New College improves in performance based funding metrics, despite previous struggles

“We should feel good, but we shouldn’t feel like everything is on cruise control.” Thiessen said. “We have a lot of improvements still to do.”

Every year, the State University System (SUS) allocates upwards of $13 billion in state funding, in part through a performance-based budget, where universities are evaluated on ten metrics. These metrics are scored on a scale of one through ten, adding up to a total of 100. Scores are based on excellence and improvement from the previous year. Last year New College received a score of 67, the lowest score of all SUS institutions in the 2019-20 academic year. This year, however, New College saw improvement in employment metrics, which led to an increased  total score of 87. The improvement allocates a larger amount of funding to the college, a positive turn during the economic uncertainties of 2020, yet Thiessen believes there is still room to grow. 

“There’s some other metrics we should be really proud of, but when you look at the employment metrics and the median salary metric, metrics one and two, that’s where we have a lot of work still to do,” Bradley Thiessen, director of institutional performance assessment, said. “Through our CEO, through our academic program, encouraging internships. Really getting students thinking about what they want to do after college as soon as they’ve come into college, which could be a change for this place.”

This past academic year, 65.3 percent of graduates  were employed or continuing their education after graduating, the lowest score in metric one. The same goes for metric two—the median wage of bachelors graduates employed full-time after graduation—with a median wage of $29,700. New College normally scores the lowest in both metrics, but with a 12.3 and 15 percent improvement in metrics one and two, New College was able to walk away with two scores of ten. Thiessen attributes the improvement to New College’s dedication and continued funding of the Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO), under Director Dwayne Peterson’s supervision. 

New College also saw improvement in metrics three and five, the net cost to students and the second year retention rate. In metric three, the net cost of attending New College decreased from negative $1,030 in 2019 to negative $1,400 in 2020. Net cost is calculated by combining the total price of tuition and fees, the credit hours needed to graduate and the financial aid offered to students. The net cost does not include housing. The second-year retention rate saw a ten percent increase from 2019, a trend New College hopes to sustain. Improvement in this year’s metrics played a key role in boosting scores and when looking at both improvement and excellence scores, Thiessen sees a press-worthy story.

“I’m gonna brag a bit because we earn more points, even though our score wasn’t higher than some other schools, we finished six out of the 12 schools,” Thiessen said. “When you look at the excellence points and the improvement points we get on each metric, we earned the highest score ever earned by any school in the SUS. Not only that, if we were measured on the exact same metrics as all the other schools, our score would have been 97. Which again, would be the highest score ever earned by any school.”

Thiessen referred to metric 8a, the percentage of graduate degrees awarded in “areas strategic of emphasis,” a variety of degrees outlined by the Florida Board of Governors (BOG). New College is evaluated on metric 8b, first years in the top ten percent of their high school class, a metric unique to New College and Florida Polytechnic University (FPU). New College saw its biggest decrease in the metric with 21.6 percent less first years in the top ten percent of their class, leading to a score of zero. Thiessen believes New College should not be on this metric. From a technical standpoint, New College has students coming from honors high schools, small high schools and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs that don’t rank their students. 

Thiessen noted that “30 to 40 percent of our students come in having no class rank on their transcripts.” This leaves a smaller group of students to take data from. Thiessen’s second reason points to New College’s lack of grades.

“Top ten percent, you’re obviously very bright,” Thiessen said. “But you could also be really interested in grades or you succeeded in that world. Maybe you’re not interested in New College, where we’re looking for students who take risks, who want to go beyond their comfort zone. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being the top ten percent of your high school class. That’s our kind of argument, that it doesn’t fit who we’re trying to chase. Although, we’ll take all the top ten percent of students we can find.”

New College only offers one graduate degree, a program in Data Sciences, that would qualify as a strategic area of emphasis. If New College were evaluated under the same metric as other universities it would receive a 100 percent score, a perfect ten. FPU, a small university akin to NCF, finds itself in the same situation. However, to be eligible for metric 8a, NCF and FPU must increase their graduation rate for graduate students to a minimum of 25 students. Until then, both universities will remain on metric 8b, vying for the same top ten percent students as other, larger universities.

“When you look at metric 8b, the one we’re on with Florida Poly[technic],” Thiessen explained. “Other than [University of Florida (UF)], UF would earn ten points consistently, the other schools earn five points or less. Most schools, six schools—so half of them—would earn zero points. It’s a metric where, if you’re on one metric, you’re pretty much guaranteed a high score, if you’re on the metric we’re on, you’re pretty much guaranteed a low score.”

When compared to the likes of UF, Florida State University (FSU) and the University of Central Florida (UCF), New College is a small fish in a big pond. The other universities have sports, large campuses and even larger budgets. New College, with enrollment on a decline, is not in a position to target such a specific group of students. However, Thiessen believes with higher enrollment fast-approaching, New College will bring those students in. 

“That’s not insurmountable,” Thiessen said. “Our goal is to have 300-325 students come in every year to reach our enrollment goals. All we need to do is figure out a way to take, of those 300, look at the 60 percent or so that come in with a class rank and get half of them to come in the top ten percent. We’re looking at 90 to 100 students we need to find across the nation, in the top ten percent of their high school. We should be able to do that.”

Despite New College’s struggles with the performanced based metrics, Thiessen acknowledged that the metrics work. He noted that when a metric is introduced into the system,  “the schools in the Florida State University System do improve.” While the financial incentive works towards improving Florida universities, the metrics are not perfect—they’re not measured or defined perfectly. Yet, he believes improving the performanced based system will be “a net positive for every university.”

Even on the current metrics, Thiessen believes New College should be doing a lot better. Being the small university that it is, NCF should be able to catch up to the larger universities, specifically in regard to graduation rates. Currently, metric 4 measures the graduation rate of “first time in college” (FTIC) students. The BOG decided to divide the metric into a six-year graduation rate for students who received a Pell Grant and a two-year graduation rate for students who come in with an associate degree. With the new metrics, Thiessen sees New College first matching and eventually outscoring large universities such as UF.

“We want to be recognized as one of the best liberal arts colleges, public or private, in the nation,” Thiessen said. “We look at those top 25 percent schools, they’re all above 75 percent for a four-year graduation rate. That’s where we feel we should be. Our strategic plan goal is to get [graduation rates] up to 80. We didn’t set that as just a dream, we really think we should be there.”

Thiessen argued that “it should be easier” for a smaller school, with a lower student-faculty ratio and focus on full-time students, to increase the graduation rate. However, Thiessen is optimistic about the future.  

“Although I congratulate them, it’s frustrating that UF and FSU are higher than us. They’re giant, we should be able to catch them—I fully believe we will catch them.”

While this year’s improvement is a celebratory accomplishment for New College, the effect of COVID-19 on New College and other Florida universities is still yet to be seen. Thiessen fully expects scores to drop again next year, particularly in the employment metrics due to COVID’s impact on the economy. A small silver lining is found in the BOG’s delay on raising the employment metric’s standards, making it harder. Regardless, Thiessen remains optimistic about the future and looks forward to New College’s continued improvement.

“I really do think we have a special offering here,” Thiessen said. “I think we’re finding our market or we will find our market again. There is demand for what New College offers. I just think no one knows we exist still, so the word will start getting out. What we offer and the outputs we’re producing and the students who are doing great things after graduation, there is a market for that. So I have no doubt in my mind that we can actually improve on this metric. It’s just going to take a lot of effort.”

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