Florida’s three largest urban research universities, serving more than 60 percent of the state’s population, are working in partnership to help more students graduate from college while boosting economic development around the state.

To put the project into high gear, the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities’ three members – Florida International University (Miami), the University of Central Florida (Orlando) and the University of South Florida (Tampa) – have hired an executive director to coordinate their efforts to work together to achieve accomplishments greater than they can alone.

“My hope is that through the consortium we can enhance the collective influence of the three universities to drive economic development in Florida and to amplify that impact for generations to come,” said Michael Preston, director of UCF’s Office of Student Involvement, who will begin his new job as the consortium executive director in early July.

The consortium, which was formed last year, aims to produce more career-ready graduates with lower debt, better training and adaptable skill sets. It plans to do this by creating synergies between the universities and the public, private and non-profit sector businesses that require a growing supply of qualified graduates.

“In today’s economy it is not enough to simply provide access to higher education. We must be able to guide students on how they can leverage their education into a career-focused destination,” Preston added. “We hope that when employers in Florida are ready to hire new employees, they will think of FIU, UCF and USF first.”

These universities currently enroll about 162,000 students, which is 47 percent of the enrollment of the 12 institutions of the State University System of Florida. Together, the three universities serve 63 percent of the state’s population, including 70 percent of the minority population and 25 percent of the state’s first-generation students.

Early steps taken by the consortium are creating a system of sharing information about available technology internships in the three metropolitan areas and pushing to increase the number of accounting graduates, which are both high-demand fields in Florida.

The universities have committed more than $1 million to the consortium, and the Helios Education Foundation has pledged $500,000 over five years.

Preston has been at UCF since 2011. In his role as director of the Office of Student Involvement, he provides leadership and support to the Student Government Association and other student organizations, and he helps design programs that provide learning opportunities that empower students to succeed through campus involvement.

He also teaches in the UCF higher education program on the subject of organization and administration in higher education.

Preston, who was hired after a national search, was selected in part because of a program he helped create that assists students in connecting their campus involvement with their academic major to identify their best career pathway, said Maribeth Ehasz, UCF vice president for Student Development and Enrollment Services.

He previously was the director of student life at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. He graduated from high school in Homestead, Fla., and earned his undergraduate degree in English from East Carolina University – where he was a first-generation college student – his master’s in higher education from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and his doctorate in higher education from Texas A&M at Commerce.