UCF President John C. Hitt discussed how a college degree significantly boosts the chance of social and economic mobility during his State of the University address Tuesday.

That philosophy has driven UCF’s growth to become one of the nation’s largest universities at more than 66,000 students and the leading producer of bachelor’s degrees in the country.

“There’s nothing else I’m aware of that changes a person’s life more dramatically and emphatically than a higher education,” Hitt said to a packed Pegasus Ballroom audience. “If you want to alter the trajectory of a person or a person’s a family, award at least one of them a bachelor’s degree.”

Hitt, who made diversity and inclusion one his five goals for UCF when he arrived, opened his address by discussing the university’s progress in that area. Today, minority students make up nearly half of the student body, and more minority students study at UCF today than there were total students when Hitt arrived in 1992.

“If we want our students to reach their full potential, they have to work in an atmosphere that is diverse and inclusive,” he said. “It’s inclusivity that gives students, faculty and staff members a sense of ownership of our university.”

He added: “We’ve made good progress. We’re closer to where we need to be, but we have a long way to go to achieve our full goals.”

A quarter of the current UCF student body also is the first of their families to attend college.

A first-generation college student himself, Hitt emphasized the importance of helping students who are the first in their families to attend college succeed. As one example, he mentioned the Knights Success Grant, which aids students who are close to graduation but may need help coming up with the money to pay for their final classes.

Throughout his remarks, Hitt discussed how scale, multiplied with excellence, maximizes UCF’s impact on students and the community. He also reviewed UCF’s big achievements from the past year, including the groundbreaking of the downtown campus, earning approval for a new hospital in Lake Nona, and UCF student-athletes’ success in competition and in the classroom.

In discussing UCF Downtown, President Hitt called it a “phenomenal opportunity” to live, work and study in an urban environment, and to open doors to new research, jobs and internship opportunities that thrive in downtown Orlando. The downtown campus will open in fall 2019 with 7,700 UCF and Valencia College students.

As for the new hospital that’s in partnership with Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), Hitt shared his gratitude that just 10 years after establishing the College of Medicine, its Lake Nona campus soon will add a hospital – one that will involve no state money for construction costs.

Hitt also highlighted some of the outstanding research from UCF faculty members, particularly the Planetary Sciences faculty.

Hundreds of community leaders, alumni, faculty and students joined President Hitt for his address, which was conducted in an interview format by Grant J. Heston, vice president for Communications and Marketing.

In a new twist, President Hitt answered questions submitted via video by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, three-time UCF alumna and Orange County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, astronaut and alumna Nicole Stott and Walt Disney World President and alumnus George A. Kalogridis, among others.

Another new feature was a performance by UCF jazz students under the direction of Pegasus Professor Jeff Rupert in the middle of the address.

Hitt concluded the annual address with the IGNITE campaign and the importance of philanthropy for the university, and how faculty, staff, students and alumni contribute to UCF’s growing culture of giving back.

“The reason for this success is clear: UCF’s dedicated faculty and staff,” he wrote in an email to the campus community on Wednesday “While we come from many different backgrounds, experiences and ways of thinking, we share a deeply held belief that higher education can make a better future for our students and society.”

To watch the full State of the University address, see the video here.