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USF panel eyes lagging student success rate

Donna Koehn The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: May 16, 2013 at 07:45 PM

Problems with funding, graduation rates, financial aid and other issues vexing students at the University of South Florida were picked over by the school's Board of Trustees at its meeting last week.

Paul Dosal, vice provost of student success, told the board that only slightly more than 50 percent of students who begin USF as freshmen will graduate in six years. The key rating remained virtually unchanged during the past five years, despite the school's efforts.

"We didn't compare too well," said Dosal, explaining that the University of Florida's rate is 84 percent, Florida State University is 74 percent and the University of Central Florida is 64 percent. The national average is 63 percent.

"We have to do better," said Ralph Wilcox, provost and executive vice president of USF. "There's a heck of a lot of room for improvement."

Students today face more problems than five years ago, officials said. Primary among them is a shifting of the financial burden for college onto families' backs. Many students have child care issues and some are caring for aging parents.

"The Legislature took $36 million in recurring cuts out of the current budget, a serious cut," Wilcox said. "We'll be talking more to see how we can do this. We have to be very careful."

As funding is cut, tuition goes up. This year, for the first time, students will be responsible for paying more than half the cost of a state university education, compared with less than 25 percent 10 years ago. As a result, student debt has ballooned.

Bright Futures, a merit-based state scholarship, continues to cover less and less of students' tuition, as well.

"Bright Futures has been a savior to our students," Wilcox said. "Eighty-seven percent of USF freshmen are recipients."

Pell Grants — federal money dispensed to those with financial need — have become a hot political issue. Speakers at last week's Democratic National Convention touted President Barack Obama's support of Pell Grants and criticized Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's plan to cut the program.

"If Washington cuts Pell, that will be devastating to USF," Wilcox told the trustees, encouraging them to become advocates for the grant, which is used by 43 percent of USF students.

A new financial literacy program will help students learn to manage money and minimize debt to promote a more rapid graduation, ideally in four years, Dosal said. A requirement that most freshmen live in dorms three years ago has led to a 28 percent increase in on-campus living.

That's important, said Denita Siscoe, interim vice president of student affairs, because it helps new students feel connected sooner. The retention rate of USF students in college for the first time has improved to 88 percent, Dosal said. One problem leading students to give up too soon is a lack of preparation for college, especially in math. It's important to find out why students are leaving, Wilcox said.

"They can have accidents, get hurt," he said, "or even have a dispute with a parking attendant. You'd be surprised at some of the reasons students give."