Tuition’s Effect on the Diversity of the Student Body

I sat down to write an opinion piece on St.  Mary’s tuition, and after many hours of Facebook, a few days of fall break, and (too many) re-runs of Reba, I realized I wasn’t sure what my opinion was.

I know what I pay to attend St.  Mary’s, and I have a relative idea of what other people pay depending on what state they’re from or possible scholarships that they could have received.  Obviously these can differ a great deal, and in general, there is no lack of demographic groups on campus that I think I could point to. I guess my question was: Since we have a strongly diverse student body, why do our tuition rates matter?

As a sophomore, I have only been on campus for one round of tuition increases. Last year, I remember feeling indignant when I first heard that tuition might increase at St. Mary’s. I had worked so hard to come here—I had filled out countless scholarship applications (and received a few), kept my grades high before and during college (with the exception of any math grades), and became involved in organizations and causes that I cared about. All of my hard work paid off when I received a merit-based scholarship from St.  Mary’s, which is conditional on my performance at St. Mary’s.

Yet, last year tuition rose (by 6%). Housing costs rose for all students, and student fees were increased.  It’s important to remember that while St.  Mary’s is a public school, and should be accessible to any student, St. Mary’s must have a relatively high tuition in order to offer us an education that is similar to other small private liberal arts colleges. So in terms of St. Mary’s tuition revenues, we should recognize that St.  Mary’s does try to do more for us with less than a private school budget.

However, tuition rates for all students, both instate and out of state, affect what kinds of students will be able to afford a St.  Mary’s education. If we want St.  Mary’s to be a diverse community, our tuition and our financial aid need to reflect that goal. Excessively high tuition will alienate students who may feel like they are unable to attend St. Mary’s.

In conjunction with higher tuition, the types of financial aid that are provided to students by St. Mary’s will dictate what kinds of students want to call St.  Mary’s their home. President Urgo has discussed a move towards more need-based aid for students and away from merit-based awards.

However attractive need-based aid may be for students who need it, St. Mary’s needs to provide merit-based aid, too.Merit-based aid encourages hard-working, involved students to join our college, regardless of their financial situation.

A merit-based award shows a student that their academic, extracurricular, and service efforts are valued and desired at St. Mary’s. To some students, like myself, merit-based aid makes up the difference between attending St. Mary’s or another cheaper instate school.

To maintain a student body that is as involved as it is diverse, merit-based aid needs to remain a feature at St .Mary’s. What kind of honors college would we be if we didn’t reward students for all of the hard work that they do?

To answer my own question: tuition rates matter because they will affect the make-up of our student body. We need stable, relatively affordable tuition as well as both need-based and merit-based financial aid. If we are unable to attract hardworking and diverse students to St. Mary’s, as a college we risk losing the active, crazy, intelligent, quirky, and diverse student body that makes us who we are.

Board Votes to Increase Tuition by Six Percent

During their General Session on Feb. 26, the Board of Trustees approved a six percent increase for tuition, room and board, and mandatory fees for the 2011-2012 academic year in a decision that Board of Trustees Chair Molly Mahoney Matthews described as following a “difficult discussion.”

As part of the Trustees’ and the administration’s dedication to accessibility, Vice President for Business and Finance Tom Botzman explained that the budget for need-based aid will increase by six percent as well.

Prior to the Board of Trustee General Session, Botzman attended the Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Feb. 22 in order to explain the need for the tuition increase.

In speaking to the SGA about the six percent increase, he said, “you were certainly hoping for a lower number — I was too.”

Even so, he said with the current economic climate, “we should be happy that we’re holding our ground.”

Botzman explained that the Class of 2013 will likely be the first class to have all four years of their education overlap with a national financial crisis since the 1970s.

Such an economic climate has directly contributed to the tuition increases at St. Mary’s, according to Botzman.

Increased retiree and health benefits costs imposed by the state of Maryland, the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Foundation’s struggle to provide any sort of support, and the loss of revenue projected for next year due to a decreased proportion of out-of-state students are all directly connected to the recent recession and its fallout.

The costs due to retiree and health benefits would have necessitated a three percent increase on their own, said Botzman.

The Foundation’s inability to provide funds for approximately $800,000 in scholarships in the past three years has also contributed to rising costs as the College is providing the funds for such scholarships in its operating budget once again.

Many prospective out-of-state students have also chosen to attend schools where they can receive a state-funded education, leading to a significant loss of revenue for the College.

Botzman said that these circumstances necessitate a tuition increase, especially since the College’s block grant from the state is only receiving a 1.6 percent inflator.

The block grant covers approximately 27 percent of the College’s operating budget for the 2010-2011 academic year, according to a presentation Botzman gave during several occasions last fall.

Tuition woes have also been exacerbated by the block grant system; since St. Mary’s is not part of the University System of Maryland, state funding is not based on population.

Despite complying with a 25 percent population increase requested by the state earlier this decade, the College’s block grant has only increased by 19 percent in the past ten years, according to President Joseph Urgo.

Since administrators want to maintain the high academic standard for the College, budget cuts are difficult to execute without compromising quality.

In the end, these increasing costs must be covered by tuition increases.

“A lot of what we do is different from a business … We can’t run a deficit and then cut programs,” Botzman said to the SGA in explaining why these costs must be covered immediately by a tuition increase.

The Board of Trustees expressed a similar sentiment on Saturday morning, with one member saying there are “no alternatives but to pay our bills.”

The motions to increase tuition, room and board, and fees were approved almost unanimously, with Student Trustee Danny Ruthenberg-Marshall, senior, being the only member of the Board who voted against the increase.

In his column from Feb. 15 in The Point News, Ruthenberg-Marshall explained that, despite his understanding that the additional revenue is necessary, his voting against the increase was due to his commitment to represent the opinion of the student body.

However, Ruthenberg-Marshall was not the only student representative present.

The Board of Trustees also listened to student concerns on tuition increases.

Ruthenberg-Marshall and Dean of Students Laura Bayless asked for student volunteers to speak with the Board about their experience with tuition increases and financial aid.

Much of the discussion throughout the meeting centered on the nature of the College’s financial aid system in light of the tuition increase and its impact on lower-income students, with attention being paid to the differences between non-need based financial aid and need-based aid. (Urgo refers to “merit” scholarships as “non-need based” aid, pointing out that all financial assistance offered to accepted students is intrinsically merit based.)

In his report to the Board, Urgo explained that “the tradition of non-need based merit scholarships is antiquated and counterproductive” since it was developed to encourage students to attend college instead of entering the workforce in an era when a college education was not always the best path to success.

He maintained that scholarships for “students whose families have the financial resources to pay the full amount” conflicts with the College’s mission and dedication to access.

“It does not provide access for those who lack the financial means to attend an elite, residential liberal arts college; it instead provides a bargain to those who have numerous other options,” Urgo said, asking that there be a dialogue concerning a shift from non-need based financial aid to a completely need-based system.

Such a change would have an impact on the College’s rankings. Rankings are based on an entering class’s average SAT scores and high school GPA, not on “the quality of education delivered or how much students learn in our classes,” said Urgo.

With a reduction in non-need based financial aid, wealthy students who were able to attend private or well-funded high schools may choose to attend colleges that offer them scholarships, meaning that the average SAT scores and GPA for St. Mary’s students would drop and rankings along with it.

Urgo explained that colleges around the nation are dealing with this predicament, pointing out that it begs the administration to question: “How do we balance between two goals, our ranking and our mission?”

The College has been heading in the direction that Urgo is pushing for for many years.

In an interview with The Point News after the Board of Trustees General Session, Botzman said that, though tuition has risen by 85 percent, financial aid has risen by 232 percent.

According to Botzman’s presentation to the SGA, only one-third of the financial aid budget was dedicated to need-based aid ten years ago; today, two-thirds of financial aid offered by the College is need-based.

Even so, Urgo has created a task force in academic affairs in order “to study the relationship between financial aid and student performance.”

In addition, this task force will examine how it is “possible to begin to shift funds more aggressively away from non-need based scholarships to need-based financial assistance without jeopardizing academic rigor and the standards appropriate to an honors-level program.”

“I’d like to see students despite financial status drawn to St. Mary’s College not simply because of its value, but because of our values,” said Urgo, pointing to the College’s “egalitarian ethos” and its dedication to “address[ing] the cycle of privileged education in America by making an elite education accessible to the public.”

For now, tuition increases will be negatively impacting students and their families’ ability to cover costs.

There are emergency funds that have helped over two dozen students over the past years and that are available for students who are struggling financially, though Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Wes Jordan, explained that these funds are usually reserved for students who experience catastrophic difficulties.

Fund-raising remains as the top priority to avoid such high increases in the future.

Any students who are interested in learning more about tuition, the College’s operating budget and the College’s sources of revenue are encouraged to attend the SGA meeting on Mar. 8 where Botzman will be giving a more thorough presentation on the recent tuition increase.

“You have the right to know” about such financial matters, said Botzman to the SGA in his previous discussion, “you make a huge investment in this place.”