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FIU's Graduation Rate Is 'Greatest Challenge' Standing In Way Of Millions In Extra State Money

Hector Gambino
El Nuevo Herald
Florida International University in Miami could soon join the top tier of public schools in the state.

Florida International University hopes to soon join the state's top tier of public colleges, working toward a formal status of "preeminent" that has come with millions of additional dollars from the state in recent years.

An appointed board that oversees public universities in Florida is expected to designate FIU an "emerging preeminent" school during a three-day meeting in Tampa this week. The State University System Board of Governors' strategic planning committee approved the label on Wednesday morning, and the full board will consider it on Thursday afternoon.

Being named "emerging preeminent" would mean FIU is on its way to the more prestigious and lucrative "preeminent" status that the state Legislature created in 2013. So far, the designation has come with extra funding intended to help Florida universities climb in national rankings of top public schools. The Miami-Dade university hopes to meet enough of the eligibility requirements to be considered "preeminent" by 2024.

In order to receive the "emerging preeminent" status, a university must meet at least eight of 12 criteria for "preeminence," which FIU now has. Those include enrolling an incoming freshman class with an average 4.0 high school GPA and 1200 SAT score; achieving a 90 percent retention rate from students' freshman to sophomore years; awarding more than 400 doctoral degrees annually; and securing more than 100 patents over the previous three years.

FIU plans to meet three more of the metrics by 2025, clinching the 11 out of 12 needed to get the "preeminent" label. One of the goals the university must meet is to raise its four-year graduation rate for students who are in college for the first time to 60 percent of higher. It's at 39 percent now.

"The four-year graduation rate is our greatest challenge, because of ... our student population. Most of our students are working, and we still are, largely, a commuter campus," FIU Provost Kenneth Furton said during a Tuesday afternoon meeting.

Still, he said, the school expects to reach 60 percent by 2024 or sooner. The university's strategies for increasing the graduation rate by 4 percent each year include using predictive analytic technology to identify students who are falling behind and offer them suggestions for staying on track, and deploying an "Emergency Aid Reponse Team" to help students find last-minute financial help if they encounter an unexpected challenge that threatens to take them out of school.

The only "preeminence" metric FIU does not expect to achieve in the next five years is growing its endowment to $500 million. The school's endowment is currently at $209 million, and administrators expect to increase it to more than $300 million.

The state's original "preeminent" schools, the University of Florida and Florida State University, have both received tens of millions of dollars under the program, although there's no guarantee the Legislature will fund it in the future. That money has helped UF and FSU jump up to No. 8 and No. 26, respectively, in the U.S. News and World Report's list of top public universities in the country.

The University of South Florida joined the "preeminent" club last year. The University of Central Florida is considered "emerging preeminent."

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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