New College of Florida: A small public honors college worth every high-achieving student’s second look

After hearing about New College of Florida for the first time less than a month ago, I knew I had to investigate what sounded like a hidden gem for some of my quirkier gifted students. Less than 1000 students and super small classes? Public, so in-state tuition rates are low and Bright Futures applies? Focus on “learning, for learning’s sake” and to that effect, don’t have grades? No shoes required?! Right on the bay! Honors college!

My mind was on overload, trying to imagine what a small, public, honors (and very liberal) college in Sarasota, Florida, could possibly look and feel like. So this past week I made the hike across the state to find out. What I found both exceeded my expectations and left a few unanswered questions.

The surrounding community

The drive to New College was pleasant, though it ended a bit abruptly, before I was expecting to get there. The College is located exactly on the Sarasota city limit, which means that it serves as an unofficial divide between glamorous Sarasota and its less hip surroundings. Nestled between USF Sarasota-Manatee and the Ringling Museum of Art, and directly across the street from the Sarasota Airport, it’s a 5-minute drive to Publix and 10+ minute drive to the downtown area, which has a lot to offer in the wealthy Gulf Coast retiree sort of way. That isn’t to say it’s a bad location at all, because New College’s compact campus is directly on the bay and has a breathtaking waterfront view and some architectural gems. My tour guides informed me that, while the small campus can feel isolating at times (only when you’re having a bad day and don’t want to talk with anyone, they insist), they have been able to make strong connections and lasting friendships because of the close-knit community and numerous opportunities to escape to nearby beaches, museums, and pubs.

Novo Collegians are learning lovers

A common thread among the people I talked to was an appreciation to make connections – with other scholars, with faculty, and with the academic work itself. New College strikes me as an ideal place for that student with a voracious appetite for knowledge, as well as for the student who learns best when they feel comfortable enough around their peers and professors to ask those awkward questions and discuss, rather than absorb, new information. I frequently tutor students who are shy and reserved in their high school classes, but come alive with novel thoughts and inquiries in our more intimate learning environment – these are the student to whom I would recommend New College. The students at New are also proudly academic, and they appreciate that their highly rigorous curriculum is excellent preparation for graduate-level studies. The natural sciences are a popular area of concentration, at 40% of students, and psychology, marine biology, and pre-med are all strong programs. There are numerous research and internship opportunities on and off campus for all students, January ‘ISPs’ (Individualized Study Periods) are required for three years, and a senior thesis stands between every Novo Collegian and graduation. In sum, don’t come here if you want to coast by on your natural intelligence and get a diploma after 4 years of fluff classes and partying – New College assigns full-page evaluations instead of grades, and at least one third-year student I talked with has never seen a multiple choice exam. You will have to work, but you will also likely learn a great deal more than at other universities in the region.

There are no letter grades, but…

Easily the fastest way to know that New College is different is to hear that they don’t assign grades. Drawing the conclusion that New College is ‘easy’ is then the fastest way to misunderstand the college’s policies. The admissions counselor I met with went through a very detailed explanation of the contract that every student negotiates with their advisor each semester, and the written evaluation that each professor completes at the end of every course. First, to say that New College doesn’t give grades is misleading. Students still complete exams, get graded on those, turn in papers and get detailed feedback on those, and there is a marking on every written evaluation similar to pass/fail, except at New College it is dubbed satisfactory/unsatisfactory. Akin to the pass/fail system, the idea behind not giving course grades is that students should be motivated by learning, not by achieving a particular grade. As well, students are afforded more freedom to take academic risks and push themselves into subjects outside their comfort zone. For example, if a pre-med student has always wanted to dabble in archaeology, but isn’t sure that she will be very good at it, she can take the course without fear that her GPA will suffer and her med school dreams will be dashed. And she just might discover a new passion in the process.

A high degree of student choice

That freedom is a sense that pervades the campus. Students are free to take any course they like; there is no Common Core. If a course is not offered, any student can – with enough foresight and effort – arrange a private tutorial course with any professor, for credit. The tutorial system allows the small-ish course selection to be expanded dramatically, and students use this option frequently. In other areas of campus, that freedom is seen in the strong LGBT presence and posters calling for social action and change of every passing student. Over 50 student clubs are represented, and the diversity of interests is astounding.

Retro housing: Maybe a downside, maybe not

Not all is rosy and delightful at New College, though. The rough underbelly of things lies in the outmoded 1960s dormitories, which apparently only recently have been getting some decades’ worth of much-needed TLC. The block of dorms I toured was well-designed, with every room opening to a shared courtyard and most rooms sporting sizeable private balconies. But with the push to enroll more students, dorms comfortably designed for two are now being converted into slightly cramped triples. Brand-new freshman housing is available and construction of more housing continues, which is an extremely relevant issue due to the next downside of New College: the retention rate.

Statistics show us another layer – know the fit before you start

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. Not all first-year Novo Collegians come back to become second-years. In fact, an embarrassing number of students transfer out. Also, more graduates of New College than its president would like to admit don’t find jobs after graduation. Now that the dirty facts are out there, I want to explain why I don’t think these things should keep New off your list – if by ‘you’, we take that to mean an intelligent, self-motivated, curious, scholarly type. ‘You’ will thrive at New College. But anyone out there who thought not having grades would make things easy, or who thought campus food was supposed to taste real (more on that in a moment), or who doesn’t like that the sports team options are sailing, fencing, and.. sailing, New College is probably not the right place. It is so peculiar, so different, that it makes sense that more than the average number of students try it for a year and decide not to buy.

Student life doesn’t top the charts, but it is improving

That is not to say that the way New College is administrated is not to blame for its retention woes. They have been catastrophically negligent about food for far too many years, consistently ranked among the worst in the nation, and those dorms have been crying out for attention long past the days when everyone stopped noticing. Funding for a “hippie” school (as New was once upon a time, but have no fear; becoming a publicly funded school has whipped these people into shape) was nonexistent. Only this year alone, though, the food service provider was replaced, the career and internship services team replaced and rebranded, the dorms made over, and special thematic housing introduced.

Next step: Visit!

I have high hopes for the days ahead for New College, but if you’re hesitant at all, look elsewhere. It’s a beautiful stretch of sea-front land with more fresh ideas about education and learning packed into a tiny space than it seems possible to handle. I know for sure that, for a certain subset of students, New College of Florida will make them better thinkers, better leaders, better socializers, better people, and easily give them four of the greatest years of their lives. If your interest has been piqued, visit!

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