News even thousands of masks can’t muffle

My feelings are mixed as I walk around campus this fall. I’m happy to see students in masks studying in the Reitz Union or enjoying each other’s company outdoors, but I miss the energy of Turlington Plaza during class changes and the lunchtime crowds in the Plaza of the Americas.

Library West and Marston are quiet, even by library standards! And though I can’t wait to see the Gators play football, the Swamp will be quieter, too, with less than 18,000 fans allowed for games due to COVID.

So I am grateful that this fall’s rankings of the nation’s best public universities give us all something to shout about.

 Last week, U.S. News & World Report ranked UF the No. 6 public university in the country. This continues our rising trajectory among the nation’s top-10 public universities for the fourth year in a row and puts UF just one step and one point away from our goal of joining the Top Five.

We had to cancel Homecoming because of COVID, and we won’t play, and beat, our traditional rival, FSU. But in addition to being a welcome cause for celebration, our rise in the rankings is its own victory - especially for students.

Why a victory for students? Because the ranking is based to a large degree on increasing excellence in education.

Key measures that go into the ranking include smaller classes. UF’s student-to-faculty ratio is steadily improving, which means more personal interaction and small-group discussions with instructors. A second key measure gauges the amount of resources devoted to faculty. For students, this translates to increasingly exceptional faculty, well-equipped to teach and do research.

Our rising ranking is also tied to rising graduation rates. Graduating faster helps students hold down costs, which reduces debt and allows them to quickly move on to graduate schools or careers. Overall in student outcome measures (retention, graduation performance, social mobility, and student debt) we were ranked No. 7 in the nation among all private and public universities, which includes universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.

A top rank even benefits students after they graduate, since it raises the value of their UF degrees in the eyes of graduate schools and employers. Keep in mind, our ascent has occurred during a time when our in-state tuition ($6,380 for this fall) has barely budged. We are  one of the nation’s very top higher education values, and often cited as such.

Finally, a top ranking benefits students in many indirect ways. For example, the higher we are ranked, the more effective our fundraising. For the second year in a row, this fiscal year we raised more than $500 million from donors, and we expect to complete our $3 billion capital campaign ahead of schedule this spring. For students, this means more and bigger scholarships, more professors funded by endowments and more beautiful and advanced facilities.

To be sure, we have room for improvement.

As we gain in stature and in selectivity, we will redouble our efforts to ensure access to students from underprivileged backgrounds and increase our numbers of Black and other minority students.  We will work even harder to make sure that all admitted students are supported and can succeed.

Still, UF’s No. 6 ranking is great news in this year of living and learning with COVID.  It is news we can share on Zoom or while standing in line for Krishna lunch, which continues complete with masks, plexiglass and social distancing. It is news even thousands of masks can’t muffle.