Do students get a better education at New College than at Florida State University? Not in my field – physics.

FSU Physics Professor Simon Capstick with a group of students in a Studio Physics class.

The proposal by Randy Fine, the Chair of the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee of the Florida House of Representatives, to merge New College into Florida State University as a means to save money has sparked a furious backlash from the New College community. The basic argument – at least in responses such as one written by Sachs Media communications professional Karen Cyphers on FloridaPolitics.com – is that the quality of education at New College is so much better than it is at (say) Florida State University that it justifies the cost to taxpayers of a New College degree – which is about a factor of five greater than it is at FSU.

I don’t support the merger. Nobody has convinced me that swallowing New College would be good for FSU and its students. But I’ll defend the quality of education we provide at FSU – at least in the Physics Department where I’ve been a professor for 33 years.

In October of 2016, a joint task force formed by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers released a report on the future of undergraduate education in physics that cited five college and university physics programs as national models. Florida State University’s Physics Department was one of those model programs.

The task force said this about the FSU Physics Department:

As a large research university, the physics department at Florida State University must balance competing priorities, including graduate and undergraduate education and research productivity, among a diverse faculty. A strong undergraduate committee and a focus on preparing all students for success have led to a number of successful curricular interventions that prepare students for several key transitions in the major, including entrance to the major and the transition to the upper division, and support students in developing communication and computation skills within the context of the discipline.

These interventions help keep students from leaving the major and better prepare them for success. The department’s other strong focus is on student community. Through intentional group work (particularly at the lower level), connection to faculty, and a centrally located lounge that keeps students visible, students are strongly encouraged to interact with one another.

The task force also cited the department’s active learning introductory-level Studio Physics Program (based on the SCALE-UP model developed at North Carolina State University), curricular innovations developed for physics majors and the department’s emphasis on getting students involved in cutting-edge physics research early in their time at FSU. (It’s proper to mention here that Rep. Fine visited my Studio Physics class in October.)

Is New College a better place to learn to be an economist or a writer than FSU? I don’t have the expertise to say. But I can say with 100% confidence that New College is not a better place to learn physics or to learn to be a physicist than FSU.

I could pick through Ms. Cyphers’ arguments about why New College is a superior learning environment issue-by-issue. For example, I could point out that nearly all FSU students live either on campus or in nearby privately-owned-but-student-oriented housing – making her statement that the on-campus residency rate at New College is much greater than at the other state universities, including FSU, somewhat (let’s say) disingenuous. And as for Ms. Cyphers’ preference for face-to-face instruction, which she says is “becoming less common at other universities”, I’ll issue an invitation for her to visit my classroom as Rep. Fine did. I teach in a classroom that is about a mile from her office at Sachs Media. On a nice day, it’s a pleasant walk.

Legislators make appropriations decisions – including about higher education – for all kinds of reasons. And it is not my place to say that New College should or should not merge with FSU (although I don’t see how such a merger would make FSU a better place to learn). But the New College community should be very careful about arguing that a New College education is superior to the education that FSU students experience. Because at least in my field, it’s not.

In the FSU Physics Department, undergraduate majors are encouraged to get involved in the department’s cutting-edge research programs early.
A Studio Physics class at FSU.

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