This week marks a major milestone in the expansion of the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee as one of the region's premier institutions opens classrooms to its first freshman class. The 85 first-year students mark the school's transition from an upper-division institution providing undergraduate and graduate courses, to a full-fledged four-year university.
Regional Chancellor Dr. Arthur Guilford hopes to add campus dormitories by the fall of 2016. That would end the university's standing as strictly a commuter school mostly catering to transfer and working students with night classes.
This year also marks another significant expansion in the academic arena. In a public-private community partnership, USF opens new state-of-the-art science labs at Mote Marine Laboratory for biology studies this semester with lab scientists teaching classes while providing hands-on research experience. The school intends to offer a biology major in 2014.
Guilford also plans to expand the hospitality and technology programs with new facilities and additional opportunities for students.
Considering this is a major tourism destination with hopes of also becoming a technology hub that attracts the creative class, USF's goals match those of the region's economic development experts and community leaders.
The university also intends to add more degree programs to entice local college-bound students to remain in the area and drive the economy to greater heights, another objective of other institutions of higher education and the community.
For years, the region has been concerned about the brain drain as young adults depart for greener pastures elsewhere since the area lacked sufficient educational opportunities to keep them in place. Should they remain here, they would help spur a more dynamic workforce.
This year, USF Sarasota-Manatee joined with New College and State College of Florida to announce a new era of collaboration and cooperation -- all designed to spotlight the corridor between the two counties as a "college town."
One year ago this month, USF unveiled plans to double the size of its campus with a massive $50 million expansion over five years. The plan calls for an academic hub, student housing, a bookstore, an aquatic center and other construction to accommodate a surge in enrollment to more than 4,100 students.
With state funding of higher education construction tight, USF will need community support for this ambitious expansion -- one that will serve to capitalize on the talented youth who are now drifting away.
The freshman class presents an intriguing case for future dividends to the region. The average high school grade-point average of this class stands at 3.59, and the majority hail from Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Yes, you could say we're bullish on USF Sarasota-Manatee -- for many very good reasons.