For months, New College of Florida students have watched Ron DeSantis, the state’s Republican governor, start to remold their institution and the liberal arts experience they cherish.
In January, DeSantis installed several far-right voices on the New College governing board, who in turn pledged to excise “wokeness” from the institution.
To that end, the new trustees fired the public college’s president, positioning a DeSantis ally — former state GOP representative and Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran — to take over on an interim basis. The board also abolished the institution’s diversity office, falling in line with DeSantis’ goal to weed out such initiatives.
Some students want to fight DeSantis’ “hostile takeover,” but others will undoubtedly seek the exit door.
Transferring students might have a new option. Hampshire College, a prominent, private liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, announced Thursday it would guarantee admission and match tuition price for any New College of Florida student in good standing.
The offer responds to “continuing attacks on New College of Florida intended to limit intellectual exploration, turn back progress toward inclusion, and curtail open discussion of race, injustice, and histories of oppression,” Hampshire said in a statement.
“Hampshire will provide a welcoming environment for all who want the freedom to study and act on the urgent challenges of our time, without ideological limits imposed by the state,” the college said.
Corcoran, New College’s interim president, said in an emailed statement: “Who is Hampshire College? I am disappointed by their attempt to get free publicity and insert themselves into a narrative of progress and success in liberal arts education here in Florida.”
A different kind of deal
The arrangement is unusual — a private college granting a much cheaper tuition rate to public college students in a state that doesn’t touch Massachusetts’ borders. But then, American higher education is an unusual place at the moment.
State Republicans, not just in Florida, have encroached more heavily on college operations traditionally left to administrators and faculty. The GOP in various places has attempted to control curricula, restrict faculty tenure and eradicate diversity programs.
Political meddling in Florida resulted in Hampshire’s deal, which bears some resemblance to teach-out plans, crafted when colleges close and they work with similar institutions to ensure smooth transfers, said Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
It’s also a strong public relations strategy for Hampshire that could generate goodwill and new students, Kelchen said. That’s important, because just a few years ago the college faced a ruinous budget crunch that seemed to portend its closure — and is still working to rebuild its student body.
“They were on the brink of closure, they have even bigger incentive to tap into student markets elsewhere,” Kelchen said.
Kelchen said the deal could attract some students, as New College attendees hunting for a comparable institution have scant options. New College is the only public liberal arts college in Florida, and it follows distinctive, self-directed curricula in which students don’t receive letter grades.
Hampshire resembles New College in several ways. It also maintains a nontraditional grading system. It enrolled 472 students in fall 2021, according to the most recently available federal data, while New College enrolled just a couple hundred more, 659, that term.
New College’s student-to-faculty ratio is 6-to-1, versus Hampshire’s 11-to-1.
The Massachusetts institution also attracts “a similar type of student” seeking a liberal arts education, Kelchen said. A major hurdle would be transferring to an institution far from Florida, but Hampshire is “similar from a student experience standpoint if you don’t mind the lack of beaches,” he said.
The two institutions’ tuition rates do differ dramatically. Hampshire listed its 2023-24 sticker price as $54,892, though students attending private nonprofit colleges generally do not pay full freight. Hampshire’s net price — what full-time students pay after accounting for financial aid — was $30,168 in the 2020-21 academic year, according to the latest available federal data.
This is far cry from New College of Florida’s pricing — its net price was $9,727 in 2020-21.
Kelchen said Hampshire will be able to afford taking on the New College students and their lower tuition rates if they don’t need to hire new faculty or build facilities to accommodate them. Likely, the college has the capacity, he said.
Kelchen said as the political strife continues, he could see other institutions attempting a deal like Hampshire’s — especially as a public relations tactic.
Hampshire said it is accepting materials to initiate the transfers on a rolling basis through Aug. 1.
The college will set students’ graduation date “depending on the number of semesters they completed at New College of Florida based on an eight-semester timeline.” It will create a financial aid package for New College students that will bring tuition costs to what they currently pay at the Florida institution.