With help from UF, FSU, Scott reaches university rankings goal
When Gov. Rick Scott campaigned for re-election in 2014, he promised to keep Florida public universities competitive in rankings. Scott aimed to achieve "the first top 10 research public university and a second ranked public university in the top 25."
Four years later, as his tenure comes to a close, we checked if he made good on his promise.
U.S. News and World Report releases its Best National Colleges list every year with Ivy League schools like Princeton taking the top spot. U.S. News ranks schools on 16 metrics, including graduation rates, class sizes, faculty salary, financial resources and student standardized testing scores.
Compared to all national universities, both public and private, Florida's top two universities — University of Florida and Florida State University — are ranked Nos. 35 and 70.
However, Scott's promise refers to the list's public university category. In September 2018, U.S. News announced UF reached the top eight and FSU rose to No. 26 in its 2019 list.
"When I took office, the University of Florida ranked 17th among public universities in the nation, and I challenged them in 2014 to become a top-10 university," Scott said in a release. "For the second year in a row, UF has surpassed that goal."
In 2013, UF and FSU, the state's No.1 and No. 2 public universities, were ranked Nos. 14 and 40 in the 2014 edition of the U.S. News and World Report Top Public Schools list.
When we last updated Scott's promise, UF bested the University of Miami, a private institution, in US News' 2016 national rankings when UF jumped from 48th to 47th place. FSU tied with University of Alabama for 43rd.
Both UF and FSU officially began shooting toward their top 10 and top 25 goals, respectively, in 2013, after Scott signed a bill granting UF and FSU preeminence status, which provides millions of dollars worth of additional funding.
Florida universities must meet 11 out of 12 standards that track academic achievements, like a freshman retention rate of 90 percent and a graduation rate of 60 percent, to be considered preeminent. The University of South Florida was granted preeminence in June 2018 and is No. 58 in U.S. News' public schools list.
After UF cracked the top 10 in 2017 — when it tied for ninth place with University of California-Irvine and UC-San Diego — UF President Kent Fuchs and the Board of Trustees announced the university's next goal: top 5.
The increase in rankings is thanks to an emphasis on affordability and academic quality, said Brittany Wise, spokeswoman for the State University System of Florida Board of Governors.
Although FSU was one spot away from cracking the top 25, both of Florida's top schools have jumped a combined 20 spots since Scott's re-election. We rate this Promise Kept.
Board of Governors State University System of Florida, 2019-20 Legislative Budget Request presentation, Sept. 13, 2018
U.S. News and World Report, "How U.S. News calculated the 2019 Best Colleges rankings," Sept. 9, 2018
U.S. News and World Report, 2019 Public university rankings
Florida State University press release, "Florida State announces plan to continue rise in national rankings," Feb. 5, 2013
University of Florida press release, "UF first in Florida to crack U.S. News list of top 10 best public universities," Sept. 13, 2017
University of South Florida press release, "USF officially designated as 'preeminent' by Florida Board of Governors," June 28, 2018
Florida Statutes, Preeminent state research universities program (1001.7065)
Phone interview with Brittany Wise, Florida Board of Governors spokeswoman, Sept. 9, 2018
Email interview with Brittany Wise, Florida Board of Governors spokeswoman, Sept. 27, 2018
U.S. News and World Report spreadsheet, Top Public Schools 2013 to 2018, Accessed Sept. 21, 2018
Rick Scott aims to improve UF and FSU rankings
Gov. Rick Scott relishes the chance to compete with other states whether it's about jobs, taxes or higher education. During his 2014 reelection campaign, he promised to give Florida competitive edge over other states by achieving "the first top 10 research public university and a second ranked public university in the top 25."
As Scott holds a "Degrees to Jobs" higher education summit in Orlando May 24-26, we sought to check on his progress.
The University of Florida and Florida State University both have publicly stated goals to be ranked in the Top 10 and Top 25, respectively, in U.S. News and World Report, said Brittany Davis, a spokeswoman for the State University System of Florida Board of Governors.
In its 2016 rankings of public universities, the report ranked the University of Florida tied in 14th place with Pennsylvania State University. FSU was ranked 43rd -- a tie with University of Alabama.
In an effort to boost the standing of the universities, Scott earlier this year signed into law $30 million earmarked for "preeminent universities" and "emerging preeminent universities" and $500 million for performance funding -- $225 million from the state and $275 million from the universities.
The money can be used to hire faculty, research, grow programs in certain fields and to ensure students graduate on time and are prepared to enter the workforce. Those are factors that U.S. News and World Report takes into consideration in its rankings, Davis said.
We asked some higher education experts about whether Scott's goal is realistic.
"Our rankings are relatively stable from year to year," Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News told PolitiFact Florida. "It is generally unusual to see a school move drastically over a two or three year period."
An elevated ranking for UF is not impossible, said John Thelin, professor at the University of Kentucky, and author of A History of American Higher Education.
"But who in the list ahead of it is going to go down?" he said. Other universities ahead of Florida include prestigious schools such as the University of California campuses and the flagship universities in Virginia, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
"Raising FSU up the ladder probably is a tougher task," Thelin said.
There are multiple other rankings in addition to U.S. News and World Report that focus on various aspects such as affordability, career services or best for Latinos. For example, Forbes rated UF No. 3 for best value and Kiplinger ranked FSU No. 16 among public universities in its 2016 Best College Values (for in-state students).
Some experts we interviewed suggested we also examine additional rankings particular to UF since Scott said he wanted a "top 10 research public university."
The National Science Foundation ranks universities on research and development expenditures. If we remove the private universities from the list, UF would rank about 18th.
Roger Geiger, a professor of higher education at Penn State, said Scott has set an important goal to raise the quality of Florida's universities.
"This is all too rare among state governments, and yet it is vital if public universities are to keep up with a highly competitive system of global universities," Geiger said. "Unfortunately, he seems fixated on rankings rather than quality per se. It might take disasters in several states, particularly California, for UF to reach the top 10. It would certainly be better if the governor could set some reasonable qualitative goals, not relative ones."
Since the rankings change little from year to year, it may be a longshot for UF and FSU to climb significantly in the rankings before Scott leaves office in January 2019. We will check in again on his progress before he leaves office. But he has taken some steps with funding toward his goal.
We rate this promise In the Works.
U.S. News and World Report, Public university rankings, 2016
Gov. Rick Scott, Degrees to Jobs summit, May 24-26
University of Florida, Rankings, 2012-16
Times Higher Education, University World Rankings, 2015
National Science Foundation, Rankings by R and D expenditures, 2014
Miami Herald, "Gov. Rick Scott, lawmakers tangle with universities over tuition costs," March 12, 2014
PolitiFact Florida, "Florida agency's misleading attack on California's minimum wage hike," May 4, 2016
Interview, Brittany Davis, Florida Board of Governors spokeswoman, May 10, 2016
Interview, Robert Morse, chief data strategist at U.S. News, May 13, 2016
Interview, John Thelin, Professor at the University of Kentucky, and author of A History of American Higher Education published by Johns Hopkins U Press, May 20, 2016
Interview, Roger Geiger, Distinguished Professor of Education (Higher Education) and Senior Scientist at Penn State University, May 21, 2016
Interview, Dennis Schnittker, Florida State University spokesman, May 23, 2016
Interview, Paul Bernard, University of Florida spokesman, May 20, 2016