Kevin: One of the primary goals of our K-12 schools is to prepare students for college and a career. But according to a 2018 study, 35% of high school graduates show little or no readiness for college coursework. And in the years since, the COVID slide has just made matters worse. What can our schools do to ensure more high school graduates are ready for what's next? How can higher education put more people on the path to a successful career? And how can we upskill our workforce to remain relevant until retirement? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today I'm joined by John Thrasher to find out. John Thrasher was the president of Florida State University from 2014 to 2021. During his tenure, he advanced the university's academic and research mission and championed diversity and inclusion. Prior to leaving FSU, he served his country as an army officer, a school board member and a state legislator. John is currently working as a lobbyist and is with us today to discuss how our educational system can better prepare students for college success and rewarding careers. John, welcome to the show.
John: Kevin, honored to be here, man. I've admired you from afar and appreciate all you do for education. It's still the number one issue, I think, in America.
Kevin: First of all, you've had an incredible career. I mean, you enlisted in the army. You served in Vietnam. You got your law degree. Schoolboard member, elected official speaker of the house, president of Florida State University. And I say that not just to drop your resume on the listeners, but through it all, education has been at the center.
John: And I'll tell you why, Kevin, you know, I grew up in a pretty, you know, modest family. Neither my parents went beyond 8th grade. I know a lot of people talk about that, about being the first to go to college, and we certainly want... A lot of those kids here at Florida State did, but I was the first kid in my family to graduate from high school.
So, going to college, when I started at 17 at FSU, I frankly didn't know exactly what I wanted to do in my life and a lot of things. But that education and in my subsequent opportunity to go to law school after I served in the army for four years opened so many doors for me and gave me so many opportunities that I could never thank enough the education system in the state of Florida for what it did for me.
Kevin: And you've been consistent over the years. I want to talk about your tenure at FSU. But as speaker of the house, you work with then Gov. Jeb Bush on his A-Plus education plan, which was a landmark piece of legislation for any state legislature. What made it so successful?
John: Well, first of all, Jeb's, you know, background and position on education, which he's still doing today by the way, as you well know, his excellence in education foundation and the great leadership he's provided for so many other states about accountability and those types of things in education that he was a stalwart on. But I mean, he really ran on that when he ran for governor.
And frankly, you know, when we got there, we were the first, I guess, in the South to have a Republican governor, a Republican house in a Senate. So we were drinking out of a fire hose, but education was the number one thing that he wanted to accomplish, and it was one of the first big bills we passed to grade our high schools and our elementary schools to find out what accountability was about to really create some standards and criteria for that. And it was the first time we'd ever done that.
And I never will forget we took two days on the floor of the House of Representatives to debate it. It was like we were changing the world, if you will, back then. And now I think everybody's, kind of, embraced it, and they realized that accountability and those types of things in education are just as important as the quality that we have, and certainly they help in the quality.
Kevin: You played a big role in that. And I wanted to ask you about one of the key aspects of the plan that you alluded to, and that is it relates to accountability but placing a grade on schools, I mean, like your A, B, C, D, E, F. And after 20 years, how do you think that's played out?
John: I think it's worked, and I really have a reason to say that I think as much as anybody because, Kevin, in the last three or four years at Florida State that I've been president, we've averaged well over 60,000 applications for our freshman class. And they're coming here with incredible backgrounds. Now, the kids today, I tell you, when I got into Florida State, if you had a pulse, you could get in. That was basically it.
Today, the kids are coming with incredible backgrounds. Some of them have already done some research. Some of them already have done a lot of public speaking. They've been involved in their local schools. And I think the schools have risen to the occasion to understand that these kids need a great education and a great foundation before they go to a university.
And we're blessed in the state of Florida. As you know, I'm sure that the university system in our state is ranked number one in the country by "U.S. News & World Report." Florida State, of course, has been a top 20 public university for the last three years. Our university of Florida is in a top five. And so many of our other 12 universities are certainly exceeding standards that nobody could imagine a while back but I think it's because the quality of these young people that are coming to our universities.
And I think that started, I think, when Gov. Bush had the idea to do the A-plus plan, and to hold people accountable, and to grade the schools so that parents...and that's another thing we could talk about if we have time. Parents finally are on the rise in education today, and I think it's a wonderful thing for our system.
Kevin: Yeah. I've been talking about the parent involvement, the attention parents are getting, and the attention parents are demanding, and education is its time has come. And it's a great thing. So mentioning Florida State and going back to your career, you entered, as you just said, Florida State in '17. I have to ask. How did it feel knowing your background, your parents never, you know, they went to eighth grade, they didn't graduate from high school, you went to Florida State first to graduate from high school and then one day you become president?
John: It was the greatest feeling in the world. I've told everybody that it was the best job I've ever had. And, as it's turned out, the last real job I'll ever have probably...I got the job when I was 70 years old, and I'm 77 now, almost...or 78, I guess now after December. So, I mean, it was an enormous, enormous undertaking to get the job. I mean, I wasn't the most popular choice obviously from the faculty standpoint. I wasn't a career academic, but I knew I loved this university and I thought I had a skillset that I could do things.
And, you know, we were very blessed. We had a great team that supported me, and staff, and others, and the faculty finally certainly did come around. And I made a lot of friends here, and we made a lot of progress. We started out, I guess, when I was first there, as the 43rd ranked public university in America. And today and for three years in a row, we'd been in the top 20.
So I think we did the right things, and the right thing is to emphasize student success. What makes these young people successful? What can we do to enhance that, to give them the opportunities, you know, to go after their hopes and dreams so that when they do go out into the world, that they're prepared? And that's what our goal was. We had great support from our legislature. We had great support from certainly the board of governors, our overall group that supervises our public universities. And we had great support from our own faculty and staff and alumni.
Kevin: And speaking of setting the tone, you've been lauded for increased retention and graduation rates since you were there in the role and equally important increasing diversity on campus. That was a big part of your push, and it's made for a much more meaningful Florida State community.
John: Like everybody else. We have challenges. We had challenges in diversity, and making sure that we had enough faculty members that were diverse, enough students that saw the types of folks that they wanted to see in the classroom, all of those things. But graduation rate is so important, Kevin. I emphasized it probably more than anything because my feeling was that we needed to be able to navigate these young people when they got here to make sure that they understood that they ought to graduate in four years.
If kids are graduating in four years, they're saving another year of tuition. They're getting out into the economy or they're going to graduate school. But we really emphasize that, saving them a lot of money, I think, and their families and getting them out into the... And our four-year graduation rate, 74%, is the highest in our public universities in the state and certainly one of the top 10 or 15 in the country.
So I think it's the right thing to do, and I think so many of our kids appreciated it because we helped them navigate that. We just didn't throw them out there and say, "Graduate in four years." We gave them a roadmap on how to get there in four years, and it's made a big difference.
Kevin: Yeah. I think it's made a big difference on especially the four-year commitment, because I can't tell you how many young people I've interacted with and families that complain about the fact that they felt like they were pushed to that fifth year, and that was additional tuition, but you made it a staple.
But now that we've talked about all the great things you're doing, I got to ask you the tough questions. And this role of higher education, studies have shown that far too many kids come out of college, graduated from college, and they're not ready for a career. You were a big proponent of career readiness. But what more can we do to look at what colleges are doing to really prepare kids for the work world?
John: First of all, Kevin, I go back to where we started from. I really think, you know, majors are important obviously. We want them to be skilled in whatever it is. We have an outstanding risk management program at Florida State, for instance, [inaudible 00:11:49] number one in the country. That's becoming an area where insurance companies, different types of businesses understand the importance of trying to save resources by hiring people who understand how to cut back on risks and, you know, do those types of things.
So those majors are important. I mean, you know, obviously we all have law, we all have medicine, we have all those different things, but we've got to be able to teach kids an understanding about critical thinking, which I think you and I talked about. Nothing more important than that. Being able to solve complex problems.
And the other thing that we've done at Florida State and particularly in some of our professional classes that I think is becoming more and more important is to have kids work together. Kids with different backgrounds, kids with different ethnic backgrounds, kids with different social economic backgrounds. If they understand that they need to work together because when they get in the workforce, they're going to be doing that today. I think that's critically important.
Kevin: You're absolutely right. And when it comes to career readiness and preparing young people for the jobs of tomorrow, a big part of that is STEM. We've seen in many universities that fewer and fewer American-born students graduate STEM programs, fewer and fewer minorities. How do we deal with that phenomenon of getting more and more of our students of all shapes and ethnic backgrounds prepare for the world of tomorrow so they can work in these STEM jobs?
John: Well, Kevin, you know, at Florida State—I'm gonna put a plug in for us—and Florida A&M University, my brother's across the way over there, we have one of the most unique schools, I think, in America. It's a joint school between Florida A&M University, a historically black college, Florida State University in the discipline of engineering. And we're attracting some of the greatest kids who want to be in that field from all walks of life and particularly our Florida A&M friends. Many, many folks are coming to us, Florida State and Florida A&M, to recruit these kids because of the background that they have and working together. And that goes back to what I talked about earlier. I think those types of programs where we can jointly work with our friends at Florida A&M, we're blessed to have him here in Tallahassee, I think makes a big difference for all of us.
Kevin: Yeah, I think you're right. And that is a terrific program. I'm well aware of it. You know, continuing on this theme though, what about the role of colleges in helping shape reform in the K-12 space? You know, many college presidents have said to me, "Well, we hope that our K-12 system gets itself together," but if they've taken, sort of, a hands-off you, don't you think that there needs to be more of an intersection?
John: Absolutely. And one of the other programs—and again I think it's a model program for us and I hope other schools will look at it—is our CARE program. It's a program where we go out and recruit minorities, kids who may not be quite as good academically, certainly not as good maybe in background, social economics, and all those. And we go out and recruit them, and we bring them into this program.
We have what we call a Bridge Program in the summer for them to understand, you know, a little bit more about what the university is about, the culture, all those types of things. And they come in and, believe it or not, Kevin, they do as well as our regular undergraduates once they get into the system. They're graduating at over 80% of the ones we bring in.
The program was already started when I got here. We enhanced it, and we brought more kids in, and I'm telling you it's making a difference in that regard. And that is working directly with our high schools. And we go out and specifically recruit certain high schools in the state where we know we can get those types of kids, give them the opportunity to come to a university and succeed.
Kevin: So, John, one last question. Having been a policymaker and a college president, this is what I really want to know. What should policy makers be doing to improve our results in the area of college and career readiness?
John: Well, you know, in public universities, Kevin, you know, again, hard to talk about this, but it's always resources. You know, we're a big institution. We now have 45,000 students, 7,000 or 8,000 in faculty and staff. It's a $2 billion a year enterprise. But where we want to focus is in the student success area where we can get the best faculty, where we can get the best equipment for research. You know, buildings aren't everything, but certainly, you know, many universities have old building. Deferred maintenance, believe it or not, is a big issue in our state. More of those resources, I think, will enhance the quality of education and certainly give our kids the opportunity to be ready when they get out to pursue the kind of career they want to pursue. And, again, I go back, college education to me is still a very, very important fabric of America. And, again, I think education is the basis for our strength in this country and certainly our pursuit of liberty and freedom.
Kevin: All right, John Thrasher, thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
John: Thank you, Kevin. It's been an honor. I appreciate it.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcast, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review, too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
John Thrasher is a lobbyist and was the president of Florida State University from 2014 to 2021. During his tenure, he advanced the university’s academic and research mission and championed diversity and inclusion. Prior to leading FSU, he served his country as an Army officer, a school board member, and a state legislator.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.