New College says it can compete with the nation’s most elite private universities. State lawmakers are betting they are right

New College of Florida received millions in funding from state lawmakers to fuel an ambitious growth plan that officials hope will help the school climb higher in the ranks of liberal arts colleges.
New College of Florida received millions in funding from state lawmakers to fuel an ambitious growth plan that officials hope will help the school climb higher in the ranks of liberal arts colleges. Herald file photo

New College of Florida has some impressive credentials. Talk to any New College administrator long enough, and you likely will hear some of the following:

▪ The school has produced 25 percent of the state’s Fulbright Scholars during the past 15 years.

▪ New College produces the third-highest rate of students who go on to earn science, technology, engineering or math Ph.D.s in the country, ahead of schools such as MIT.

▪ U.S. News & World Report ranked New College the fifth-best public liberal arts college in the country. The only schools ahead of it were four military academies.

Now, it can add one more factoid to its resume: The school that lawmakers hope gives them the most bang for its buck.

New College president Donal O’Shea wants the school to enter the list of the top 25 liberal arts colleges in the country, public or private, a list currently topped by three Massachusetts colleges — Williams, Amherst and Wellesley.

New College was tied for 90th in U.S News & World Report’s 2017 ranking. With just 861 students, O’Shea said, an infusion of cash into the school could help New College move up that list quickly.

“It’s a lot cheaper to move New College up to the top than it would be to move the University of Florida,” O’Shea said.

Florida lawmakers agreed with O’Shea’s logic this past legislative session and allocated millions to fund an aggressive growth plan. New College received $7.5 million in new recurring funds and $1.8 million in new non-recurring funds to outfit the school’s new science building. The school will hire 40 new faculty by 2020-21 and expand its enrollment to 1,200 by 2022-23.

“We will be in hiring mode,” O’Shea said.

In addition to more faculty, the school will be expanding the on-campus resources for students, with plans to hire staff to help run the school’s roughly 100 clubs and supervise the student government. The support for clubs is intended to help retain students who enroll at New College.

“In the past, if you gave New College a dollar, we’d hire another faculty member,” O’Shea said. “But all our students live on campus. You can’t just leave all the student life for the students to organize.”

During the past few years, O’Shea said, students at New College have started flag football and sailing teams. The clubs flourished while the students who started them were at New College. But once those students graduated, the numbers dwindled.

School officials also are looking toward constructing a $46 million, 100,000-square-foot building in the center of campus. The building will take the place of several 1960’s era dorms that had been converted into administrative offices.

John Martin, vice president for finance and administration, said the college will be requesting $4 million from the state in 2018 to pay for planning and $42 million in 2019 for construction.

“It would be a combination of additional classrooms, offices, laboratories, student common space, support services with student affairs for our student clubs and organizations, a place of assembly,” Martin said. “This will be a central component of our growth plan, but it will take some time to get developed.”

But the new money won’t come without expectations. During O’Shea’s presentation to the State University System’s Board of Governors last year, Board of Governor Edward Morton asked O’Shea for assurances that the school wouldn’t be as reliant on state money down the road.

“The taxpayers subsidize the university to the tune of $23,000 per student,” Morton said. “Do you envision that number coming down so that as you get bigger, as you broaden the base so to speak, that you’d be able to lower the cost to the taxpayers?”

O’Shea assured him the school would, and Martin said that the growth plan will help the school scale its expenses.

“Operating wise, we’ll be able to reduce our cost per student if we were around that 1,200 number,” Martin said. “This will help move us up into the top liberal arts and science colleges in the country, not just looking at the public (schools).”

Ryan McKinnon: 941-745-7027, @JRMcKinnon