Budget hawks start to circle over New College of Florida’s fiscal-fantasy business plan

by | Nov 5, 2023

Pressure is mounting at New College of Florida in Sarasota, where a controversial new business plan is causing a stir among conservatives worried as much about budgetary discipline as they are about educational innovation. And now the school’s new strategy has the potential to raise eyebrows among conservative budget hawks even if they agree that New College is desperately in need of an academic overhaul.

The drama unfolding at the state-funded school isn’t just about administrative reshuffles or curriculum revamps, or even about newly installed school president Richard Corcoran’s absurdly high salary—though it’s about those things, too. It’s also about the other big-ticket spending items, and the lack of transparency and financial risk that the school is asking state leaders to take on. And there are signs that lawmakers aren’t quite fully on board, even if they support DeSantis’s overarching plan for higher education reform.

The institution, once seen as a progressive bastion and liberal arts jewel, is transforming under DeSantis’ watch into what state Republican leaders hope will be a conservative intellectual powerhouse. But the path is fraught with risk, the metamorphosis isn’t coming cheap, and it begs a hard look at whether the juice is worth the squeeze for Florida taxpayers.

DeSantis, sticking to his guns from the 2022 campaign trail, has been wielding the budget axe on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, deeming them ideological fluff. He’s pushed all his chips into the center of the table, betting on traditional values and practical education, eschewing what he perceives as indoctrination in favor of hard-hitting academia, particularly in STEM and business fields.

His new hand-picked trustees at NCF, a crew rowing staunchly in the governor’s wake since they were installed early this year, have dismissed the school’s former president and set their sights on a new course—one charted by the likes of more private ventures, like Hillsdale College in Michigan – where, unlike New College, that school’s private nature means no risk for taxpayers.  The new board’s moves have also sent ripples through NCF’s overwhelmingly progressive student body and faculty, causing screeching protests from portions of both ranks that have splashed negative headlines across the state – and across the nation.

Yet, amid the governor’s blunt strategic maneuvers, the college’s business plan, submitted in August 2023, has started making rounds among concerned conservatives. The goals may be admirable, but the numbers are sobering. The plan’s ambition is not just to spend more per student but to pour funds into initiatives that carry a hefty price tag without a clearly defined return on investment or clearly defined accountability. And where’s this money coming from? Much of it from taxpayers. But the plan also counts on more than doubling the college’s endowment and donations, which, in the current climate, might as well include a line item for finding a treasure chest washed up on the school’s beachfront campus.

Adding to the conservative confoundment, this new New College aims to brand itself as a “luxury” educational experience, which sounds just a bit too swanky for even the most tolerant of budget hawks. The plan proposes to cast a line into sports, with a bass fishing team among other athletic ventures. Yet, details on the cost of NCF-branded bass boats and fishing shirts remain as elusive as a straight answer on a cable TV news show.

The devil is always in the details, but many of those details appear to be missing, including reasons and accountability behind a broad range of proposed spending measures that make NCF, with fewer than 700 enrollees, the costliest per-student public higher education institution in the state.

When asked for comment, most of the state’s top Republicans, be they elected officials or leaders of fiscally conservative organizations, declined to respond on the record, many saying that until we asked about it, they hadn’t looked at NCF’s business plan.

But while Republican Senate President Kathleen Passidomo says she, too, has not yet reviewed the newest NCF business plan, she acknowledged that she’s aware of the specifics, or, perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof. Clearly, word is getting around, even if it’s just whispered.

“She does have concerns, and the cost per student for Florida taxpayers is certainly among those concerns,” said Passidomo spokeswoman Katie Betta in an email to The Capitolist. “Ultimately, Senate committees with jurisdiction over these issues would review the plan more closely in the context of the budget process.”

Just a few years ago, DeSantis himself seemed at least as concerned about New College’s spending habits as Passidomo. When asked about a plan to fix New College back in 2020, the governor stressed to reporters, “…if there’s a way to do it that’s more efficient, I’m certainly willing to look at it.”

But no matter how much “efficiency” lawmakers like Passidomo and her fellow Republican senators might try to inject into NCF’s upcoming budget, there’s also the issue of transparency, mechanisms for which appear to be sorely lacking in the NCF business plan.

For example, Corocan and company have floated the idea that they should be allowed a $4 million “slush fund” to be spent on whatever the school’s new conservative financial stewards deem necessary, should they have any cash left over at the end of each fiscal year. Some of those same conservative powerhouses on NCF’s board of trustees might bristle at the “slush fund” label, but none can say with a straight face that they wouldn’t have used the same language to describe the proposal if it had come from NCF’s previously liberal leadership.

Then there’s the school’s proposed “Freedom Institute,” undoubtedly envisioned to deliver just the sort of academic focus that the school has sorely lacked, but at what cost?  The plan doesn’t tell us.

Nor does the plan mention the cost of one of its planned new post-graduate degree offerings, a Master of Education Leadership degree. It sounds nice, but who’s paying for it and how much will it cost?

On page 54, the business plan says NCF plans to grow enrollment from its current sub-700 level to over 1,200 students in the next five years, with the need to house 1,000 of those. But the school only has 630 beds, of which 100 are in such poor condition they can’t be used. Bringing the current residential facilities up to par would cost somewhere between $24 million and $30 million, the plan says. How much more, then, will NCF spend to add another 600 beds?  We aren’t told.

On page 71, the school posted 2022 operating income of $11 million against operating expenses of $53 million, for a net operating loss of $42 million. Those aren’t the kind of budget numbers that inspire clear-minded fiscal conservatives to shovel even more cash into the abyss. So what is it that is tempting Republicans with an otherwise respectable history of fiscal restraint to dash themselves on the rocks of New College as if they’d been lured by the legendary sirens from Homer’s Odyssey?

Speaking of Homer, the controversies are not just about being penny-wise. There’s also other vaguely defined academic shifts outlined in the business plan, all part of the bigger picture—DeSantis’ vision of an efficient classical education model, complete with a required first-year foray into Homer’s Odyssey and a second required course on Data: Exploration, Visualization, and Communication. The business plan says these two courses aim to function as indispensable foundations for students as they begin their New College career, setting the stage for students to approach their education with curiosity, resilience, and openness to new ideas.

But there are old ideas, too, including a contract system between students and professors, combined with narrative evaluations that replace the traditional letter grading system. Yes, you’re reading that right: under the new plan, NCF graduates won’t get letter grades. But don’t blame the new conservative leadership for that. That’s actually the way it’s been for years at New College, long before the DeSantis takeover, and has long been a popular feature of New College, both among students and, apparently, even among graduate schools that NCF alumni apply to. DeSantis and company view it as a distinguishing feature that will stay.

Clearly, the school’s new conservative administration is not throwing out the entire system, but it is all in on an academic overhaul without the usual fiscally conservative caution reserved for such experiments.

The stakes are indeed high. Florida’s taxpayers, especially those scraping by or saving up for their own kids’ college funds, are watching. They’ll want to know what bang they get for their tuition bucks. The business plan forecasts a growth in student numbers, athletic prowess, and academic prestige. But without the beds to house them or a clear roadmap to financial sustainability and accountability, these projections might as well be castles in the sand.

So, where does this leave NCF? Perched between a rock and a hard place, or since we’re already talking about Homer, between the Scylla of financial extravagance and the Charybdis of educational experimentation. The onus is on the college to prove that this isn’t just another exercise in fiscal fantasy—that it can indeed bolster its foundation assets, lure in donations, and deliver an education that’s worth every penny.

As the plot thickens and more details come to light, all eyes will be on the college’s next move. A revised business plan is expected from NCF any time now. DeSantis, Corocran and the school’s conservative trustees have charted a bold path, and the political risks are as high as the price tag. If they succeed, they’ll be lauded as heroes, at least in Republican circles. If they fail, many Republicans will grumble and wonder why we didn’t just close NCF down, save hundreds of millions of dollars, and make millions more by selling off the valuable waterfront campus property. Blending Republican academic ideals with Democrat-worthy fiscal opacity, New College’s future teeters between an educational renaissance and a balance sheet blind spot.

Read the entire NCF business plan below, or download it here.



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