Is Florida really #1 in higher education? It depends on the stats

University of Florida
University of Florida campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced today that U.S. News and World Report has ranked Florida’s higher education system “number one” in the United States for the third year in a row.

“I think that reflects the emphasis that Florida has placed on student success and affordability,” the governor said at a news conference.

But for taxpayers, families and college-going kids, what does it mean to be number one in higher education across all 50 states?  Does it mean tons of Florida kids got into Ivy League schools?

Not exactly.

The higher education ranking is not to be confused by the popular rankings of colleges and universities that U.S. News and World Report has published for years. School counselors, parents and kids sift through those rankings to help make choices on where students can get admitted and whether a college is affordable, among other issues.

Florida is not at the very top when it comes to the popular 2019 rankings for national universities – those with expansive undergraduate and graduate programs and big research budgets.

The Ivy League universities are typically at the top of the list. The University of Florida – with a rank of 35 – was the only university in Florida that made it into the cream-of-the crop top 50 national universities in the country.

The University of Miami, ranked at 53, made it into the top 100 national universities, as did Florida State, with a ranking of 70 for national universities.

When it comes to a separate category of national liberal arts colleges, only New College of Florida, a public institution in Sarasota, ranked 90 out of the top 100 liberal arts schools.

So how does Florida get to be number one in higher ed?

Here’s what the Florida Phoenix found:

–The designation of “number one” in higher education by U.S. News and World Report is a part of a broad data set that ranks the “Best States” in several categories, from education and healthcare to crime and the environment. Considering all categories, Florida ranks 13th. among states.

–For education, there were two rankings, one for K-12 (Florida ranked 27th) and one for higher education (Florida ranked first). Those numbers raise questions about the big difference in rankings for each of the education levels. Combined, Florida’s  education rating was third among the 50 states.

–The top higher ed ranking was based on very specific metrics. Those include the cost of tuition and fees, low debt upon graduating, and the percent of students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree within six years.

–Unlike the K-12 data, the higher ed metrics did not include key academic factors such as average college entrance exam scores on the ACT or SAT tests and grade point averages in high schools, which could show which kids can get into the Ivy League and other top-ranked colleges and universities.

The governor, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School in the Ivy League, attended the top schools in the nation, both with hefty price tags.

DeSantis emphasized at his news conference that Florida is a low-tuition state which allows kids to graduate without enormous college debt.

And Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a statement: “Florida has long been known as the Sunshine State, and it’s now time that the nation recognize Florida also as the clearly established Education State.”

Phoenix reporter Michael Moline contributed






Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.


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