Florida Gulf Coast University has seen historic growth over the last four years. Now, the institution is trying to build in a way that benefits Southwest Florida.
The university opened 24 years ago, and the campus has evolved, looking massive and modern compared to its humble beginnings in 1997.
As the school has grown, Southwest Florida has, too.
The FGCU campus surrounding area reflects that growth with businesses and homes seemingly popping up as fast as developers can finish construction.
FGCU senior Rebecca Paul grew up in SWFL and can’t remember the area without the school.
“I was looking to stay local and I always went on field trips and summer camps at FGCU. I always loved the environment here,” said Paul, an FGCU integrated studies major with a focus in biology.
But it hasn’t always been positive results for some FGCU students in the classroom.
In the fall of 2017, the school hit a new low when the 4-year graduation rate sat at just 23% and school data shows students struggled, especially after their freshman and sophomore years.
“The daunting task was, we knew we needed to organize our campus to refocus ourselves on, what do we need to do to improve these key metrics,” said Dr. Mitch Cordova, FGCU vice president of Student Success and Enrollment Management.
The process began when Cordova was picked to lead the new division of student success,
The school rebuilt nearly every part of the student experience, from welcome events to a new career center to better access to faculty.
“I feel they’ve been focusing more on targeting students that are more likely to not succeed in school. So me, coming from a background of first-generation, a lot of resources and clubs have been helpful in that way, to make sure I succeed,” Paul said.
Cordova said they need to treat students more like colleagues.
Four years later, the numbers reflect the change.
The graduation rate has climbed from 23% to 42%.
Data from the National Center for Education reveals that FGCU still isn’t on the level of some historic Florida schools; however, it has caught up to universities of similar size.
“We now know that we can achieve big things; we’re doing it,” Cordova said. “That gives us confidence as an institution.”
Enrollment is also up 2.5% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and up 4.5% in fall 2021 from fall 2020.
“We have graduated more students, but yet our enrollment continues to increase,” Cordova said.
Now, the student population sits at a record 16,000.
“For us, it’s strategic growth. We’re not going to grow for growth’s sake. But grow where we know our region needs us,” Cordova said.
They’ve poured money and resources into developing programs that directly serve and benefit Southwest Florida.
“It means continuously developing a workforce in healthcare, continuously developing the workforce in education, ” Cordova said.
It also meant developing the school’s most unique asset, The Water School, an institution that is working to help clean up some of Southwest Florida’s most precious resources.
“We care about the environment. We love our environment. And that’s the beauty of our institution,” Cordova said.
It could also mean more young professionals and money into the local economy.
“Our alumni are going to stay here; they’re working here in Southwest Florida. They’ll give back to the institution when they’re ready to do that,” Cordova said.
Paul is almost done with her undergraduate degree and hopes to stay nearby.
“It gives me a lot of pride,” Paul said. “This is going to be my alma mater, and I’m definitely proud to say that to a lot of people.”
FGCU said more than 1,000 students have applied for graduation this semester.