Is bigger better? 54,000 students and growing, U. of Central Florida storms higher ed.
A small state school launched here in the 1960s to develop employees for the space program has morphed into one of the nation’s largest universities, using accessible admission policies and online instruction to fuel extraordinary growth in an era when many public colleges face fiscal uncertainty.
The University of Central Florida will have about 54,000 undergraduate students this fall, up 90 percent since the turn of the century. The only public university with more is Arizona State, counting at least 67,000 on five campuses.
UCF and ASU are in the vanguard of an insurgency that aims to demolish the popular belief that exclusivity is a virtue in higher education. They stand for access on a grand scale, arguing that breakneck growth serves a nation in desperate need of a better-educated workforce. They also are pursuing a new financial model that enables public universities to thrive even when state support dwindles.
Their solution, possibly a blueprint for others around the country, combines a bustling traditional campus with an ever-widening menu of online and semi-online courses. And they’re doing it at a relatively low price.
“Our concern is that qualified students who want to get a college education be allowed to do so,” UCF President John C. Hitt said. “We’ll do our part in that, to the best of our ability. We do recognize that there is a limit. We just don’t know where it is.”
Many UCF students are first in their families to go to college, and thousands arrive every year from community colleges.
“We don’t have enough of these examples,” said Andrew P. Kelly, a higher education analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s a rare sight to see institutions self-consciously trying to build capacity to serve more students. The incentives tend to point in the opposite direction, toward exclusivity. These guys are breaking the mold.”