Students walk through Turlington Plaza on the University of Florida campus on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Gainesville. [ LAUREN WITTE | Special to the Times ]

Florida’s top public universities are on a roll.

The University of Florida remains tied for No. 5 among the nation’s public universities, with hopes for another good showing when U.S. News & World Report releases its new rankings Monday.

Florida State University has risen 46 spots over the last decade in a separate ranking of all schools, public or private. And the University of South Florida is up 78 spots over the same period, making it the fastest-rising school in the country.

The surge has helped make Florida the No. 1 state for higher education, according to U.S. News, based on graduation rates, lower tuition and other factors. But prestige comes at a cost. The higher these schools strive, the less accessible they’ve become.

The percentage of students from low-income families at Florida’s three “preeminent” public universities is shrinking, according to state and federal data that tracks “access rates.” Experts say the state’s push for performance and its keen focus on metrics may be to blame.

The problem is most acute at the University of Florida and Florida State, where the percentage of low-income students has been steadily dropping since 2014. At both schools, the number of low-income students fell by a combined 3,000 as overall enrollment climbed sharply in those years.

The trend shows up in a different way at USF, where the number of low-income undergraduates has been up and down in recent years, generally hovering around 12,000. Meanwhile, the school’s overall undergrad enrollment has risen steadily.

The result: a 6-point drop from 2017 to 2020 in the percentage of USF undergrads with low incomes. It was one of the steeper declines among Florida’s 12 public universities, according to a recent state report.

Caught in the slide are students like Daisy Andrews, who grew up poor in north Pinellas County and held down a job in high school. Short on money and time, she said she was unable to boost her scores and build an impressive college resume like her peers.

“I knew I couldn’t be as outstanding as everyone else,” she said.

Andrews eventually made it to the University of Florida and now attends law school, but she was forced to take a detour.

A school’s access rate is seen by many in higher education as an important gauge, especially at big state universities, where the mission is to serve a broad swath of the public. It is measured by tracking the share of undergraduates receiving a Pell grant, the federal financial aid program that provides up to $6,895 a year to low-income students.

Florida’s State University System has noticed the decline in access, and officials say they need to address it. At their June 29 meeting, some members of the Board of Governors expressed concern over a chart showing that the percentage of Pell students declined at all but one of the 12 state universities in 2020, the latest year for which data was available.

The number of Pell students actually increased at some schools, but not enough to keep up with rising enrollment. Across the whole system, the number of Pell undergraduates fell by more than 1,800 from 2014 to 2019, while the total undergrad population increased by nearly 29,000.

Students study and dine inside the Marshall Student Center at the University of South Florida on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Tampa. USF has been dubbed the “fastest-rising” university in the nation after moving up 78 spots in the U.S. News & World Report rankings over the last decade. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

One of the system’s goals is to ensure that Pell students make up 30% of undergraduates at every university by 2025 — a mark the University of Florida and Florida State have missed every year since 2014. Meanwhile, the state’s lesser-known schools have been picking up the slack, taking on the job of educating the state’s poorer students.

“There’s a disturbing trend,” board member Eric Silagy said. “As Florida State and UF have increased in the ranking, it is tough to meet the goal and the trend is going the wrong way.”

Money and metrics matter

It’s no accident that Florida’s public universities are gaining national prestige.

In 2014, the Board of Governors adopted a performance-based funding model, which rewards universities financially for meeting certain benchmarks.

Among the factors it measures: graduation rates, with a premium on getting students into the work world faster; wages earned after graduation; and the share of undergraduate students with a Pell grant.

These are some of the same metrics U.S. News uses in its rankings. But some of them are at odds with each other — and work against the goal of admitting more low-income students, a point on which researchers and administrators agree.

For example, one way to boost a university’s graduation rates is to admit more students with better SAT scores and GPAs coming out of high school. But that lowers the proportion of Pell grant students coming in, said University of Florida researcher Justin Ortagus, who has studied the unintended consequences of performance-based funding in higher education.

“The No. 1 predictor of how well you perform on the SAT is how much money your parents make,” he said.

The principle holds true for Florida families, according to data from 2016, the last year SAT scores were reported by income. Students from families making more than $200,000 a year scored 130 points higher in math on average and 110 points higher on critical reading than did students from families that earned less than $20,000.

It’s a dynamic clearly at play as Florida’s top universities strive for metrics that bring more money and higher rankings.

As students arrived in August for the fall semester, a USF news release touted “the largest and strongest academic incoming class of first-year students in the university’s nearly 70-year history.”

The freshmen class of 2022 had higher GPAs and standardized test scores than last year’s group, plus a 24.7% increase in National Merit Scholars, USF said.

The University of Florida and Florida State also have worked to bring in more high performers.

In 2014 at UF, about one in four newly admitted students had an SAT math score lower than 600. By 2020 it was less than one in 10.

Florida State went in the same direction during that period, from 45% of freshmen scoring under 600 to 25% — all of it helping to lower the share of Pell students.

“So while Pell grants are really important, prioritizing them in admissions doesn’t match with the strategy to have world-class research universities,” said Christopher Mullins, strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes education access.

“That’s where institutions are stuck.”

Two students walk across the Florida State University campus in Tallahassee. The school stands at No. 19 in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of public universities. [ AP ]

Higher-income students may have more access to test preparation services, which can result in average score gains of over 100 points, according to a 2017 study conducted by The College Board. Intensive programs at The Princeton Review and PrepScholar can cost thousands of dollars.

Also, higher-income parents who attended college often are more involved in their children’s academic life and better able to guide them toward resources and activities that universities look for, said Mindy Edgeman, who has worked for seven years as a Hillsborough County Public Schools guidance counselor.

“With more money often comes a greater degree of connectedness,” Edgeman said. That means parents can help arrange prestigious volunteer opportunities, internships and summer jobs that help their children stand out.

Andrews, the Pinellas student, wasn’t one of those kids who could afford test prep or gain ready access to internships. She grew up poor in Palm Harbor, raised by a single mother who worked as a nanny. She helped with family expenses, holding down a job at Panera Bread while attending East Lake High, a suburban school of about 2,300 students where the graduation rate hovers around 99%.

Money for an SAT tutor wasn’t there, and between work and school she didn’t have time for the extracurriculars required to boost her academic resume.

“I didn’t have the stats to go to state school off the bat,” Andrews said.

Universities make an effort to prioritize diversity, but the reality is that wealthier families can afford to make their children more attractive candidates, said Ortagus, the UF researcher.

Without some adjustment in priorities, he said, “this trend will continue to happen as institutions continue to focus on college rankings.”

Missing out on a good deal

For the low-income students left on the sidelines, the stakes can be high. They’re missing out on an opportunity that, according to the numbers, could give them a tangible edge after graduation — financially and socially.

University of Florida graduates have the highest median pay among the state’s public universities, earning about $51,000 per year after graduation, according to Department of Education data. The school also offers the lowest average out-of-pocket cost for students who receive federal aid — about $5,000 a year after grants and scholarships.

“If you are fortunate enough to get into the University of Florida, your return on investment is likely to pay off really quickly,” said Michael Itzkowitz, senior fellow at Third Way, a public policy think tank that examines higher education’s impact on opportunity, among other issues.

For a report released earlier this year, Third Way developed an “economic mobility index” that rated colleges based on how well they serve their low-income students. The University of Florida, Florida State and the University of South Florida all finished in the top 20%.

The report calculated a “price-to-earnings premium” measuring how much a school’s graduates earn above the typical high school graduate, and how long it would take them to recoup their college costs using the added income.

It found that UF graduates, for example, get an earnings boost of $37,084 and could recoup their college costs in less than six months. Florida State offers the second-best deal in the state with an earnings premium of $28,384 that, according to the index, allows students to get back what they spent on college in less than a year.

Florida’s elite institutions aren’t the only schools that offer a great education, Itzkowitz said. All of the state’s public universities rank within the top tier of his criteria for social mobility.

“There are really good rates of return for lower income students at a number of different institutions across the state of Florida,” he said. “That’s something that Florida should be really recognized for.”

But to benefit, low-income students have to get accepted.

That happens more often at the University of Central Florida and Florida International University. Both have large shares of Pell students, filling the gap left by their high-flying sister schools.

UCF prides itself on enrolling more Pell-eligible students than all Ivy League schools combined — more than 21,000 during the 2019–20 school year, according to federal data

The statistic is not a fluke, said Paul Dosal, who recently became UCF’s senior vice president for student success after working for years in the same role at USF.

“It takes a lot of institutional and state effort to ensure we have that diversity,” he said. “It doesn’t happen by accident. Universities need to plan for that. They need to support those students, they need to recruit them, they need to graduate them.”

While higher wages after graduation are a big plus, Florida’s elite universities also offer social connections, according to Mullins, the Lumina Foundation strategist. That can matter as much as what students learn in class, and graduates from Florida’s elite institutions often go on to hold positions of power in the state.

Andrews, the East Lake High graduate, spotted the value of going to a well-regarded state school, though her circumstances required a non-traditional route. She attended St. Petersburg College for two years, earned an associate degree and was accepted at UF.

“When I got there I was overwhelmed. It’s huge, it’s a giant campus,” she said. “In a lot of ways it felt really clique-y and upper class.”

As a transfer student, she felt like she had to catch up to peers who had been there since freshman year. But that turned into motivation.

“I realized I only have two years here to get as much as I can out of this amazing place,” said Andrews, an environmental conservation major. “But I hit the ground running, I got into the honors society and published my own research.”

After graduating from UF in 2020, she entered law school at the University of Vermont, where she remains a student.

Throughout her four years in Florida higher education Andrews relied on Pell grants, which generally go to families earning less than $60,000 a year. A majority of those earn less than $35,000.

“If you look at the data, University of Florida students do extremely well once they get there,” said Ortagus, the UF researcher. He noted that Pell students are narrowing the gap with their higher income peers when it comes to graduation rates.

“The issue is getting them in the door,” he said.

‘We need to deliver’

One factor, according to state officials, is that more higher-income students want to attend Florida’s elite institutions while many low-income students are exploring other options.

“There’s a lot of competition, especially for the high-performing low-income students,” said Christy England, the State University System’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. “They can get scholarships to go in a lot of different directions, so that makes a lot of difference for them.”

Florida schools are “competing with Harvard, Yale, Duke,” said Board of Governors member Alan Levine.

Another factor may be that Florida’s public universities are banned from taking race and income into account in admissions decisions.

Universities can target certain high schools or neighborhoods to increase applications from low-income students, but that doesn’t always translate to higher enrollment in the fall.

Low-income students face increased competition in general, said University of Florida president Kent Fuchs, speaking at a recent Board of Governors meeting.

“It’s not just on the needy student side,” he said. “As the stature of all our universities increases … students who previously didn’t want to come to our institution now want to come.”

Fuchs said UF hired additional enrollment staff for the 2022–23 academic year, part of a larger effort to attract low-income students. The results will become clear soon, but Fuchs said he expected the share of Pell students to jump by 9 percent.

University of Florida president Kent Fuchs celebrates during an announcement on Sept. 13, 2021, that the school was ranked a Top 5 public university by U.S. News & World Report. [ The Florida Channel ]

Describing the plan in more detail, UF board of trustees chairperson Mori Hosseini told the Faculty Senate last month that the school is setting aside $5 million a year to expand scholarships and devise ways to enroll more low-income students. The strategies will include personal calls to prospective students and working closer with them to sort out a financial plan for attending.

“An education and a degree from the University of Florida is a life-changing experience,” Hosseini said. “More academically qualified students should be able to access that opportunity. They’ve done their end of the bargain, and we need to deliver for them.”

Universities have a moral obligation to stay committed to social mobility, but enrolling Pell students is not enough, said Dosal, the UCF vice president. Through grants from the Lumina Foundation, UCF has invested in coaching and college planning initiatives, particularly for transfer students — a large source of Pell students.

“It starts with creating a culture of care,” Dosal said.

It would be “a shame” if Florida’s university system didn’t address the issues that are keeping low-income students away from its campuses, said Andrews, the Pell student who made it to UF and then law school.

“There are people out there like me who just need this opportunity to apply themselves and flourish, because that’s really what happened to me — I flourished,” she said.

“For the first time in my life I was proud of myself and the life I was building for myself.”

Ian Hodgson and Divya Kumar cover higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.