Less than two weeks after the University of South Florida unexpectedly announced it would phase out its undergraduate education programs due to shrinking enrollment and budget cuts, the Pinellas County School Board unanimously approved a resolution urging the university to reconsider its decision.
The resolution, introduced at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, outlined several reasons why USF should keep its undergraduate education programs intact, including the fact that it is a major pipeline for new Pinellas County teachers. According to superintendent Mike Grego, the district hires between 600 and 800 new teachers per year and roughly 25 percent of them come from USF. He also noted that the state is experiencing a teacher shortage and said that four-year universities like USF need to stand ready to help meet the demand, which can only be expected to increase in the future.
“As the state continues to grow, this university needs to take a different look and work with districts in terms of reimagining and repurposing their College of Education so it’s a growing college and a college that can be respected throughout the US,” said Grego, who has been working closely with superintendents from Pasco, Polk, Hillsborough and Manatee Counties since learning of USF’s plans to phase out its undergraduate education programs and shift its focus to graduate-level education.
School officials have repeatedly pointed to declining enrollment programs as a main reason for phasing out its undergraduate programs. According to USF data, over the past 10 years, total enrollment in the College of Education has dropped from 5,117 students to 2,384 students and undergraduate enrollment has fallen from 2,893 to 1,066. At the same time, USF is facing nearly $37 million in budget cuts over the next nine months, and the College of Education will experience a $6.8 million financial reduction over the next two years. Those factors have caused administrators to look at alternative approaches to educating teachers.
At an Oct. 22 meeting of USF St. Petersburg campus’s Campus Advisory Board where Grego shared the concerns of superintendents across the Tampa Bay region, Provost Ralph Wilcox said that the school is “reimagining and reconfiguring” itself and stressed that USF is not abandoning teacher education.
“On the contrary, we’re upping our game at the graduate level as we seek to meet the needs of our critical K-12 partners,” he said. “We believe our talented faculty and staff can best serve the needs of our community through world-class graduate education and research.”
Undergraduates currently enrolled in the college “will be fully supported” on their journey to graduation, Wilcox said when USF officially announced its plans Oct. 15. He pointed to other avenues for college-bound students interested in pursuing education degrees such as attending state colleges or going through alternative certification programs.
USF spokesman Adam Freeman said that teacher preparation at USF can still be provided through a five-year program that would award a Master’s degree and teacher certification. The school is also exploring continuing to admit undergraduates in education to focus on specific areas where USF has other programmatic synergies leading to an advanced degree and “master teacher” credential.
At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Grego pointed out that a number of schools in the prestigious Association of American Universities – a group of the top 65 public and private universities in North America which USF hopes to join – have thriving undergraduate programs.
“They are all extremely capable of providing robust undergraduate degree programs without sacrificing the need for continued research and having preeminent status,” he said. “We believe it doesn’t have to be an ‘either or,’ and we want to serve this community through our university system and we’re willing to help in that process.”
USF is in the early stages of considering ways to reconfigure the university’s continued commitment to supporting education, Freeman said. In the coming weeks, Dr. Judith Ponticell, interim dean of the College of Education and other college leaders will work closely with faculty, staff and key stakeholders in K-12 education to prepare a more complete plan for the future of education at USF.
They will also be reaching out to superintendents, along with educational organizations and other groups, to listen to their ideas and ensure their voices are heard as part of the ongoing process. Grego said he plans to meet with other area superintendents Friday morning on USF’s Tampa campus to get the conversation started.
School board vice chairman Eileen Long, a USF alumna, is hopeful the school will find a way to keep its undergraduate programs.
“USF is a wonderful school and it serves our community so well,” she said. “We need teachers. They are the foundation of everything. This just breaks my heart, and they need to think twice.”