TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Senate President Joe Negron told state university leaders on Thursday that he views improving the four-year graduation rate as the key to raising the national profile of Florida's higher-education system.
"I think that's probably the single best thing we can do to increase our national reputation," Negron told the Board of Governors, which oversees the university system.
Negron, R-Stuart, said he wants to raise Florida's graduation rate to levels that exist at nationally recognized public universities like the University of Virginia, which has a rate of 87 percent, and the University of North Carolina, 81 percent.
Lawmakers are advancing legislation that would link a four-year graduation rate with performance funding at Florida universities. The Senate bill (SB 2) bill would set the benchmark at having at least 50 percent of undergraduates earn their degrees within four years.
"I think that four-year graduation rate is critical," Negron said.
But an annual accountability report, approved by the Board of Governors on Thursday, shows that only four schools --- the University of Florida, Florida State University, New College of Florida and the University of South Florida --- met that 50 percent goal in the four-year cohort of students who graduated last year.
The system-wide average was 47 percent, including students who transferred to other universities and finished their degrees. The average was 45 percent for students who stayed at one school.
The averages ranged from 67 percent at the University of Florida to 18 percent of Florida A&M University students who graduated last year.
But the report also showed improvement for schools below the 50 percent benchmark. FAMU has improved from a 12 percent rate in the 2011-12 academic year to 18 percent last year. The University of South Florida showed the most dramatic gain, rising from 38 percent in 2012 to 51 percent last year.
The four-year graduation trend dipped slightly in that time for Florida Gulf Coast University and the University of West Florida, which both were at 22 percent last year.
Even the University of Florida, which had the highest rate last year, has essentially been stagnant since 2012, when it had a 68 percent four-year graduation rate.
Jason Jones, an assistant vice chancellor for institutional research for the Board of Governors, said state universities are doing a better job of retaining students, which is an indicator that the four-year rate is likely to improve over time.
The system-wide retention rate, which measures students who return to school after their first year, has increased from 82.5 percent in 2012 to 86 percent last year, the report showed.
And the system-wide 47 percent four-year graduation rate does not reflect the fact that about 20 percent of the undergraduate degree programs require more than 120 credit hours of classes, which would be the standard four-year degree, Jones said.
The report showed that 63 percent of the undergraduates across the system last year received their degrees within five years.
Also, the report showed significant improvement in the four-year graduation rate since 2009, rising from 37 percent to 47 percent.
In the context of a system that has gained 65,000 students over the last decade to a current total of about 405,000 students, Jones said the improvement in the graduation rate was significant.
"It's hard to get bigger and better at the same time," Jones told the Board of Governors.
Universities are currently measured on a six-year rate for undergraduates receiving their degrees. The new report showed a system-wide six-year average of 66.4 percent through 2015, ranking Florida second among the largest states, trailing only California at 68 percent.