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Education

USF campuses in St. Pete, Sarasota work on STEM enrollment


Published:   |   Updated: July 8, 2013 at 07:18 AM

TAMPA - The University of South Florida's campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota are pushing back against the perception they occupy a second tier in the USF system, with the schools beefing up science programs and backing what they say would be a more accurate way of determining graduation rates.

There's a lot at stake, with university overseers such as the Legislature and the state university system Board of Governors focusing on performance metrics to determine how much money universities receive.

USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee are much younger than the flagship campus in Tampa. They are physically smaller, have far fewer students and much lower budgets. But officials at all three campuses say they're fulfilling significant roles in the USF system.

It was at a recent Board of Governors meeting that the outlying USF campuses came in for some jabs.

Mori Hossein, a member of the board, was lauding the main Tampa campus for improving its six-year graduation rate and increasing the number of its graduates in the science, technology, engineering and math fields - disciplines seen as key to job creation.

But Hossein was troubled by other figures in the system's annual work plan: "Once you start going back to St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee, these numbers just fall apart."

He added that he has heard USF treats the two institutions "like a stepchild."

It's a charge that was also leveled by some supporters of the former USF Lakeland campus, which the Legislature pulled away from the USF system and made the separate Florida Polytechnic.

Norman Tripp, another board member, piled on at the June meeting.

"It seems to me you've got three campuses, one of which is doing very well and two of which are behaving more like (community) colleges," Tripp said.

The exchange left USF officials flustered, and the implication that the non-Tampa campuses were somehow inferior rattled them.

"I don't agree with that statement," said Arthur Guilford, regional chancellor at Sarasota-Manatee. "It's a shame that they may not fully understand how much we contribute to the total educational mission of this region."

Added William Hogarth, who just stepped down as interim regional chancellor in St. Petersburg, "I don't see it. I haven't seen it. I think it's a discussion we should just put aside and move forward."

The difference in performance measures among the campuses stems from factors beyond the two schools' control, and perhaps a misunderstanding of their missions on the part of the Board of Governors, USF officials say.

Nonetheless, the issue of STEM graduates is being addressed at the non-Tampa campuses. And now, those officials are pushing for a new method to compile graduation rates that would reflect the reality of students moving from one campus to another within the USF system.

At USF in Tampa, 24 percent of the students graduate with degrees in the STEM fields. That's up from 20 percent a few years ago and expected to rise to 26 percent in three years.

That compares with 9 percent at USF St. Petersburg and 4 percent at Sarasota-Manatee. But there is an explanation, university officials say.

"I don't think they realize that we couldn't have any STEM graduates here," said Guilford of Sarasota-Manatee. "How can we be told we're not doing anything in STEM when we don't have any sciences?"

Indeed, Sarasota-Manatee - accredited just two years ago as an independent university, and heavily invested in its renowned hospitality management program - is just starting to develop science curricula. It is working with nearby Mote Marine Laboratory on lab space, starts lower-division chemistry courses this fall, and the Board of Governors has just approved a biology degree program.

"We're doing everything the right way, it's just that people have to give us the time to do it," Guilford said.

In St. Petersburg, meantime, a new biology program last year became the most popular major among freshmen, with 450 students enrolled.

"I expect you will see an increase in science and STEM majors that start to graduate from our program," said Mark Lombardi-Nelson, a USF St. Petersburg senior who serves as the student member of the university's Board of Trustees.

The Tampa campus has a six-year graduation rate of 56 percent, another figure the Board of Governors keeps a keen eye on. At St. Petersburg, it's 32 percent; Sarasota-Manatee doesn't even compile that information because it is admitting its first freshman class this fall. Since its inception in 1974, Sarasota-Manatee has been an upper-division regional campus that accepted students from elsewhere, including the nearby State College of Florida.

But Ralph Wilcox, the USF System's provost, argues that the numbers - compiled as part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System - don't accurately reflect success within the USF System.

"When a freshman enrolls at USF St. Petersburg and spends his or her first two years there, and subsequently transfers to Tampa, we lose that student in the graduation rates at both USF St. Petersburg and USF Tampa," Wilcox said. "So in fact, the graduation rates that you see at both campuses are undercounted."

USF is now on board with the Student Achievement Measure, a new way of calculating graduation rates pushed by higher education organizations including the Association of American Universities. The organizations want that standard to replace the U.S. Department of Education's traditional calculator.

The new formula would recognize a student who starts at one campus and finishes at another as successfully completing a 6-year graduation, Wilcox said. That happens a lot within the USF System; many students shift from their local campus to the main campus to attend the sole engineering school in the system, and those pursuing hospitality eventually end up at Sarasota-Manatee, for example.

Wilcox said USF's 6-year graduation rate would increase to 61 percent under the new measure. At St. Petersburg, it would skyrocket to 54 percent.

USF is being joined by Florida International University and the University of Central Florida in pushing for the new calculation. The schools right now are "making our voice known," Wilcox said.

"We're making it clear that it's in the best interest of the Board of Governors ... to accurately count those degrees and accurately represent the progression and completion," he said. "More and more, we're finding that students are making that decision quite intentionally for themselves, and we're simply arguing that it should not penalize the student or penalize the institution."

USF System President Judy Genshaft vowed to work with the Board of Governors to familiarize members with the varying missions.

"Under their charter from the Board of Governors and under the law (passed) by the Legislature, these two campuses have fulfilled exactly what was asked of them," Genshaft said.

And when you're being referred to as a "stepchild" or criticized for behaving like a community college, there's also the matter of pride. Neither of the regional chancellors responded to individual members of the Board of Governors, saying it's not their place.

"I think it's just some growing pains, so to speak," said Hogarth. "We are a university. We are part of USF, and I think the students and faculty are very proud of that. I think it's somewhat of a misunderstanding."

Said Guilford: "I think we're doing a fine job," adding, "I think our story needs to be told a little clearer."

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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