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Woodruff: Florida School Aims to Buck Economic Downturn

As much as I love living and working in Washington, D.C., I’ve always believed you can’t really know how the country’s doing unless you spend time with people who don’t live here.

Right now, we in the national capital region exist in a kind of a protective bubble, insulated from the worst of the hard times facing so many Americans. Unlike most of the country, the federal government and the thousands of private sector firms that do business with or because of it — from lobbyists and lawyers to research and defense contractors — have largely thrived.

So I usually brace myself when I travel, because I expect to see firsthand how people are struggling to cope with tough times.

This week was no different, as I headed to Orlando to speak at a community leaders’ breakfast organized by the University of Central Florida. The school has recently partnered with Brevard Community College to manage WUCF, the PBS station in this part of the state. But what I found instead is a city and a school making the best of the challenges before them and, in fact, creating their own opportunities.

The first hint was the taxi driver who told me there are many more tourists than last year for Orlando’s multiple family attractions and theme parks: “I don’t know if the economy is as bad off as they say,” he told me on the way into town. I took that, of course, with a grain of salt. (But a little research bears him out: both the housing market and service industry employment here are starting to pick up).

But the undisputed evidence lay at the university, founded only 44 years ago as a technical school and now a stunning success story. Today it has the second-largest student body in the United States, more than 58,000 diverse students from all 50 states and 140 countries. Occupying a sprawling campus of 1,400 acres, it offers majors in nearly 80 disciplines, incorporating programs in engineering, sciences, the traditional liberal arts, along with graduate programs in electronic arts (video gaming) and business, among others, as well as a new medical school.

With a philosophy that encourages entrepreneurship, UCF has helped students launch their own businesses immediately upon graduation, as well as partnered with industries to find jobs. Its president, Dr. John Hitt, believes in taking risks when he thinks they’re warranted: “I hire smart people and let them come to me with their ideas,” he said. His decision to aim for state approval to launch the medical center and to take over a public television and radio operation — with very little turnaround time or funding — are just two examples.

After 18 years at the helm, Hitt can point to the second-highest number of National Merit Scholars in Florida, and an average freshman SAT score of 1250.

What are the challenges? Earlier this year Gov. Rick Scott let colleges across the state know it was cutting the budget for higher education, a multi-million dollar hit for the University of Central Florida; more recently he asked colleges to report back on how much their graduates are earning.

Dr. Hitt explained that it has been difficult because of pressure the cuts put on tuition for middle-income families, but he said the school has worked hard to find ways to save money.

Florida isn’t out of the woods, of course, with regard to the economy and unemployment. But meeting the leaders at this extraordinary school and seeing their “can-do” spirit up close gives one hope that not only will things eventually turn around, but that young people are developing the skills to see them through.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.

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