Members of the state university Board of Governors hammered University of South Florida officials on Wednesday, a day before the board is expected to decide USF's request to increase its tuition.
They keyed in on USF's graduation rates, which one board member called "woefully short" and another called a "black mark," and suggested tying future tuition hikes to substantial improvements.
One questioned whether USF could meet its goal of boosting the six-year graduation rate from 52 percent to 65 percent.
Meeting in Orlando this week, the board is hearing from all the state universities about their accomplishments, goals and why they need more money. Several fielded tough questions on Tuesday and Wednesday about their performance.
While most of the universities are seeking approval for a 15 percent increase, USF is asking for 11 percent. The University of Florida is asking for 9 percent and Florida Gulf Coast is asking for 14 percent. The board is expected to decide today whether to accept the requests, deny them or recommend lower tuition rates.
Tuition is just a portion of what students pay. There are also fees, which are rising at a lower rate. That means the total bill for full-time undergraduates at USF will go up to $6,335 this school year, 9 percent more than last year.
The Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 state universities, began its meeting Tuesday fresh from a luncheon with Gov. Rick Scott, who is against tuition increases, even in the face of recurring state budget cuts to the universities.
USF's state funding has dropped by about 35 percent over the past five years. Tuition increases have offset but not made up for the loss, USF Board of Trustees Chairman John Ramil told the Board of Governors on Wednesday.
USF trustees had considered a 15 percent increase but trimmed that to 11 percent last week, saying students shouldn't bear the full burden of easing cuts imposed by the Legislature.
When lawmakers cut $300 million from the universities — $50 million from the USF three-campus system — they assumed that each would exercise its option set by state law to increase tuition by 15 percent.
An 11 percent tuition increase means that USF will have $4.5 million less than expected.
While USF's funding has dropped over the years, the university has still excelled, USF President Judy Genshaft told the board Wednesday.
It has surged in research, she said, and now ranks among the top 50 universities in the country in federal research funding.
It has developed specialties in diabetes, neurological disease and drug discovery, while garnering national recognition for its environmental sustainability and efforts to help veterans returning to college, Genshaft said.
But it wasn't all good. Only about a third of USF students graduate four years after starting as freshmen. Only about half graduate in six years.
USF's goal, Genshaft said, was to increase the rates steadily every year so that by 2016, about two-thirds of its freshmen would be finished within six years.
Trustees leapt on the graduation numbers. The four-year number "is too low for a school of your caliber," said board chairman Dean Colson.
New board member Thomas Kuntz called graduation rates "woefully short" and asked how USF would meet its goal.
Provost Ralph Wilcox said it depended on the state and "the path it chooses to go down in investing in higher education."
Kuntz shot back, "I would not accept that. I think it's also significantly within your control, too."
Wilcox had explained earlier in the meeting that a lot of USF students are poor and the first in their families to go to college. Being unprepared, they often stumble, he said.
That spurred USF to double the number of advisers and set up a tighter system to track student progress, Wilcox said. The changes will start to show in the next couple of years as these students near graduation.
But Kuntz wasn't mollified.
"Other institutions are doing better and they have the same constraints," he said.
Another board member, Norm Tripp, used the high number of low-income students at USF as a point of criticism.
"You've got a population that is struggling … and you're coming in and asking us to increase the tuition that they pay," he said, disregarding USF's plans to spend 40 percent of the tuition increase on financial aid.
"I'm saying to you that I have a tough time approving more costs to that population with the reality of the economy," Tripp said.
One board member, however, tried to add perspective to Tripp's comments. Tico Perez, who will lead the committee discussing tuition requests today, said that federal, state and local financial aid covers college costs for most low-income students.
"That should give us some comfort," he said.