Make no mistake about it, Kayla Cole is going to graduate this year.
She has to so she can start a new job in the fall.
Now, thanks to a summer semester scholarship program, the University of South Florida public health major will graduate on time.
Even though Cole has already marched in this May’s commencement ceremonies, the 22-year-old from Orlando still has nine credit hours left to take during the summer.
However, Cole says those three classes would cost her around $4,000.
“So I would either take out more loans or I would take on more work hours and work a lot more harder just to be able to pay for it," she said.
Now, a USF pilot program - the Summer Degree Completion Scholarship - will pay the full tuition for students like Cole who need twelve credits or less to complete their undergraduate degrees. She was surprised when she received an email announcing the scholarship.
“I thought it was fake," she said with a laughs. "I really didn’t think it was real at all, I had to sit there and read it over and over again just to see if it was legitimate.”
The offer was indeed real.
Provost Ralph Wilcox says it’s the latest in a series of efforts to get USF students to graduate quicker. For example, the university's “Take 15” program encourages students to take 15 credit hours a semester, enabling them to reach the 120 hours required for most degrees in four years.
“We estimate for every year that a student saves going to college at the University of South Florida, that’s about $20,000 in savings," Wilcox said.
That becomes even more pronounced for out-of-state students.
Wilcox says, so far, between 150 and 200 students have signed up for the program, including a handful who received university approval to take more than 12 credit hours.
“They see the opportunity to come back to school in the summer and graduate in August as a very real advantage over having to prolong their education into the fall semester or even into fall and spring," he said.
Wilcox adds that by graduating sooner, students can get to work - another key priority for the school.
“The University of South Florida leads the state of Florida in the percentage of students that are actually employed one year after graduation," he said. "We’re very proud of that, it speaks to the demand in the marketplace and the excitement that future employers have in identifying USF graduates.”
But the timing of the summer scholarships is, at least on the surface, interesting.
Students were informed of the pilot program in May, right around the time the Summer A and C semesters were starting. That was also near when Florida lawmakers made a controversial last-minute change to state preeminence terms, taking USF out of the running for as much as 11 million dollars a year in additional state funds.
But Wilcox replies to questions about the timing of the scholarship program indirectly. He says the school is always looking at ways to improve both its four and six year graduation rates – and hopefully, the state will recognize USF for that.
“We’re going to continue to drive toward high levels of performance, levels of performance that we expect will be rewarded through performance-based funding, will be rewarded through preeminence ultimately," he said. "But much more important to us is serving the needs of our students and getting our students through and out into the next stage of their careers, whether that’s moving out into the workforce or moving onto graduate school.”
For Kayla Cole, that means she’ll be able to join the federal civic service agency AmeriCorps later this year and begin what she hopes will be a career of helping others.
“I’m so used to being comfortable and I want to be uncomfortable and I want to see what people go through and kind of connect with people and show them there’s a lot of people out here who are still compassionate about other people’s lives besides their own," she said.
The Summer USF Degree Completion Scholarship, which includes tuition, fees and access to required textbooks, is still being offered for students currently attending class or planning to attend the upcoming Summer B semester.