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Graduation, Retention Help UWF Become A Top-Performing University


For the third year in a row, the University of West Florida has been designated as a top-performing public university in the state, this year landing in the top two.

Officially, the university landed in second in the Florida Board of Governor’s performance-based funding model results.

“And, it feels good to be there,” said UWF President Dr. Martha Saunders. “And, as you may have read recently, Florida was named the top system in the country (U.S. News & World Report). So, when you’re at the top of the top, it feels pretty good.”

UWF scored 94 points out of the 100-point scale; finishing with its highest point total in the six year history of the metrics and just one point behind the University of Florida.

Last year, UWF earned the third highest score with 86 points. In 2017, UWF ranked third with 82 points. Those were marked improvements from the 2014 inaugural year for the performance metrics, when the University ranked last.  

With the higher ranking, Dr. Saunders explains the University of West Florida is in a good position to receive the funds expected, although the formula is different this year.

“The bottom three has gone away, so that also ended the bonus that the top three got, which is unfortunate when you’re in the top three,” said Saunders. “But, we still get performance-based funding. We’re getting money we would not ordinarily get had we not performed at a specific level.”

For the coming budget year, UWF’s funding share is expected to top $11 million.

The ranking and money are important, but so is the hard work that took place behind the scenes to get them. Saunders credits the campus-wide group she formed called "The War Room" to conduct comprehensive weekly reviews of university data and strategies.

“We realized that this is not an academic affairs issue," said Saunders. "This is not a student affairs issue. This is not finance issue. This is everybody’s issue and we’re all in it. And, that holistic look has made the overarching difference.”

With this approach, UWF improved its results in each of the 10 performance metrics, highlighted by gains in the percentage of graduates.

“(The) four-year graduation rate, we’ve really improved tremendously,” said Saunders, adding that graduation is an area administrators need to keep improving. “It’s an area we can’t take our eyes off.

Graduation rate matters and so do retention rates. 

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF
UWF President Martha Saunders

“When we talk about retention, we’re really talking about APR (Academic Progress Rate) and those are first-year students, who come back for the second year, with a GPA of 2.0 or better,” Saunders explained. She said the number of returning students improved tremendously, which makes her happy, “Because, you get your freshmen to come back, then freshmen become sophomores, sophomores become juniors, juniors become seniors and seniors become alums.”

Looking deeper into how the improvements in graduation rates and retention were achieved, President Saunders points to UWF’s continued enhancement of student support services.

The university implemented a four-year graduation strategic plan to include priority class registration and $1,000 graduation grants for students in their final semester. Also credited is the development of a stronger academic advising program.

“Students need to be given really good advice,” said Saunders. “We have added a lot of new software that improves advising, so that students can easily get to their advisors, so they can track their own progress, so the advisors can track their progress.”

Students who log on to their student portal can now see a dashboard showing graphics in red, yellow and green.

Green indicates students are on for graduation. Yellow cautions students to get going, and red means a student may be behind or have a problem and should call their advisor.

In addition to the daily advising updates, there are on campus Living Learning Communities for students who share specific majors and interests, and the university has developed a system of early alerts.

“In the past, we only had one and that’s when the faculty would say ‘Johnny’s in my class and he’s not doing really well.’ Now, we have four different times to give that alert,” Saunders said of the ability to head off problems later in the semester. She said 90% of the UWF faculty take the time to send the critical information.

Importantly, identifying students who are struggling gives the university a chance to identify exactly what’s needed to get them back on track.

According to Saunders, sometimes the student needs tutoring or help figuring out what to major in or when best to take certain classes. Sometimes they just need a little cash.

“We’ve also improved financial aid, our institutional financial aid,” she said. “And we make sure we’re distributing it to the students who need it most. Sometimes $500 makes a big difference in the student clearing the finish line.”

Another performance metric measures what happens after graduation.

More UWF bachelor’s graduates are continuing their education or finding employment opportunities. To help connect students with area employers, the institution has launched a new iHire initiative.

The university recently conferred another crop of graduates, having reached the milestone of 100,000 in the fall.

Currently, summer classes are in full swing.

Looking ahead to the fall semester, a modest uptick is expected in enrollment, which has been hovering around 13,000.

The new academic year will mark the launch of a new PhD program in robotics and intelligent systems in partnership with the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC).

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.