The elephant in the room is a number. 58,587. That number, or perhaps the fact that the University of Central Florida is the second-largest university in the country, is what most people know about UCF.
FACT: If UCF was a city, it would be larger than Winter Park and Oviedo—combined.
UCF’s size is the one thing that is difficult to avoid when you ask people for their impressions of the university. Of course, Americans like big. Big buildings. Big corporations. So, why not a big university?
FACT: The UCF student body could fill the world’s largest cruise ship more than nine times.
What people think of UCF’s size depends on who is talking. That number may be stated with a sense of superiority. Or skepticism. Many are positively boastful about UCF’s rapid growth. (UCF opened in 1968 with fewer than 2,000 students.) For them, that number is a measure of success.
FACT: It would take four Empire State Buildings to house all of UCF’s students.
The skeptics, however, will tell you that size is irrelevant. They will tell you that, despite its great size, UCF has not yet had a great impact. They will tell you that other things are more important than size. Research funding. Endowments. Sports championships. They will even speculate that the rapid growth has come at a price.
FACT: When it comes to that number, there are those who think it means everything, and those who are certain it means nothing. Both groups are wrong.
When you travel the country promoting Orlando, you can get a sense of how UCF is viewed by others. Leslie Hielema, president and CEO of Orlando, Inc. (Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce), confirms that the prevailing perception is all about size. “They either know that UCF is the second-largest university in the country or that UCF is huge.”
As Hielema acknowledges, people talk about UCF’s size because so much has been written about its growth (the Google search term “UCF second-largest school in the nation” yields 162,000 results). But while UCF’s immense enrollment figure casts a big shadow, that isn’t the only number that people should be talking about. These are equally striking:
“Between 1999 and early 2009, the UCF Business Incubation Program facilitated the growth and development of at least 100 new high-tech companies in the Central Florida region.” (2009 Real Estate Research Consultants report)
In 2010, UCF was ranked third in the “Patent Power Rankings” by the IEEE, the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology.
And, according to the U.S. News & World Report 2012 best colleges ranking, UCF is the No. 4 “up-and-coming” school in the country.
We need to get the message out that big isn’t bad. We need to tell the story of what big means, why it’s a benefit.
Each year, more and more students trust UCF to prepare them for graduate school or their careers.
Despite this critical acclaim, parents of prospective students are still acutely aware of the size of the university, says Gordon Chavis, associate vice president for undergraduate admissions, student financial assistance and student outreach programs. When questioned, however, his response is simple, “I tell them that our size affords us opportunities.”
Chavis backs up his statement with a litany of programs, activities and clubs that have been designed to give this extraordinarily large school a more intimate feel. Prime examples are UCF’s living-learning communities. These residential units allow like-minded students to live with, socialize with, and motivate each other, and include such groups as EXCEL, which supports freshmen and sophomores in mathematics and science courses, STEP (Supporting Teacher Education Preprofessionals), and Nursing @ Nike. Couple that with the more than 400 official student clubs—ranging from the Rock Climbing Club to the Moroccan American League—and the point Chavis makes becomes clear.
Because of UCF’s size, there are opportunities for everyone to fit in. “I think the size is a good thing,” sophomore Cynthia Florentino says. “UCF has really helped me grow as a person.”
“We need to get the message out that big isn’t bad. We need to tell the story of what big means, why it’s a benefit,” says Maribeth Ehasz, vice president of student development and enrollment services.
|1||Arizona State University||59,794|
|2||University of Central Florida||58,578|
|3||Ohio State University||56,867|
|4||University of Minnesota||52,557|
|5||University of Texas at Austin||51,112|
|6||Texas A&M University||50,051|
|7||University of Florida||49,589|
|8||Michigan State University||47,800|
|9||Pennsylvania State University||44,485|
My goal isn’t necessarily about growth or even access. I want UCF to be every applicant’s first choice.
When pressed to answer the question of whether size matters, or more specifically, whether growing so large was the goal in the first place, the subject turns to a single word, “access.”
“That is President Hitt’s real goal,” Chavis says. “From the very beginning, he has always been committed to giving as many people as possible access to a college education.”
Maribeth Ehasz agrees that access is the aim, but viewed through the lens of someone whose mission is to nurture those 58,587 students, she sees a bigger picture. “Our goal,” she says, “is access and success.” She insists that these two objectives are inseparable. “We are concerned with giving [students] a quality education and a positive experience.”
Increasing the quality of incoming freshmen is getting tougher and tougher, so UCF is reaching out to high schools to provide programs to help them prepare their students for college.
The assessment of UCF’s growth would be incomplete without a closer inspection of the quality of students admitted. Who are these 18-year-olds who are flocking to UCF in record numbers?
While it is well known that enrollment has increased dramatically, what is lesser known is that test scores of incoming freshman have also risen steadily.
FACT: Over the last 10 years, enrollment at UCF has risen by 63 percent and the average SAT scores of the incoming class have risen 98 points.
FACT: UCF’s fall 2011 freshman class included 74 National Merit Scholars, which ranks UCF 34th in the nation.
“If the quality were to dip, then we will rightly become upset about the size of UCF” says Gordon Chavis.
President Hitt agrees. In his 2011 “State of the University” address, he stated that “Growth at UCF is about improving the quality of life for our students, their families and our city-state.”
Giving more students access to a college degree is admirable, but complicated. According to a May 2011 New York Times article, “Employment rates for new college graduates have fallen sharply in the last two years … only half of the jobs landed by these new graduates even require a college degree, reviving debates about whether higher education is ‘worth it’ after all.”
The article explains that salaries for college graduates have gone down: “The median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who entered the work force from 2006 to 2008.” The picture gets even darker when you consider that 41 percent of UCF’s 2010 graduates completed their degrees owing an average of $18,966 in student debt.
Yet, Floridians still covet a college education. According to the State University System, enrollment in Florida’s public universities rose 2.6 percent during the 2011–2012 academic year. And for good reason. State data shows that high school graduates earn an average of $28,000 a year, while those with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $68,400 annually. Plus, with competition for jobs being fierce in this down economy, many employers won’t even interview an applicant who doesn’t have a college degree.
So, there may be many reasons that students desire a college education, but perhaps the real question is whether Florida’s businesses and employers desire more college graduates. The Lumina Foundation, an independent organization working to increase college graduation rates, has been studying that very issue.
PROJECTION: By 2018, 59 percent of Florida jobs will require a college credential.
FACT: In 2010, only 36.5 percent of adults in Florida had college degrees.
PROJECTION: By 2025, only 42.6 percent of adults in Florida will have college degrees.
The Lumina Foundation’s figures imply that providing greater access to a college education is a necessary goal if we, as a state, are going to grow economically.
All this discussion of growth naturally leads to the question of “How big is too big?” President Hitt has stated, “There is no magic number at which enrollment must stop, but the Orlando campus does have limits on how many students it can serve.” So, is infrastructure the only thing that could slow the university’s growth? Or, could that be overcome through the expansion of UCF’s regional campuses or by increasing the number of online courses?
As Chavis, Hielema and even the students we spoke with have all implied, maybe we just need to change the subject. Maybe the question of whether size matters is simply not relevant. Ehasz insists that UCF’s commitment to growth is simply in the university’s DNA. “I wouldn’t stop the growth,” she says. “It’s part of who we are … always striving for access and success.”✦
There is no magic number at which enrollment must stop, but the Orlando campus does have limits on how many students it can serve.