Florida approves plan lowering accountability goals for New College

The move comes after the school’s new leaders said they wanted to raise the bar.
A New College flag waves in the wind on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Sarasota.
A New College flag waves in the wind on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Sarasota. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Nov. 9

State officials have approved an accountability plan for New College of Florida that lowers some of its previous goals as new leaders take the helm.

The vote comes in a year that started with Gov. Ron DeSantis appointing six new members to the Sarasota school’s board of trustees, who quickly replaced the president citing financial struggles and a desire to raise the bar.

But a plan OK’d Thursday by the university system Board of Governors taps the brakes on their ambitions.

It lowers four-year graduation rate goals for first-time-in-college students to 50% for students who entered New College from fall 2020 through fall 2023. The previous plan — authored last year by the school’s former leaders — set a goal of 62% for students entering in 2020, rising to 67% for the class starting in 2022.

The new plan also lowers the school’s expectations for getting first-year students to return for a second year, a metric known as the retention rate. The goal for that rate moves to 75% for students entering this fall — down from 85% under the previous plan. However, it raises the goal back up to 85 percent for students starting next fall.

In another change, New College lowered its three-year graduation rate goals to 50% for transfer students entering between fall 2020 and fall 2023. Its previously approved goals were 64% for the 2020 class, increasing to 70% for the 2023 class.

Also moving downward was the six-year graduation rate goal for first-time-in-college students receiving federal Pell grants, which provide financial aid for those with lower incomes. That rate shifted to 55% for students who entered between fall 2018 and fall 2021. The previous plan set the goal at 60%, incrementally increasing to 65%.

The Board of Governors’ budget and finance committee advanced the new plan on Wednesday, the first of two days of meetings in Orlando.

Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, the board’s faculty representative Amanda Phalin raised concerns over the metrics, which help determine how state universities are funded.

“Performance-based funding is a limited pool of money,” she said. “And so what goes to one school doesn’t go to another school. And I think it’s one thing to not penalize a school for not meeting a metric, but I think it’s setting a different precedent ... when the metrics have been lowered.”

She said she wanted to make sure “we’re treating all institutions across the system the same.”

Board chairperson Brian Lamb told her the changes were not unusual.

“I’m uncomfortably close to accountability plans,” he said. “Just about every year, if not every year, several metrics for almost every institution go up and down.”

Not long ago, he said, the University of South Florida found itself in the board’s crosshairs when they tried to lower some metrics.

He said New College’s goals “might be a bit further (reduced) just because of the challenges they’re dealing with. But it’s not unusual for metrics to come down.”

It’s also common for them to go up, he said.

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“I would fully expect the president to come back to us at some point and say, ‘We didn’t get it perfect. We want to move some of our metrics up,’” Lamb said, referring to New College President Richard Corcoran, whose appointment to the post also was approved Thursday.

New College of Florida President Richard Corcoran
New College of Florida President Richard Corcoran [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Board member Eric Silagy noted that the full board decides whether a university’s request to raise or lower metrics is acceptable. If the board concludes that a school did not perform up to standards, the money would go back to the state.

Board members praised Corcoran on Wednesday for a presentation he gave on New College’s future, and for an op-ed he wrote that was published the same day in the Wall Street Journal.

Corcoran used the piece to offer free tuition to students who felt unsafe at Harvard University after instances of Jewish students being “bullied, intimidated, spat on and, in at least one case, physically assaulted.” New College, he wrote, could be “a haven for Harvard refugees.”

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.