For the fifth time, UCF has been named among the nation’s most innovative schools by U.S. News & World Report, which unveiled its 2021 Best Colleges Rankings Monday.

“UCF is on a path to become one of the nation’s leading metropolitan research universities because of our innovation and impact.”
— President Alexander N. Cartwright

Tying for 16th with Cornell University in the publication’s “Most Innovative Schools” category, UCF is Florida’s top-ranked school for innovation.

The Most Innovative Schools category recognizes institutions that are making the most innovative enhancements to their institutions in terms of curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities. Since the category was first introduced in 2015, UCF has been named on the annual list for the fourth consecutive year.

“UCF is on a path to become one of the nation’s leading metropolitan research universities because of our innovation and impact,” says President Alexander N. Cartwright. “Whether it is in a research lab or a virtual classroom, the ingenuity and commitment of our people shines through, transforming our students’ lives and society. Today’s rankings reflect our institution’s dedication to excellence, to solving tomorrow’s challenges and to charting a course that is unique to our strengths and values.”

Higher Education, Lower Debt

UCF ranked No. 47 on the new Least Debt list, which recognizes institutions for their students’ loan amounts and proportion of graduates that took out loans. At UCF, 50 percent of first time in college students graduate with no educational debt. UCF’s student loan default rate is 2.4 percent, compared to the national average of 10.1 percent and 7.3 percent for Florida. UCF is also ranked among the nation’s best value colleges by Forbes, Kiplinger and The Princeton Review.

The university moved up eight spots to No. 62 nationally for top performers for social mobility. The category recognizes success with enrolling and graduating Pell Grant recipients.

UCF’s engineering and computer science programs continue to earn national recognition. The university ranked No. 71 for best undergraduate computer science programs and No. 79 for best undergraduate engineering programs.

UCF is the No. 1 supplier of graduates to U.S. aerospace and defense industries for the sixth consecutive year, according to Aviation Week Network, and ranks second in the nation (only to Georgia Tech) for teaching the critical skills needed by employers. Also, 30 percent of Kennedy Space Center’s and 27 percent of Lockheed Martin Orlando’s workforces are UCF graduates.

UCF’s student programming team earned bronze at the North American finals of the International Collegiate Programming Contest this year.

National Excellence, Local Impact

Overall, UCF moved up two spots to rank No. 77 among public universities nationwide. UCF’s undergraduate business program ranked No. 116.

The nation’s most innovative schools are selected by college presidents, provosts and admissions deans. While the specific reasons for those nominations are not identified, UCF has earned recognition in many areas.

UCF Downtown recently celebrated its one-year anniversary by winning the Golden Brick Award of Excellence, for the new campus’ extraordinary achievements and broad-reaching contributions. The downtown campus — a transformational partnership with Valencia College — has fostered numerous impactful community collaborations. These include the Parramore Education and Innovation District and the Parramore Healthy Community Coalition, which strive to reduce barriers to education and improve community health and well-being.

DirectConnect to UCF guarantees admission for transfers from six regional state colleges. The program is a national model for increasing access to a high-quality college education, improving social mobility for underserved populations and supplying talent to the workforce. Since it was established at UCF in 2006, more than 55,000 degrees have been awarded to students who entered the university through DirectConnect.

Innovating Curriculum Driven by Demand

In direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UCF launched 11 new graduate certificate programs.

The programs, which began this fall, offer candidates a short series of courses that were specifically woven together to provide useful tools when facing COVID-19 related-challenges. The certificates, tracks and special topics courses cover a variety of fields from business and engineering to optics and health.

For example, the cyber risk management graduate certificate — which is also available through UCF Online — looks at the current cybersecurity and privacy matters affecting organizations and emphasizes managerial and risk-based approaches. Quarantines due to COVID-19 means more people are shopping and conducting work from home, thus driving demand for remote connections that increase security and privacy concerns for employers and employees.

The College of Health Professions and Sciences added a course to its graduate clinical speech pathology program geared toward preparing clinical professionals to meet the complex needs of patients hospitalized from COVID-19 and other related conditions.

UCF’s Simulation, Technology, Innovation & Modeling (STIM) Center received accreditation from the Society for Simulation in Healthcare and the Council for Accreditation of Healthcare Simulation Programs. The STIM Center is based in the College of Nursing.

Innovating Digital Learning and Research

When the coronavirus pandemic forced all of Florida’s public colleges and universities to go fully remote last spring, UCF leveraged two decades of online learning expertise to make a smooth transition. University officials rolled out new websites with specialized resources — such as Keep Teaching for faculty and Keep Learning for students — and held a series of training workshops on effective online learning.

This fall, more than three-quarters of UCF’s lecture, lab and discussion classes are online or remote, and only about one-quarter have an in-person experience.

Those additions also helped UCF prepare for a new hybrid class format called Blendflex. Offered for the first time this fall, the model splits a class of students into smaller groups to meet physical distancing requirements, with students attending one in-person class session per week. When not in a physical class, students can participate in the other sessions remotely in real-time, or access class content later through a recorded session.

Despite the unique challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, UCF welcomed one of its most accomplished incoming freshman classes for the Fall 2020 semester. The Class of 2024 entered the university having an average GPA of 4.18, the strongest in UCF history. The incoming freshmen also rank among the university’s top three classes for standardized test scores with average SAT and ACT scores of 1322 and 28.7, respectively.

Earlier this year, U.S. News & World Report ranked UCF among the top 20 Best Online Bachelor’s Programs in the nation for the third consecutive year. Over 100 fully online programs are now available through UCF Online, enabling students from anywhere in the world to enroll in fully online degree programs.

Innovating COVID-19 Research

In addition to catering curriculum to respond to the pandemic, UCF researchers are finding innovative ways to combat it.

UCF scientists are developing a nanoparticle film that would “catch” and kill COVID-19 on protective gear — like gloves, masks and gowns — to better shield healthcare providers.

The university is leading an effort to rapidly 3D-print critical personal protective equipment. UCF researchers are paving the way for medical face shields — and eventually multi-sized respirator masks — to be rapidly produced, up to as many as 1,500 a day.

Limbitless Solutions — a nonprofit on UCF’s campus which develops 3D-printed bionic arms — has pivoted manufacturing to 3D print components of face shields as well as “earsaver” hooks that increase the comfort of surgical masks. Limbitless Solutions also is helping create prototypes of a low-cost compact and mobile ventilator that requires no electricity and can be widely produced.

Researchers are also working to co-develop a new, rapid-acting, long-lasting disinfectant spray that instantly kills viruses without using harsh chemicals.