This past football season the University of Central Florida (UCF) had the best college team in Florida. I’m sure that the success of the Golden Knights elevated UCF’s national profile. I’m also sure that prospective college students watched the Peach Bowl and thought: “Wow, that’s a really good team, and they go to school near Disneyland and Universal Studios,” or maybe that it was the “Ohio State of Florida.”
But UCF operates on a different model than Ohio State. In some ways it’s a better one; the school is more affordable to a very large local community and it is more flexible when it comes to providing paths towards a bachelors or advanced degree. UCF is quite accommodating to students who live in or close to Orlando. It offers very low (around $6,500) resident tuition and fees. A year on Ohio State’s main campus sets an Ohio resident back just over $10,500.
Like Ohio State, UCF is not a cakewalk for traditional freshman admissions. The average GPA for the current freshman class was a 3.9. The average SAT scores were 1260. Among those who applied, half got in. This school did not need to go to a wait list to fill the class. These numbers are about the same as those for a freshman class at Ohio State.
But the more likely path to a UCF degree was through the local community colleges. While the university welcomed over 6,600 freshmen last year; it also opened doors to more than 6,800 transfer students. They needed only a minimum high school GPA of 2.5 and a minimum college GPA of 2.0. More than two-thirds of the nearly 15,000 who wanted to transfer to UCF were offered admission. Two-thirds of them took UCF up on the offer. Ohio State has similar “feeder school” arrangements throughout Ohio through satellite campuses. But the university most recently welcomed far fewer new students, just under 2,400, to Columbus, from the latest data I found for 2016.
UCF has a good educational model for as long as the university can sustain the costs of growth, low tuition and a scholarship sports program at the same time. But in order to do that UCF is more likely to remain a commuter school, and less likely to become a more “national” football school like Ohio State. They might receive more applications for the next freshman class. But it’s doubtful that the success of the football team will drive the volume.
Unlike Jacksonville, Miami or Tampa, which have pro teams, UCF has the attention of Orlando all to itself during football season, much like Ohio State dominates Columbus. But UCF plays in a stadium that has only 45,000 seats, less than half the capacity of ‘The Horseshoe’ at Ohio State. The Golden Knights won every game this season, yet they only sold out once at home, when they played in-state rival South Florida. They did not even sell out their conference championship game vs. Memphis! UCF also competes in 15 other sports, including competitive dance and cheerleading. Ohio State competes in 36 in addition to football.
For UCF to become the Ohio State of Florida, it would certainly have to offer more seats for football, among other investments in the athletic program. It would need to find a ‘Power Five’ conference that is eligible to compete for a national title or hope that the American Athletic Conference, where UCF currently plays, would be elevated to similar stature. It would also need to have a more residential student body to cheer on the team. None of these things are likely to happen for prospective freshmen in time for their senior year. If any of them happened within ten years, it would be surprising.
UCF’s main campus alone has about the same number of full-time undergraduates as Ohio State does in Columbus, around 41,000 total. But less than a fifth of the undergraduate student body lives on campus. Ohio State offers beds to over a third, and has a two-year residency requirement. Ohio State houses nearly all of its first-year students; about a third of UCF freshmen commute. Ohio State draws about a fifth of its students, and a quarter of its freshman class, from outside Ohio versus nine and six percent at UCF. Columbus is also a less expensive place to live—students can share a house near campus for around $400/person/month—than Orlando (around $600/person/month), it has far better mass transit to help students get around, and they can ride the buses for free. Ohio State also has a much larger fraternity and sorority community than UCF. At Ohio State there are 5,600 students engaged in Greek social life, almost twice as many as UCF.
UCF retains 90 percent of a freshman class. That’s quite good considering classes are so large; the university has a student/faculty ratio of 30 to 1. But only 40 percent finished in four years. Ohio State retained 94 percent of its 2010 freshman class, and graduates nearly 60 percent of a class on time. That university advertises a student/faculty ratio of 19 to 1. If UCF can already attract a Floridian with the same average credentials as a freshman at Ohio State, it has to do a better job at setting up the Floridian on a path to graduate. On the other hand, the lower tuition and fees and flexible course options lower pressure on many students to get all of their classes done within four years.
You cannot call UCF a “bad school” because it does not retain or graduate students at the same rate as a school such as Ohio State. It’s educational model works very well for students who already know that they want to be in Orlando for their college education. It is better for UCF to stay on its present course and not use its recent football success to become a greater sports power or to attract more students from outside of Florida.
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