Admissions data from New College of Florida shows that new leadership installed as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis's conservative makeover of the institution has succeeded in drawing a record number of incoming students this fall, a boom largely driven by student-athlete recruitment.
The increased enrollment also came with a decrease in overall grade point average and test scores, markers that historically had helped the school earn a national reputation as a top public liberal arts college.
Overall, average ACT and SAT scores for the incoming fall class at New College are lower than last year. The overall GPA is also lower, according to data obtained by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, part of the USA TODAY Network, and confirmed by the college.
Much of the drop can be attributed to incoming student-athletes who, despite scoring worse on average, have earned a disproportionate number of the school's $10,000-per-year merit-based scholarships.
Establishing an athletic program from scratch within months has been a foundation of Interim New College President Richard Corcoran's plan to grow enrollment in the incoming class – the first class under his guidance and a cornerstone in the DeSantis-directed transformation of the school into a more conservative, classical liberal arts college in the mold of the Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Corcoran was named interim president by the college's overhauled Board of Trustees in February. He held a meeting on March 31 with admissions staff to push for record enrollment for the fall session. Thirty minutes after the meeting, the college announced the creation of an athletic department.
Some New College admissions staff members privately expressed discomfort with the tactics used to surpass Corcoran's goal of a record class of 300 or more students. Three staff members, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear for their jobs and safety if they publicly criticize leadership, said brochures have mischaracterized the school, recruiting staff has played up the college's athletic assets, and that offers of inducements, such as laptops, were inappropriate.
They also contend that the results, including the droves of student-athlete recruits, have diminished the school's academic standing, which has consistently gained national recognition. Last year, New College ranked 76th among national liberal arts colleges and fifth among public liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News & World Report rankings.
The combined GPA for student-athletes admitted to New College for the coming year was 3.61, compared with 3.7 for the overall population of 328 students enrolled so far. The student-athlete combined ACT score was 22 compared to 24 for the whole class. The student-athlete SAT score was 1097 compared to 1147 for the combined group of incoming students, according to records.
The average GPA of enrolled freshmen and transfers is 3.7 this year compared to 3.96 last year, records showed. This year's average ACT score was 24, down from 27 last year. The average SAT score was 1147, a drop from 1239 the year prior.
New College spokesman Nathan March said GPA and test score averages fluctuate from year to year, and any drop in scores this year is not indicative of an overall decline in admissions standards.
"We stand by our admissions process and are confident in each of the new enrollees to thrive in the vibrant and rigorous learning environment at New College," March said.
March also said enrollment of Black, Hispanic and male students in this year's incoming class has increased, adding that "the student body will be more diverse after the dismantling of New College’s DEI bureaucracy than it was before."
DEI is shorthand for diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Among their first acts, the New College board abolished the school's diversity office and Corcoran fired the head of the DEI program.
Compared to the previous year, first-year enrollment for Black students increased by about six percentage points, to 9.69% and male enrollment increased more than 23 percentage points to 53.89%, according to demographic data obtained Monday by the Herald-Tribune. The total number of first-year enrolled Hispanic students increased by 3 people but dropped from 16.48% to 12.5% compared to last year.
"Increasing enrollment was the first and highest priority of President Corcoran when he arrived at New College, and this incoming class is an important first step in saving Florida’s Honors College after decades of stagnation," March said in a statement. "New College failed to enroll even 200 new students three times in the previous four years."
Athletics department boosts enrollment figures
Of the 328 incoming students, more than a third are student-athletes. Seventy are enrolled to play baseball, and 45 others are slotted to play five other sports the college aims to provide.
By comparison, the University of Florida's 2023 baseball team, which came one game from an NCAA Division I championship, had 37 student-athletes, according to its posted roster.
Many sports at New College might not have enough student athletes enrolled in the fall to field a team, senior admissions officials said. Women's basketball and men's soccer had only one athlete apiece, while women's soccer had six, according to public records.
March said the number of baseball enrollees was representative of Athletic Director Mario Jimenez "hitting the ground running on the recruiting trail." Other sports will be following suit to fill out their rosters, he said.
For those that can field a team this year, it's unclear what facilities they will use or who they will compete against, because New College doesn't have any athletic facilities and hasn't yet been accepted to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.
The college appears to have hired head coaches for six sports: baseball, softball, men's and women's basketball, and men's and women's soccer; and has 10 more coaching positions listed on its hiring website along with other sports such as lacrosse and volleyball.
New College has tried to find space to build athletic facilities, including on the property currently occupied by the Sarasota Classic Car Museum. However, that property is not expected to be vacant for another several months as the museum and the college negotiate the museum's exit. Overall construction plans for the various sports are unclear.
March said New College has submitted its application for membership to the NAIA, "and we look forward to competing as an NAIA member" in the future.
Scholarships for student-athletes
Despite scoring worse on average than the overall incoming group of students, student-athletes accepted so far have disproportionately received merit-based scholarships from admissions. Of the 118 incoming students who received the $10,000 per year presidential honors scholarship, 77 were student-athletes, according to figures provided to the Herald-Tribune on Tuesday.
Student-athletes account for 65% of merit-based scholarship recipients but about 35% of the incoming class.
The $10,000 presidential honors scholarships are awarded at Corcoran's discretion. They are paid for by increased funding from the state since DeSantis launched his transformation of the school early this year with a slate of new appointees to the school's board of trustees. March, the school spokesman, said the scholarships are awarded to students who show "academic prowess" and are "well-rounded individuals."
"Presidential Honors Scholars have demonstrated attributes of perseverance, grit, leadership, integrity, drive, and citizenship within the student’s communities, schools, and workplaces," March said. "The Presidential Honors Scholarship is in line with scholarship programs" at a number of Florida public higher education institutions.
Corcoran made clear his emphasis on athletics early in his tenure, in addition to pushing for the college to establish a new mascot. When the athletics department was established in March, Corcoran said the college was "looking forward to building a culture that emphasizes academic and athletic excellence."
New College's athletic department has handled admissions for student-athletes almost completely independent of the general admissions staff. Corcoran authorized the admissions department to hire two newly recruited baseball players to help other prospective student-athletes complete their admission application, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Tribune.
The college also assigned new freshman and student-athletes to live in newer, cleaner apartment-style dorms that have historically housed upperclassmen. Returning students were moved to other dorms, including older ones that an outside firm said "should not be occupied in their current condition" due to a systematic mold issue that would require a fiscal investment to repair.
Attracting prospective students but at what price?
During a staff meeting in March, Corcoran offered admissions officials bonuses if they reached more than 300 enrolled in the fall, and he spoke about a renovation underway that would compare to nearby University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee buildings under construction.
"The ongoing renovations are exceptional and will allow students to stay in some of the newest, nicest accommodations on any campus in America," March said.
He said achieving the admissions goal "deserves a reward, and increased pay will be implemented to recognize the diligent work of the admissions team in assembling this record-breaking class."
Reporter Steven Walker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @swalker_7.