched majors from mechanical engineering to accounting. Bennett returned to school this spring and still hopes to graduate by 2025, using some credits from summer school.

During the worst of it, Bennett, 20, said he thought that “college might not be for me.” But the welcoming attitude from advisers and their proposal for another way toward graduation changed his mind. Without all that effort, he said. “I don’t think I would have gone back.”

His story marks one of the many efforts across the Florida public university campus to help more students – especially the many low- and moderate-income ones — stay in school and graduate.

Located 10 miles north of Tampa’s glamorous downtown tourist hotels, USF’s main campus on a former barren Army airfield is now planted with dorms, classroom buildings and impressively tall palm trees.

About 32,300 undergraduates are enrolled, 40% of whom qualify for federal aid for low-income students. Its first classes began in 1960 and its academic progress over the past decade has been notable: Its four-year graduation rate rose from 24% in 2010 to 59% in 2020 and its six-year rate increased from 51% to 74%, according to the most recently available federal statistics.  Also significant, the six-year success rates of its Latino and Black students were about the same – 75% and 70% respectively- as the overall student body, a pattern somewhat rare at many other public colleges nationwide.

Major improvements

While USF’s completion statistics are not among the highest in the nation, its improvements over time are among the largest for any big public university, experts say.

What has worked there could provide instructive models for schools elsewhere, including the 23-campus California State University, which is working under a tight schedule to significantly bolster its own rates by 2025.

Systemwide, CSU last year reported a four-year rate of 33% and a six-year rate of 63%, showing significant growth since the effort started in 2017 but still below its goals. Its campuses show a wide range: its Los Angeles campus graduates only 21% of its freshmen in four years compared to 61% at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Across the CSU system, Latino and Black students complete their degrees at rates significantly lower than white and Asian students. And while the system is much larger, some of its campuses are similar in size to USF.

USF, which also has two satellite campuses, has been doing a lot of things at once to boost its graduation statistics. An improved academic advising office now actively identifies and reaches out to students in academic trouble, using such data as midterm grades and frequency of visits to online homework portals. The university has reformed courses with high failure rates, added classes where demand is high, with a lot more summer offerings, and reduced class sizes. Tutoring programs grew dramatically.

Some other steps were relatively simple, such as getting rid of barriers students faced for registration and graduation if they had unpaid campus bills less than $500. Others were difficult and very costly, like adding thousands of dorm beds at what used to be overwhelmingly a commuter school. Keeping students on campus keeps them more focused on their coursework, experts say.

Why it matters to graduate in four years

University of South Florida’s mascot is Rocky the Bull, and depictions of bull runs are all over campus, most prominently in front of the Marshall Student Center where three life-size bull statues charge through a fountain. Officials seek to portray the school in the same charge-ahead spirit, touting its rise in U.S. News & World Report rankings of public universities from 94th to 46th over the past decade.

Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSource

With their mascot bull looking over, a study group gathers at the University of South Florida library.

To be sure, they also are keenly aware they are somewhat in the shadow of the better-known and much older University of Florida and Florida State University, similar to how some CSU campus feel about the University of California.

While the CSUs have done some of the same things to bolster graduations, crucial USF policies seem unlikely to be adopted fully in California. A Florida state law directly links substantial campus funding to graduation rates, earnings of graduates and other measurements of success, something California is just starting to discuss for its universities. In addition to need-based aid, Florida offers full tuition aid to many high-achieving students regardless of how affluent their families may be, a politically popular incentive that backers say helps keep state campuses academically and financially strong. That’s a contrast to California’s mainly need-based aid to college students.

And the Florida school has aggressively sought to make admissions standards more competitive and continues its use of the SAT or ACT to evaluate applicants. California’s liberal leaning policies put a priority on college access, especially for low-income students, which resulted in dropping standardized tests for admissions.

Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSource

Paul Dosal, University of South Florida’s vice president for student success.

In the past, USF faculty, staff and students were dubious about “why it mattered to raise graduation rates,” according to Paul Dosal, vice president for student success. The attitude had been that so many students needed to work so much at off-campus jobs or were not ready to be pushed academically. “We were excusing our very low graduation rates,” Dosal said. Now USF advocates graduation in four years and “promotes a culture where everyone is expected to succeed given the opportunity.”

Finishing college as soon as possible lowers tuition and living costs, reducing the need to borrow. And besides getting students into the workforce sooner, finishing college in four years “establishes a rhythm and a cadence that benefits students when they enter the fast-paced world of work,” said Chris Mullin, a former high-ranking official in Florida’s higher education systems who now is strategy director of data and measurement at the Lumina Foundation, which backs reforms in postsecondary education nationally.

Plus, the longer students take, the less likely it is they will finish at all, according to Charles Ansell, vice president for research, policy and advocacy at Complete College America, a nonprofit that works to increase college graduation rates and close gaps among ethnic and income groups.  “There are just more opportunities for life to get in the way if you stretch it out. Sickness, family, work obligations or suddenly a pandemic emerges.”

Despite the pandemic and the switch to online learning, recent USF graduation rates did not drop. But current freshmen and sophomores – whose high school learning was interrupted by Covid – show disengagement that might spell trouble ahead. If it can weather this, USF hopes to get its four-year rate above 70% and the six-year over 80% in the near future.

In a reinforcing cycle, USF’s rising graduation rates and rankings attract more applicants, allowing the university to enroll better-prepared students more likely to graduate on time. (About 45% of applicants are accepted.)

Some of that is made possible by Florida’s long-standing Bright Futures financial aid program that covers all or 75% of the tuition at public universities for academically high-achieving high school students, no matter their family income. (USF tuition and mandatory fees are $6,410 a year for in-state students, close to the $7,200 at many CSU campuses and well below the $14,500 at the University of California.)

Some need-based aid is offered too, along with federal Pell grants and loans, but the state merit aid is dominant, raising some allegations that low-income Black and Latino students have been hurt by its requirement to submit SAT or ACT scores.

White students comprise 51% of USF’s student body and Latinos 22%, both closely mirroring the demographics of Tampa. However, Black students comprise about 10% of the students, half their share of the surrounding city.

Landing a Bright Futures scholarship was key to Kiara Brooks, a graduating senior from Ocala, Florida, who has been a leader in the Black Student Union and student government. That state aid – based on high school grades, test scores and community service — “makes an incredibly large difference” for many students and the effort to win one “motivates students to achieve more,” said Brooks, who also received a federal Pell grant based on family income.

Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSource

Kiara Brooks, a graduating senior at the University of South Florida and a student government leader.

A double major in biomedical sciences and psychology, Brooks said a preparatory summer school program before her first fall semester helped her learn self-discipline.

Still, her first year was a heavy lift, and she turned to tutoring for tough calculus and chemistry courses. As a sophomore, the difficulty of organic chemistry, compounded by emotional difficulties caused by a death in her family, led to a D in that class, a grade that would make her ineligible for her major.

After an appeal and mental health counseling, she was able to retroactively turn her D into a W and take the class over successfully.

Blacks, Latinos see gap in ‘sense of belonging’

Even with that help available, she said she understands why some students don’t graduate on time or at all. Elected last year as lieutenant governor of the Tampa campus student government, equivalent to vice president, Brooks said the environment on campus has improved for Black, Latino and nontraditional age students. But a gap persists in their “sense of belonging” and the feeling they can navigate campus bureaucracy. USF needs to work more to make sure those students are connected to resources such as advising and cultural organizations, she added.

Thomas Miller, associate professor in the college of education and executive adviser on student success, said efforts to raise graduation numbers have “pretty much been irrespective of ethnicity” and more tied to whether students are low-income or in the first generation in their families to attempt college. “The truth is we don’t necessarily do anything special to help students of color be successful. They get the same treatment that goes to everybody.”

More worrisome than any racial differences are the substantially higher enrollments and completions women achieve compared with men, mirroring a national trend, Miller said.

The push to improve graduation rates benefited from unusually stable leadership under Judy Genshaft who was USF president for 19 years until 2019. However, her successor Steven Currall lasted only two years in the job. A new president, Rhea Law, a prominent attorney and former chair of the university’s trustees, was selected in March.

Unlike California, Florida tightly ties some of its higher education funding to how well its 12 public university campuses perform on a list of measurements, including four- and six-year graduation rates and the success of low-income students who received Pell grants. The universities compete for a fixed pot of money. Over the past two years, USF has received an additional $35 million or so annually for good performance in the complicated scoring system, which was begun in earnest eight years ago.

As a result, its state universities pay far more attention to whether students stay in school and graduate, according to Tim Jones, the state university system’s vice chancellor of finance and administration. “It absolutely works,” Jones said. “It has made a huge difference in our improvements in our metrics.”

While the $35 million in extra state funding is only about 8% of USF’s base state funding, it remains “critically important to us,” said longtime Provost Ralph Wilcox. Most went to hiring more faculty, adding in-demand sections and reducing class sizes in required math and English classes from 45 to no more than 25 students. “We were cramming far too many into those classes, and students weren’t getting the attention they needed.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed linking a small portion of state funding to a similar system, but so far he has not identified in depth how that would work or what would happen if schools don’t meet their goals. CSU campuses have received a lot of extra money to help improve low graduation rates, but it is more carrot than stick.

Tracking first-year students

As at Cal State, USF focuses on courses with high rates of D and F grades and withdrawals. In the past, DFW rates had to hit 50% to grab administrators’ attention. Now, Wilcox said, any class with DFWs above 15% are scrutinized “very carefully,” with faculty sometimes urged to revise how they teach. But he and others insisted grades are not inflated and material is not watered down.

Faculty Senate President Timothy Boaz agreed that performance-based funding helped in part to drive improvements, but he said he is not so sure that there has been no impact on course rigor. Boaz, who is an associate professor of mental health law and policy, said some faculty are concerned that emphasis on DFW statistics might pressure some “to engage in grade inflation.” He said he does not have solid evidence it is happening, but that it is a legitimate concern and “we have to stay mindful about it.”

Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSource

University of South Florida’s dean of students, Danielle McDonald, with a campus mascot statue.

USF has pulled back a bit from its messaging about the importance of finishing in four years, in part not to scare off students who can never meet that goal or who face unexpected obstacles, such as Covid, according to Danielle McDonald, dean of students.

The goal remains a four-year degree, but more aggressive outreach is offered to those knocked off that schedule by personal or financial woes and who need help “to come back to the path again, with the eventual goal of graduation and employment,” she said.

Reporting midterm grades

A special team of counselors reaches out to 10% or so of the student body who are identified by data and a computerized warning system as being at risk of flunking out. Faculty generally have to report midterm grades for freshmen and sophomores and identify those who are doing poorly, like Bennett. Attendance in class is monitored and resident assistants in the dorms watch for signs of trouble too.

If students are placed on probation and then are dismissed for bad grades, they can reapply for a return. That might require help getting extra financial aid, more tutoring or difficult discussions about a different major and career path, according to Leslie Tod, director of Academic Advocacy. Whatever the issue, the key is to remind them, she said: “Let’s leave a door open.” That office also looks for students who applied for graduation but didn’t finish up, sometimes just a class or two away.

The pandemic period was actually a help to some students who took more advantage of summer sessions and the online offerings to pile on credits. That’s why Andres Montero, 21, of Boca Raton, expects to graduate soon, after just three years, even after switching majors from finance to communications.

An officer in student government, he said the academic advising to make that change was “tremendously helpful.” Montero, who emigrated from Venezuela with his family eight years ago, said that a big reason why students don’t graduate on time is because their original ideals about majors and careers don’t match up to reality or their talents. USF should offer more introductory courses that present a broader concept of the road ahead in various fields “before it is too late and they have to take another semester or so” to meet requirements.

In his case, he does not regret finishing a year early and is looking for jobs in government affairs. “I had my fair share of fun here, and I feel I matured,” Montero said. “Now I want to get into the real world and start working.”

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  1. Susan Caruso 7 months ago7 months ago

    The pandemic hurt all students, not just certain groups. Why not support all who struggle, regardless? Did we all not go through this together?! I agree with the new policy if most of the class struggles/fail rates look at the structure of the class (teacher), makes scenes. Why are we following another state’s policies, lets’s be the trailblazer and come up with what works for our students!

  2. Martin Blythe 7 months ago7 months ago

    I agree with Renee. Focusing on the positives in the article, the key things that stood out to me are: (1) scrutinize classes that have high failure rates – those professors who seem to feel no obligation to revise their teaching/grading style when half their class is failing! I mean, really??? And (2) have motivated counseling staff who can work with at-risk students – I recommend this be done through cohorts as CSUN is doing, maybe other colleges too.

  3. Renée Martínez 7 months ago7 months ago

    While many of the approaches referenced might be helpful, some also are among the most regressive and conservative out there. Florida and Georgia, which during the pandemic consistently demonstrated some of the worst practices and neglect for duty of care, are hardly a models for the equity-based approaches needed in California. What they have primarily done is become artful in pleading a justifications for their continued existence in an education-hostile environments. In California … Read More

    While many of the approaches referenced might be helpful, some also are among the most regressive and conservative out there. Florida and Georgia, which during the pandemic consistently demonstrated some of the worst practices and neglect for duty of care, are hardly a models for the equity-based approaches needed in California.

    What they have primarily done is become artful in pleading a justifications for their continued existence in an education-hostile environments. In California we need to be asserting the State’s obligation and accountability to educate all of its students – the onus is on the policy makers and legislators to provide adequate means of doing this. We don’t need continued reliance on arbitrary outdated conventions from an era that no longer representatives or reflects our state’s students. We need to move into the future and not get stuck in the past. If efforts don’t center on equity, they’ve already misunderstood and misrepresented the core context for quality education in California.