Large, metropolitan research universities often work with a sense of territorial imperative, striving to reach, teach and employ those within their surrounding workforce area. But what if they didn’t compete geographically, and instead collaborated across a larger, statewide region? This was the question asked in Florida, and after many in-depth conversations, Florida International University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of South Florida launched the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities.
The Memorandum of Understanding created a consortium comprised of Florida’s three largest metro institutions that combine to serve 162,000 students, reaching 63 percent of the state’s population, including 70 percent of its minority population.
Economic Development Engine Goals
The goals of the Consortium are to serve as an economic development engine, and through collaboration, create more graduates that possess lower debt and better skills to meet workforce demand in the state. The three institutions have committed more than $1 million to the consortium. The Helios Education Foundation has pledged $500,000 over five years to support the work of The Consortium.
Leading the charge is the Consortium’s executive director Michael Preston, Ed.D, former director of the University of Central Florida’s Office of Student Involvement. Preston is in his first year with the Consortium and is working to build a strong foundation for deep synergies that include data sharing, internship and corporate relationship sharing and expansions, and focusing on helping underrepresented students succeed in high paying, high demand career fields that currently have skills gaps.
Removing Geographic Barriers for Students
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“It’s no small feat to make this change logistically and culturally,” explained Preston. “These are three large institutions that have a long history of working independently, and even with some sense of competition amongst themselves. It’s like turning three large ships in the same water at the same time and not having them hit each other.” He’s playing to the long game of seeing the shift take hold over the next five to ten years.
“One of the things we held assumptions about (that the data is proving) is that a lot of our students at the University of Central Florida are from Tampa and Miami. They come to Orlando to UCF but have a hard time getting internships and jobs back home because career services tend to be a regionally located entity.”
The Consortium is working toward some key deliverables that include looking for more areas of commonality where they can provide job and internship opportunities through a shared portal. “We had our first demo of that with a group of potential corporate partners recently, and it’s making considerable headway toward becoming reality,” said Preston. This could save students money and help them stay on task by allowing them to work from home, and even take a course or two from the sister institutions.
Cross-institutional Predictive Analytics Team
“The second piece is focused on our predictive analytics team,” he said. Change is happening in real time. “To be quite honest, we are seeing a lot of people across these three institutions getting ‘geeked up’ about what we can do with predictive analytics on this. They are excited.” Each institution is a Civitas Learning partner and Illume® user. “We have identified a predictive analytics team with representatives from all three institutions. They are working to develop a data dictionary so we have a common way of identifying and counting students in the same way. We all use the same general categories but we can dive deeper in the data if we are aligned.”
Preston says the data can be especially useful in understanding how to improve opportunities for specific subpopulations the institutions serve. “One of the unique aspects of higher education in Florida is our Hispanic population, said Preston. “It’s incredibly diverse and these students come with very different needs and cultures. There’s not a single definition to describe a Hispanic student. Our students are from Cuba, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Florida to name a few. The same is true for our non-Hispanic Black population, which can comprise students from Haiti, Jamaica, the Caribbean, Florida and more. They have unique needs that we can better understand by going deep into the data and sharing our insights as a team across the collaboration.”
Keeping Students on Track
Getting students on track and keeping them on track is something the collective is working toward, with helpful funding from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. “In the past, one of our challenges in addressing the skills gap was that students start in STEM fields but then drift into different majors after accumulating substantial credits,” said Preston. Sometimes they complete with a different degree, and sometimes they don’t complete at all. “We are working to make sure students are enrolling in the right classes and the right amount of them, and providing opportunities very early on for them to explore their majors so they can decide if this is the right course of study for them before accruing debt or unnecessary course credits.
“We also want to learn more about how to transition our two-year transfer students into the four-year environment. A lot of our collective transfer students lose as much as a semester. We’re looking at UCF’s Direct Connect program.” USF is building a program with local institutions in Tampa Bay, and Florida International University now has a similar program.
“The Consortium is in its early phases,” said Preston, “but working hard on a strategic plan that will result in a 10 percent growth in the median incomes of our graduates, placing 3 percent more of our graduates into the workforce in less than a year after graduation, increasing the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by 12 percent, and increasing minority graduation rates by 4 percent. This will result in 3,660 more graduates, and an income boost of nearly $3,000 in starting annual income.
“What I’m most impressed and pleased about,” said Preston, “is the willingness of the three institutions to work together. When I started this I wasn’t sure who was going to return my phone calls,” he laughs. “But they are eager to work together. Everyone knows this is good for the state, good for the students, and good for our institutions.” – Michael Preston
Social Justice and the Value of Access
Preston feels a special responsibility for succeeding from a personal perspective as a first-generation graduate. “I attended a high school in Miami that was a low performing high school by every measure, he said. “My mom graduated high school, and my dad had a GED. Both worked incredibly hard at what were often labor intensive jobs. They always told me if I wanted a better life I better go to college and get a degree. So I did. I went to high school with a lot of bright students but they didn’t know that higher education was an option for them. I run into a few of them now and they are working…doing the best they can…but if we had paved a better road for them, their lives would be much improved.”
“One thing I hope we take from the work we are doing is the belief that every student who is willing to put forth the effort should have access to a four-year degree. Some of higher education is increasingly exclusive but Consortium schools want to be known for who we give access to, not who we deny, and we are excited about that. We’re excited that we want to provide greater access to successful careers for all of the students in Florida willing to do the work. That makes for a perfect consortium.”
Dr. Michael Preston
Dr. Michael Preston has served as Executive Director of the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities since July 2015 where he works with Florida International University, The University of Central Florida, and The University of South Florida on collaborative projects designed to increase retention, improve graduation rates, and ensure graduates are career ready. Previous to taking on this unique role, Dr. Preston served the students of The University of Central Florida since 2011 as the Director of the Office of Student Involvement where he oversaw a comprehensive involvement program including entertainment programming, student organizations, volunteer and service programs, and student government.