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Education

Why Engineering Degrees Still Take Four Years, And Other Lessons For A Florida Lawmaker On A College

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park, right, listens to a presentation about the progress Florida Atlantic University has made in improving its graduation rate in recent years. Jones' campus tour in Boca Raton took place before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its updated recommendation that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors.
State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from West Park, right, listens to a presentation about the progress Florida Atlantic University has made in improving its graduation rate in recent years. Jones' campus tour in Boca Raton took place before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced its updated recommendation that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones spent the summer touring public universities around the state.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones introduced himself to a conference room full of administrators at Florida Atlantic University — but, of course, everyone assembled for his visit already knew who he was.

“Welcome back home!” President John Kelly greeted Jones, a Democrat from West Park who sits on the Senate education committee.

“Glad to be here!” Jones replied.

In the legislative offseason, Jones decided to tour all 12 of Florida’s state universities, in hopes of figuring out how he could use his position in the Legislature to help them thrive. FAU in Boca Raton was one of his first stops, and, as Kelly referenced, the trip was a homecoming for Jones in more ways than one.

Jones earned his master’s degree at FAU, and he’s working on his doctorate there in higher ed leadership. Jones even worked there early in his career; he taught biology and chemistry at FAU’s own high school.

“It really was at FAU High where I learned that you just can't teach kids just for them to learn — but what are they gaining from that knowledge?” Jones shared during his daylong visit.

Sitting next to Kelly at the head of a conference table, Jones flipped through several typed pages of questions he wanted to ask.

One of things he wanted to learn at each university was about the so-called “equity gap.” In other words, are Black and Hispanic students performing as well as their white peers, or is there a “gap”? If so, what is the school doing to help those students overcome racial or socioeconomic inequities that affect their success?

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“I get calls all the time from vendors that are like, ‘Hey, can we come to you and help you to close your equity gap?’” Assistant Provost James Capp told Jones. “And I said, ‘You should do some research before you pick up the phone. Can I tell you how we did it?’”

Capp explained that FAU had closed that gap in recent years. Now, Black and Hispanic students graduate at higher rates than the university average. Overall, FAU’s four-year graduation rate for students who are in college for the first time is 47.5%. That’s about average for public universities in Florida.

Just a few years ago, though, FAU’s graduation rate was as low as 25.6%.

During Kelly’s interview for the president’s job in 2014, he wondered if the graduation rate then was a typo.

“Who has a graduation rate in the teens?” Capp said. “It’s embarrassing. It really is.”

Capp said the university used to pride itself on admitting most people who applied — providing access.

“This is a false narrative,” he said. “What you’re providing access to is debt.”

That admissions strategy changed, in part, because the state started funding public universities based on their performance. Now, state universities compete for funding based on measures like graduation rates, what percentage of students get a job or go on to graduate school and how much debt graduates have.

FAU landed near the bottom of the rankings in 2014, the first year they came out. That meant losing $7 million.

“Our CFO was digging into reserves in order to keep the lights on,” said Capp. “We were calling up the county and saying, ‘Do you guys take IOUs?’”

To address the root problem, administrators created what they called "SWAT teams." The groups of professors, budget experts and data analysts worked to figure out what was keeping individual students from progressing and come up with solutions for their problems.

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Jessica Bakeman
Florida Atlantic University's main campus in Boca Raton.


“This is crazy,” Jones told Capp. “As a higher ed nerd, I’m enjoying this entire presentation right now.”

Kelly suggested Jones might have found the topic for his doctoral dissertation.

Jones laughed but said he was seriously interested.

FAU improved its graduation rate because it had to in order to survive under the performance-based funding system. But while the funding scheme has motivated universities to do better, Jones wanted to find out if there are also downsides to the fact that four-year graduation rates are weighted so heavily.

For example, undergraduate architecture students take classes for five years.

“It seems like you get penalized for that,” Jones told the administrators. “Do you believe that performance-based funding locks you in? Even if you wanted to add a fifth year, you get nicked for it?”

Brad Danilowicz, FAU’s provost, said administrators weigh whether to increase the size of the architecture program to bring in more tuition revenue, knowing the school will “take the hit” on the performance-funding metrics.

“We will grow it, even though we cringe,” Danilowicz said.

Kelly said the expectations for engineers are changing. Often, engineering students need more time to complete an internship or learn a special skill like data analytics, he said. The shift is raising the possibility of a five-year program in that discipline, as well.

“Engineering is getting that way,” Kelly said. “Other universities are putting in that fifth year, and we won’t, because we have to graduate those kids in four years.”

Jones said he would consider offering flexibility so universities are more free to expand degree requirements when the job market calls for it.

“How do we not penalize schools who really just want to push out good, knowledgeable students in that particular field, like engineering?” Jones said. “You're not rushing students along, but you're giving them time to actually gain the knowledge necessary.”

Jones recently toured the University of Central Florida and additional stops include the University of Florida and University of North Florida.
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