FILE - Florida State University

Florida State University's administration building

For the third consecutive year, Florida has earned U.S. News & World Report’s top national ranking for higher education for scoring high in a range of accessibility and affordability metrics.

According to its website, U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 rankings are based on the percentage of residents who have college degrees, the time it takes students to complete two- and four-year programs at public institutions, the cost of in-state tuition/fees and the average debt for the graduating class of 2017.

“It is no surprise,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a statement following the release of the report. “Our state colleges and universities have prioritized affordability and pathways for career and life and, as a result, they are transforming our state. I look forward to celebrating continued success as we build on this positive momentum.”

Florida earned the overall no. 1 ranking by posting the second-best ratings for low tuition/fees and high two-year program graduation rates; eighth-highest ratings for four-year graduation rates; eighth-lowest ratings for graduate debt; and, despite of its 27th rating in “educational attainment.”

U.S. News & World Report defines “educational attainment” in its 2019 rankings as “a measure of how well the educational system has … enabled students to succeed. This metric, from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2017 American Community Survey, measures the share of people 25 and older in a state who have an associate degree or higher.”

According to the Florida State University System, which manages the state’s 12 universities, in 2018 graduation rates were up 9.5 percent over a five-year span, and the cost of a bachelor’s degree had dropped 31-percent from year-to-year.

Florida also had three universities rated in the top 100 by U.S. News & World Report in a previous survey this year — the University of Florida [35th], University of Miami [53rd] and Florida State University [70th].

The University of Miami is one of more than 30 private colleges in Florida apprised in U.S. News & World Report assessment of more than 70 higher-education institutions in the state, including 28 community colleges and state colleges.

Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said “great credit” is due “Florida’s 28 colleges that offer nearly 1 million Floridians outstanding higher education pathways.”

State University System Board of Governors Chairman Ned Lautenbach agreed, attributing coordination between the state’s 12 universities and 28 colleges as pivotal to the efficacy of the taxpayers investment in higher education.

“Our 12 public universities are all extremely focused on student success, increasing quality and driving down cost,” he said. “They also work closely with the Florida College System to make sure students experience a seamless transition when moving from a college to university level.”

The rankings also show the performance funding formulas based graduation and retention rates that have been adopted by the Legislature since 2014 are paying off, State University System BOG Vice Chairman Syd Kitson said.

“The investment [Florida] is making has just really paid dividends for these students,” Kitson said Tuesday.

In the recently-approved fiscal year 2020 spending plan, the Legislature’s $4.54 billion higher education budget included a $35 million cut in base funding for universities and imposed a new series of performance-based funding metrics on the BOG, particularly in capital expenditures.

The motivation for imposing more restrictive rules on higher education spending followed revelations that the University of Central Florida misused $38 million in operating funds for building projects.

Language included in the state’s $91.1 billion budget requires the BOG to develop “separate and distinct performance-based funding models.”

“The model should recognize each university’s continuous improvement and achievement of institutional and national excellence,” the budget language said.

Despite relatively flat funding for higher-education funding in upcoming year, the Legislature did “sprinkle” around money for specific programs and projects, meaning some schools, such as the University of Florida and Florida State University, got increases in operational funding. Specific allocations include:

* $280 million to Florida A&M University for construction projects. About $76 million comes from the higher-ed budget with the remainder from other sources.

* $15 million for “National Ranking Operational Enhancement” fund for Florida State University and the University of Florida.

* $15 million to Florida International University for “operational support.”

* $5.1 million for Daytona State College to add a classroom building for nursing and vocational students.

* $4 million to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for its Gaetz Aerospace Institute [$3 million] and its hybrid-electric propulsion test cell [$1 million]

* $2.5 million to Florida International University, which also got a $15 million bump in base funding, for a Targeted STEM Initiative to bolster its engineering and computer science programs.