In a wide-ranging “State of the University” discussion Wednesday, UCF President John C. Hitt touched on topics as varied as the transformative power of higher education, his belief that a university has a responsibility to lift up its community and – when it comes to the size of the student body – you can be both big and good.

Hitt, the University of Central Florida’s president since 1992, changed the format of his annual address this year, forgoing a written speech for a more informal “fireside chat” with Grant Heston, vice president for Communications and Marketing. Heston asked questions of his own and some submitted by audience members gathered in the Pegasus Ballroom of the Student Union. (Watch video here.)

With a student population of roughly 63,300 this fall, UCF is the second-largest university in the country, having grown by more than 40 percent over the past decade. But Hitt said his goal for UCF is not to be biggest.

“Just picking an arbitrary goal like being the largest…I think is really foolish,” he said. “I want us to be big enough so that we can meet the need, and large enough so that we can accommodate reasonably the demand for a UCF education.”

Hitt dismissed the notion that big is bad when it comes to college, pointing to performance funding allocated to state universities in Florida based on measures of achievement, quality and student success. For the last several years, the biggest universities – including UCF – have been at the top of the funding list.

“The numbers were telling us something: That you can be both big and good,” Hitt said. “I’ve always challenged people who are convinced that size of a university is negatively related to quality. Show me the data. I think you can have really good large universities and really good small ones, just as you can have not-so-good large and small ones. It’s really a question of the quality and intent of the faculty and staff of an institution.”


Hitt and UCF vice president for Communications and Marketing Grant Heston. Photo by Nicholas Russett/UCF

At the same time UCF has increased in size, its incoming freshman class has continually improved by measures including average SAT scores and GPAs. The 2015 fall freshman class posted an average SAT (reading and math) score of 1261 and an average weighted high school GPA of 4.0. The class also includes 69 National Merit Scholars.

Hitt noted that only about half of UCF students graduate with student loan debt, at least in part because tuition and fees are low by national standards. At the same time, he urged students to consider the earning power of their chosen major when deciding whether to take on loan debt.

One reason for the UCF’s growth is because the university has an obligation to meet the needs of both students and Central Florida, Hitt said. The community needs an educated workforce.

“We certainly meet that criteria. We graduate more than 15,000 people a year,” he said. “We also produce intellectual property and art and cultural treasures. There’s a lot we do, and if we do it in such a way that we strengthen our community economically and culturally, then we can be good citizens of as well as participants in the Orlando community.”

At the same time, students benefit beyond their job prospects. Those with a higher education earn more, and are healthier and more likely to vote and participate in civic organizations, he said.

“They have a better understanding of the larger world that comes from a good general education,” Hitt said. “It is transformative. And if you get one generation to go to college, it’s almost a certainty that the next generations do.”

As the first one in his family to attend college, Hitt is a good example of how higher education transforms lives. The university continues to expand access to first-generation students, and push for donations that fund first-generation scholarships. Those donations are matched dollar for dollar by the state.

“I think there’s an energy that comes from first-generation students,” Hitt said. “As a group, I think you’ll find a sense of wanting to be successful and a willingness to work very hard to get there.”