The University of North Florida pleasantly surprised me. Based on test scores and grades, admission to UNF is not as competitive as it is at the more common choices – UF, FSU, UCF, and USF – yet UNF is leading a quiet revolution toward excellent academic and social opportunities at affordable public university tuition rates.
The university is in a nature preserve just outside Jacksonville. There are scenic woods and lakes throughout the campus, and on the morning I was there, the only significant noise came from the geese ‘talking’ as they paddled by on one of the lakes. It was serene. As you browse the photographs of the university above, I encourage you to imagine the only noise being the geese.
The design of the campus is efficient. The vast majority of the buildings – housing, academic and research buildings, administration and sports facilities – are all contained within a ring road where a shuttle bus ferries students around every 2-3 minutes. The admissions office and several other administrative buildings that enrolled students don’t use on a daily basis are just off-campus and accessible by shuttle. UNF has 16,000 undergraduates – about 65% residential and the remaining commuters from the Jacksonville area – and it firmly intends to maintain the student body at that size.
There is none of the congestion or obvious crowding at some other large public universities in Florida. Since the campus is so quiet, UNF is a great choice for students looking for a relaxed, contained-on-campus college experience. The leadership team at UNF has a clear vision for keeping classes small and the attention on individual students as strong as possible. New residence halls and an ultra-modern student wellness center and student union, as well as ongoing library and aquatic center renovations, prove that the university has the funding and initiative to keep improving the student experience.
While there are 24 fraternities and sororities, there is no Greek housing either on campus or off. A conversation about whether to add Greek housing is in progress, but as of now, the Greek experience for students will be limited to gatherings and events. As well, the university’s basketball team may bind together many students, but there is no football team above the club level.
The housing options are plentiful, from the traditional style to apartments, and the rooms are relatively quite spacious compared to other universities I have visited. UNF is a mixed wet and dry campus, with strict housing rules in place that allow students above the legal drinking age to have alcohol in their dorm rooms, provided that no younger students are present. Housing is guaranteed for all four years and mandatory for ‘First Time In College’ (FTIC) students, which is the modern way of saying ‘freshmen’ in an age when most students are graduating high school with AP and Dual Enrollment credits and even Associate’s Degrees. Guaranteed on-campus housing, while a source of complaints from some students, to me is a definite plus. Numerous studies show that students living on campus earn better grades, are more engaged, and graduate at higher rates and more often on-time.
The academic programs at UNF are varied, with a few highlight ‘flagship programs’, including business (especially international business), nursing, music and theater, and construction and contracting. There’s also a pre-med track, communications and journalism, the full suite of health services and engineering, and many other academic programs. In each of these programs, the focus on small class instruction shines, with a faculty to student ratio of 1:20. UNF also has an Honors Program that has specialized trips, study abroad, and more personal advising than that available to regular students. The application to the Honors Program is separate from the general application for admission. The Coggin College of Business hosts a student-managed investment fund that any qualified student can join.
The dining options at UNF are robust and located throughout campus, with options for both cafeteria-style food and fast food eateries. Dining facilities are modern and spacious.
I left the campus with the impression that campus culture is important to the administration and that students who choose to attend UNF will be rewarded with as much attention as possible in a medium sized public university. The university mascot, the osprey – a large bird of prey – features prominently across the campus buildings and is the focus of a ‘chant’ the campus tour guests are asked to perform at the end of the tour. Students will also be surrounded by nature, where focus on academic pursuits may be easier than at more urban or larger universities.