Florida has long been at the forefront of providing its students a clearer path toward a bachelor’s degree and the credentials they need to thrive in an evolving economy.
In 1971, the Sunshine State’s “2+2” transfer pathway model became the nation’s first legislatively-mandated articulation policy, allowing students to spend two years at a state or community college, earn their associate’s degree, and transfer to a state university to complete the final two years of a four-year degree.
In 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law Senate Bill 190, which, in part, takes Florida’s transfer pathway model even further by requiring colleges and universities to partner and develop guaranteed admission pathways from an associate of arts (AA) into a student’s university and bachelor’ degree program of choice at a specific university.
One program introduced in 2016 has already established this sort of partnership by guaranteeing students admission into specific degree programs.
Guaranteed admission to USF through Fuse
Fuse is a transfer program between the University of South Florida and eight Florida College System (FCS) institutions: Hillsborough Community College, St. Petersburg College, Polk State College, Pasco Hernando State College, State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, College of Central Florida, South Florida State College, and Santa Fe College.
The program provides seamless academic pathways and promotes timely graduation by guaranteeing students who maintain a minimum cumulative 2.0 GPA and complete an Associate’s of Arts Degree at one of its partner colleges admission to a specific degree program at a USF System institution.
Paul Nagy, vice president of strategic planning and analysis for Hillsborough Community College, said HCC and USF’s work on Fuse dates back more than seven years, when the two institutions collaborated on a national project to improve Hispanic student success. During a 2014 summit for the project, Nagy said he and his counterparts among USF’s leadership were particularly impressed by a meeting highlighting Valencia College and DirectConnect to UCF, the University of Central Florida’s guaranteed admission program.
“We left that summit saying, ‘We want to do something like DirectConnect,’ but in a way that didn’t precisely emulate them and allowed us to grow our own way,” Nagy said. Fuse eventually settled on a “graduation path” strategy that primarily focuses on high-demand occupational areas requiring bachelor degrees, including biomedical sciences, accounting, information technology, criminology, education, and public health. “We wanted to only offer grad paths that labor markets said were going to land our students jobs in this economy.”
Fuse’s core “graduation path” strategy outlines a pathway for students that begins when they enroll at their respective state college and continues through completion of their bachelor’s degree at USF. In between, the benefits for Fuse students include priority course registration and dual academic advising from the community college and USF institution to help with the necessary prerequisites, exams, and application processes.
Fuse participants are also treated as USF students while working toward their associate’s degrees, with benefits such as help from USF advisors and opportunities to attend football games and other USF activities.
“Our intent is to treat all currently enrolled Fuse students as USF students, even when they are enrolled at our partner institutions. In doing so, we want to acclimate them to one of the three USF campuses and facilitate their transition to university life,” said Paul Dosal, vice president for student success at the University of South Florida. “Fuse is, at its core, a transfer student success initiative. We are trying to place all Fuse students on a path to timely degree completion.”
Meet Fuse student Ginger Richard
Ginger Richard, 22, was one of the first students accepted into the Fuse program. She is currently in her second year at USF’s Tampa campus after transferring from Hillsborough Community College (HCC) in 2018.
“My counselor gave me the courses I needed for my first semester at HCC, but we also talked about planning for the future and the classes I would take at USF,” Ginger said. “It was extremely helpful because everything was coordinated very well and everything transferred smoothly.”
As a senior at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico, Ginger had initially applied to USF directly but said her application was sent to Fuse personnel at HCC.
“I had good grades, a high GPA, but my SAT score was limiting me from USF,” Ginger said. “They told me about Fuse, that it was a new program working with students who had similar SAT scores and plans as me, and I was working with a FUSE counselor from the very first day.”
Ginger earned an associate’s degree in biomedical science at HCC and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in health science at USF, placing her in Fuse’s biomedical sciences graduation path.
“Without a doubt, that (biomedical sciences) is by far our number one most popular graduation path because a lot of the students want to be doctors. That’s their dream,” said Chandra Davis, program manager for USF’s Office of Transfer Student Success. “After that, our second most popular path is psychology followed by some of our business majors.”
The Fuse Scholarship Fund helps bolster chances of success
In addition to supports like enhanced advising and priority registration, Fuse also helps its students attain their bachelor’s degrees at USF through a scholarship fund established in 2017 as an initiative of LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network.
According to Nagy, LEAP Tampa Bay — the local college access network serving Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — played a major role in the successful launch of Fuse and its scholarship fund.
“They immediately embraced Fuse and, to this day, every member of the LEAP leadership council talks about the success of Fuse as the perfect example of how LEAP works best,” Nagy said.
The initial scholarship fund of $1.5 million was seeded with a $500,000 gift from the USAmeriBank (now Valley Bank) Foundation and matched on a 2-to-1 basis by Helios Education Foundation, which also pledged another $1 million in future 2-to-1 matching funds. In January 2019, Helios followed through on that pledge by donating $1 million after the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and college foundation partners raised another $500,000 for the fund, bringing its total to $3 million. The Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, which is also the backbone organization for LEAP Tampa Bay, administers the fund and is a full partner with the college foundations in fundraising for the scholarship.
“If it weren’t for LEAP, we wouldn’t have $3 million in our scholarship fund,“ said Nagy, who contributed $50,000 to the fund himself as a way to commemorate HCC’s 50th anniversary during the 2018-19 academic year.
Fuse students from HCC and St. Petersburg College — the two FCS schools in LEAP’s service area — and students seeking a degree in an education field at Pasco Hernando State College are currently eligible for the scholarship.
Upon earning initial eligibility for the scholarship, students receive scholarship allocations for as long as they follow their respective graduation path. Each Fuse student can receive up to a total of $5,500 in FUSE scholarship awards, including up to $3,000 at USF or $750 per semester.
“Once the student receives the scholarship at the state or community college, there’s absolutely nothing they have to do to receive it here at USF,” Davis said. “It’s a seamless process.”
Ginger, a Fuse scholarship recipient, is grateful for that ease of use and the top-to-bottom support she received from the moment she stepped onto a college campus.
“I feel like Fuse is so personalized and they really invest more time in you and deal with you very specifically,” she said. “They outline your entire four years, and the help you get everything you need to get your degree.”