New College of Florida is one of only two public Colleges That Change Lives. It’s also a very rare, and very small, public liberal arts college. As of Fall 2020, New College of Florida had fewer than 700 undergrads and welcomed 160 freshmen last fall. That was 100 fewer than the college had welcomed in 2017. Florida’s public colleges tend to draw extremely small percentages of their students from other states. But a fifth of New College of Florida students come from outside the Sunshine State. However, being a very small public school, it has a very small alumni base outside of Florida.
New College markets itself as Florida’s Public Honors College. It has every right to the claim due to the small enrollment and liberal arts profile. Students receive more personal attention than they might receive at the honors college within a much larger state university, because they are helped by the full faculty and staff. They are also asked to work harder. This school does not appear to have traditions that help to bond a class or bond students with alumni that I have seen at liberal arts schools that have more history. The athletic program tilts towards club sports and there are neither fraternities nor sororities.
If you like what you see and read about this school from a distance, take two visits: one to confirm your impressions before you apply, the other to confirm them after you have been accepted. It’s very easy to run out of people to know at a school this small, where everyone must live on campus for three years. The college markets itself as a place for independent thinkers, prizing individuality. However, part of a liberal arts education is learning how to listen and understand other viewpoints and make friends. Among all colleges that I have visited, public or private, New College is most similar to Bennington College (VT) in terms of student body size, selectivity, academic rigor, small classes and the emphasis on individuality and community.
It has accepted over 60 percent of all applicants since 2012.The college reports that last year’s incoming first-year class–they are not called freshmen–had a average GPA of 3.9 and an average SAT score of 1260. Even during the pandemic, the school required standardized test scores, as did all public colleges in Florida. But New College is one of the more achievable public honors options that I have run into as a college admissions advisor. It charges no application fee, and the counselor recommendation are optional. Essays are optional, too, but I highly recommend them. Your writing ability might offset lower test scores, and the college would learn more about you. Honors colleges at larger public universities admit either by invitation or after reviewing supplemental essays.
Students must take seven courses of their choice, at least one in each of three divisions: Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences. Other required courses include one that addresses issues of race, class, gender, and/or religious difference, civic literacy and mathematics. Good scores on AP or IB courses taken in high school can get you out of some of these requirements. However, everyone must complete and defend a required senior thesis and take an oral Baccalaureate Exam. The thesis requirement is quite common at other liberal arts schools. However, the oral exam is not. But it’s great preparation for advanced degrees where you will need to do an oral defense. New College students are also required to dedicate three Januarys to independent study. You don’t see a requirement like that at most other schools.
There’s a few concentrations that you’re less likely to find at other liberal arts schools including Applied Mathematics, Data Science and Marine Biology. There’s also concentrations that could be called co-majors at other colleges. You must choose them with a second concentration. These include Creative Writing, Finance, Health Culture & Societies, Neuroscience and Quantitative Social Science. The college has also developed Special Concentrations in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Public Policies. And, if you want to learn Greek or Latin, you can minor in either language. Students can also choose courses across several concentrations and design their own. The college assigns two advisors, one for career advising, the other for academic advising, to each entering student.
This approach works well when students in various majors want to develop employable skills without having to commit to a second major or minor. It also works for the college. They do not need to add an academic department to support a new major. Interested in Finance? You can complete a Bloomberg Certification or become a Chartered Financial Analyst. Want to develop a complementary technical skill? You can earn a certificate in Geographic Information Systems or Innovative Digital Media.
Each semester New College students receive narrative evaluations from each of their professors. With a true student-faculty ratio of 7 to 1 you will never have large classes. Narrative evaluations most helpful in preparation for self-directed research and the senior thesis, when you will need to get to know faculty on a one-to-one basis. While there is less pressure to compete for a grade, as you get in larger classes, the workload is likely to be more demanding. The professor needs as much information as possible to be able to do a fair evaluation. This, and the rigor, might be the reasons for a graduation rate that is lower than many other liberal arts schools I have visited. Some students don’t like what they hear early in their college education.
Among the colleges that I have had the opportunity to visit as an admissions advisor, only St. Mary’s College of Maryland is marketed as a public honors college. St. Mary’s, like New College, has a waterfront campus and gets most of its students from in-state. But it has just over twice the undergraduate population of New College.
However, while St. Mary’s typically graduates over two-thirds of their freshmen on time, New College has graduated just over half of its recent first-year classes. It loses about a fifth of a class by the end of the first year. That’s one reason why I’m recommending the visits. It’s becoming more and more costly for students and families to choose the wrong four-year school on their first go-round through a college admissions cycle, costly in terms of credits, money and time. On the flip side, honors colleges at the large public universities also lose students, even though they may remain enrolled at the university.
This school is actually three connected campuses. Views to the water are quite beautiful, but as college architecture goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some students and parents like campuses with an eclectic mix of academic buildings, residence halls and recreation centers. Others prefer ivy-covered colonial style buildings and grand green lawns. You’ll find grand green lawns at New College of Florida, but its history dates to the 20th century. Visually, the campus reminded me of Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright community in Arizona that opened its doors in 1937.
The New College campus grew from 1964 through the 2010s. It began with the grounds of Ca’ d’Zan (picture above), the estate of John Ringling, founder of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, completed in 1925. The college employed IM Pei and other notable architects in the early years to design campus buildings, blending Spanish mission themes, open atrium spaces, large windows and bright colors into otherwise bland concrete structures. Along with the waterfront, summer trees and sculptures make this place feel more livable than other campuses (SUNY-Albany, Livingston College at Rutgers are two examples) that opened around the same time. New College is close to downtown Sarasota as well as the Tampa-St.Petersburg metro area, where there’s plenty for college students to do. But both are too far away for biking or walking.
Resident tuition and fees are just over $6,900, before scholarships and Florida’s Bright Futures awards kick in. Non-residents are asked to pay just under $30,000, again before scholarships. Nearly 60 percent of the students who graduated in 2019 had no student loan debt. The average debt for those who borrowed was just under $19,000. That’s $8,000 less than the maximum they could have borrowed through the Federal Student Loan Program.
I have not seen a less expensive liberal arts option for resident students among colleges that I have visited in person or from a virtual distance. The high school grades and test scores of entering first-year students are similar to the honors colleges at flagship schools such as the University of Maine, University of Rhode Island and West Virginia University. But those honors colleges have a larger population than New College of Florida and they’re blended into the fabric of a larger university. Nor are they dedicated exclusively to the liberal arts and preparation for further education. If you want a small school and your motivations take you in those directions, but you have a public college budget, New College is worth a look.
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