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President Hitt's State of the University address. Daniela Marin, Eric Gutierrez

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President John C. Hitt delivered his annual State of the University address Wednesday afternoon, emphasizing issues such as the university's expansion through the downtown campus and the climate of student debt among graduates.

Grant Heston, vice president of communications and marketing at UCF, moderated the address, which took place in the Pegasus Ballroom at 3 p.m.

The address also focused on UCF's growing size and the significance of first-generation students among the student body.

"I think that there is a sense of striving for improvement and wanting to succeed among first-generation students that is energizing for any institution," Hitt said.

And although Hitt said his goal for UCF is not to be the largest university in the nation, he challenged those who say that a large university cannot be

efficient, saying the quality of the education ultimately comes down to the intent of the faculty and staff of the institution.

"Just picking an arbitrary goal like being the largest without reference to whether you're meeting either need or demand I think is really foolish," President Hitt said. "I want us to be big enough to meet the need and large enough so that we can accommodate reasonably to the demand for UCF education. But the need is the primary driver for me for any vision of size."

As far as student-faculty ratios, President Hitt said he remains unconvinced that there is enough knowledge about the direct impact university-wide ratios have on the quality of education.

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"When we got above 30-to-1, it started to worry me, not so much that we wouldn't have good teaching and learning in a particular semester, but that over the long-run, people would become exhausted. That was my real concern," Hitt said.

However, he did say

he would like to decrease the ratio below 30-to-1 with the ongoing university-wide hiring campaign, which is being supported by state performance funding.

Hoping UCF's reduced state-funding request for the downtown campus — $19 million instead of its initial $58 million — will better its chances of approval, Hitt added that the downtown community must be large, supporting at least 7,000 students, to promote lasting success.

Student Body President Cait Zona, who is on the Downtown Executive Steering Committee, said that she supports President Hitt's approach to the downtown campus, stating that it is a great initiative that will provide students with real-life experience to help them grow.

Although there were no announcements made regarding changes in tuition, Hitt did cite his concern for the university's responsibility to attain high quality while containing costs after Heston asked what kept him up at night.

"I'm worried that if we're not thoughtful, we could get to a point where our economic model for universities is no longer sustainable," Hitt said. "We've got to be careful that we don't price ourselves into a real bind where a lot of the folks who really need our educational services can't or won't pay what we're willing to charge."

Specifically addressing the need to eliminate family income as a predictor for academic success, President Hitt discussed the inherent lack of sustainability in statistics that reflect that students of higher-income families face greater chances of having a degree by the age of 24.

"We've got an opportunity to step forward in being a leader at providing high-quality education at an affordable price to a group of students who are diverse in terms of their socio-economic make-up and demographics," he said. "We have a chance to make a real dent here and that will alleviate my sleeplessness."

Hitt additionally addressed student debt, stating that half of UCF students graduate free of tuition debt, and advised students ought to be thoughtful of non-academic costs and how much debt they are incurring due to lifestyle choices.

Although he said that students must take into account the climate of the industry they are pursuing, he also challenged the notion that the value of a degree is bound by salary. The address was briefly interrupted by student protesters. Student Labor Action Project members chanted and held up a poster that read "Pres Hitt doesn't give a [poop emoji] about student debt." They were quickly escorted out.

"Student tuition at UCF is incredibly low when compared to the rest of the country, there haven't been student tuition increases in several years, so we're very mindful on having students be successful, have them progress through the university quickly, and have them leave with jobs and without that student debt," said Heston in an interview following the address and student protest.

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Daniela Marin is the Entertainment Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @dan__marin or email her at DanielaM@CentralFloridaFuture.com.

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