New College of Florida’s business plan is “not financially viable” according to a UF business school professor

New College of Florida
New College Of Florida In Sarasota. By Seán Kinane (April 2023).

By Ryan Dailey ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — A business plan outlining sweeping changes at New College of Florida is “not financially viable” in its current state, a University of Florida business school faculty member said in an analysis that critiqued New College’s “strategic vision.”

The review of the business plan came as the New College Board of Trustees is expected Tuesday to choose a new president. Interim President Richard Corcoran, a former state House speaker and state education commissioner, is among three finalists for the job. Corcoran emphasized the business plan as part of an August interview with trustees.

Also, the state university system Board of Governors’ Strategic Planning Committee is slated to meet Wednesday to discuss “feedback” related to the 119-page business plan.

The plan details efforts to increase New College’s enrollment from roughly 800 students to 1,200 in the next five years, overhaul the curriculum over the next three years and make improvements to the Sarasota campus.

“New College’s singular mission is to be the best liberal arts college in America, burnishing Florida’s higher education credentials and producing a luxury brand to complement the state’s great research universities,” an introductory part of the plan said.

Amanda Phalin, a University of Florida professor who also is a member of the university system Board of Governors, asked colleagues in UF’s Warrington College of Business to evaluate and make recommendations about the New College plan.

Two UF faculty members, who Phalin in a Sept. 20 email to the Board of Governors said “specialize in teaching and evaluating business plans,” provided written feedback. Both faculty members, who are not identified in the email or the document, seemed to agree that the New College plan gave little consideration to who is in the target market that New College is trying to reach and how efforts to transform the way the school is marketed could translate to success.

“I didn’t see a clear problem outlined. What is the gap in the market? What is the unmet need,” a faculty member referred to as “Faculty Member #1” wrote.

As Corcoran has expressed a goal to intensify fundraising efforts, the first faculty member pointed to a need for the plan to have more detail about issues such as how marketing efforts would drive up enrollment.

“They had a lot of ‘product’ (solution) information (here’s what we’ll sell – curriculum, facilities, programming, etc.) and they mentioned some points of differentiation. But if I were looking at this from the point of a view of an investor I would like a lot more detail on the points highlighted above,” the first faculty member said.

The New College plan lays out “economic” and “ethical” arguments for remaking the school, an effort spearheaded by DeSantis and Corcoran that has drawn heavy attention since the beginning of the year. The remaking has included DeSantis appointing a slate of conservative trustees and the ouster of former President Patricia Okker.

The economic argument attempts to make the case for liberal arts education, which the plan touts as helping develop leaders with skills attractive to employers such as critical thinking, communication, problem-solving, project management, the ability to take initiative and teamwork.

“Development of these skills is embedded in New College’s unique curricular structure,” one part of the plan said.

The second unnamed UF faculty member, referred to as Faculty Member #2, said the economic argument section is “quite removed from the context of the remainder of the plan.”

The ethical argument bills New College’s academic offerings as being geared toward creating better citizens and leaders.

To drive growth, the school plans to launch a “Freedom Institute,” using $2 million in money that the school plans to request from the Legislature. The planned institute, which would host speakers, community events and and for-credit classes for students, has been touted by Corcoran as a way to combat “cancel culture” in higher education.

The plan also includes creating master’s degrees in marine mammal science, environmental economics and policy and educational leadership, in addition to academic programs on the “practical application” of artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, New College has launched six sports programs, which as of July had drawn 120 athletes to enroll in the school, with plans to have 350 athletes enrolled by fall 2027.

But the UF Faculty Member #2 said none of the growth-related aspects of the business plan “seem to have the potential to sustainably drive high-margin revenues (or even low-margin revenues).”

The New College plan also highlights what already has been a substantial investment by the state, pointing to “$50 million in new legislative appropriation funds to refocus New College on its students and rebuild from the neglect of prior administrations.”

The school has reported spending $500,000 to improve on-campus food quality, with a plan to continue that level of investment going forward. Also, it says it has plans to improve the campus infrastructure and extracurricular and social programs for students.

It also describes a goal to expand its market position. Noting that surrounding Sarasota and Manatee counties regularly produce about 20 percent of New College students, the school will seek to attract “high-achieving” students from outside the state.

“New College will expand its focus across the United States and beyond, focusing in particular on non-traditional high schools, whose guidance counselors will appreciate New College’s unique academic program,” the business plan said.

But the second UF faculty member, who wrote that the plan is “lacking in sufficient information about the market/competition,” also questioned its financial viability.

“The plan, in its current state, is not financially viable,” the faculty member wrote.

“However, there are likely opportunities for New College to become financially sustainable by leveraging ideas that were either marginally mentioned in the plan or were not mentioned at all,” the faculty member added.

For example, Faculty Member #2 said one such idea would be to “leverage (New College’s) coastal location in north Sarasota & proximity to St. Pete to offer executive education and certificates” in the financial, business, investment and entrepreneurship industries.

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