State calls on St. Mary's College to ease up on tuition

Study to look at reducing cost, increasing need-based aid

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

St. Mary's College of Maryland tuition costs have outpaced other public colleges in the state and may now be out of reach for some of the students it was created to serve, according to a report by the state legislature.

The Maryland House and Senate Budget Committees, in their Joint Chairmen's Report, last month sent a letter to the college asking administrators to address the higher-than-average tuition rates at St. Mary's College.

While the committees noted that it expected St. Mary's College tuition to be higher than other public higher education institutions in the state in part because it was established as a public honors college in 1992, the committees questioned why this past year St. Mary's College tuition was $5,652 above the average of Maryland public colleges and universities.

The report calls on the college to determine whether it is affordable for Maryland students and come up with a plan to adjust tuition downward if needed. The college's response is due back to the committees by Sept. 1 of this year.

"As an institution, we have one foot in our origins and the other in our potential," President Joseph Urgo said at a college trustees meeting May 13, calling the request from the state a wake-up call. It is timely as well, he said, fitting in with his call earlier this year to have the college move toward more need-based scholarship aid for its students.

In an interview this week Urgo said that there is a strong consensus among St. Mary's College trustees and college administration to address the issue of affordability. He said it may need to be addressed by both lowering tuition and increasing need-based aid, which he said are "two different ends of the same problem."

Urgo has said he would like to see St. Mary's, and ultimately all of the nation's colleges, wean itself off merit-based scholarships and move to more of a blind admissions process similar to many of the Ivy League universities that pay for all students' tuition needed beyond the financial abilities of their families.

About 60 percent of the college's students get need-based aid from the state or federal government or the college itself, Wes Jordan, outgoing dean of admissions, said. The college provides money to most of those.

Currently a student must maintain a 2.0 grade point average to keep need-based scholarship money and a 3.0 average for merit-based aid.

Part of St. Mary's College's mission is to provide an education regardless of a person's ability to pay, Urgo said. And based on that, he said, the college has not done an adequate job in keeping up with the need for college scholarships. While the national recession did play a role in this, there are other aspects at play, too, he said.

Two months ago the trustees voted to raise tuition by 6 percent next academic year, bringing the total cost — including room and board as well as fees — for an in-state student to more than $25,000 a year. This was to address higher health insurance rates for college employees and to cover an increase in retirement benefits owed to the state.

Twenty years ago the college agreed to a special funding formula with the state, which helps fund the institution with a block grant that has a built-in inflator based on the consumer price index, Tom Botzman, vice president of business and finance, said. This year that amounted to a 1.63 percent increase for total state revenue of $17.8 million.

Urgo and some of the trustees suggested it is a good time to reconsider this funding agreement.

At the time of the agreement two decades ago, which also included labeling the institution as a state public honors college, some at the college wanted to instead use an index based on higher education costs, which would typically be higher than the general consumer price index. The idea was shot down by state legislators.

"I welcome the opportunity to revisit our block grant," trustee Peg Duchesne said.

Tuition at other Maryland public colleges was frozen for most of the tenure of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), and state funding was beefed up, to help bring the escalating cost of college under control. St. Mary's College was not given extra money — or a directive from the state — to impose tuition freezes during that times.

Although St. Mary's College raises its financial aid budget to keep pace with tuition increases, the high tuition costs can contribute to shutting out students from low- or middle-income families, school administrators acknowledged.

John McAllister, a trustee of the college, asked if the college and student would be better served by lowering tuition or increasing need-based aid. That is one of the questions Urgo said he hopes to address with the ongoing study. The move to actually reduce tuition would not be unprecedented, but would be rare among higher education institutions.

University of the South, located in Sewanee, Tenn., a private institution, was losing some of its potential students to state schools with lower tuition rates. To address the spiraling cost of higher education, the college recently cut its tuition by 10 percent to help attract more students, Urgo said at the trustee meeting. "That's a gutsy move," Urgo said.

To add to the equation, as tuition rates steadily rise at the college, faculty pay has not kept pace, according to some professors. Bob Paul, outgoing faculty adviser to the trustees, said that salaries have led to morale and retention problems. "The board needs to remember this and attend to this," he said. He also advised that most faculty think the college should not increase its enrollment beyond the current 2,000 students and it should not consider adding any other master's programs other than the current master's in education.

The trustees at their meeting made some internal changes, including splitting its enrollment and student affairs committee into two committees to provide more focus on financial aid and admissions. They also agreed to open up the qualifications for students who need to access an emergency assistance fund. The fund is available to help students in dire need of financial help after a family emergency; it could now assist students who have families that fall upon hard financial times.