Admissions Seeks Applicant Increase

St. Mary’s admissions staff has faced some serious challenges over the past few years, and is looking for ways to increase student enrollment and college income. Applicants have been dropping off, with a 17 percent drop from 2011-2012. According to Dean of Admissions and Financial aid Pat Goldsmith, “Colleges are often judged by how selective they are. If a place is really popular, and gets lots of applications, people assume it must be a great place. This may be an erroneous conclusion, but lots of folks still reason this way.” For comparison, Harvard is at 5 percent, and a school like ours should hover at 50 percent or less. As a tuition driven institution, around 70 percent of funds come from student tuition, and less applicants hurts that fund.
During a presentation surrounding Admissions, Dean Goldsmith offered a few reasons for this drop. They began to use the Common App, an easier college application, in the hopes of attracting students, but it may have added to confusion, since last year they were using that as well as their own unique St. Mary’s application. Staff was also short, and could not visit as many schools as usual.
New goals for the 2012-13 year include increasing the number of applicants and out of state enrollment (out of state pays more, more funds for college), and creating new initiatives to attract students. One of those is the Common App, which simplifies the application process, as many current students may remember. They are also buying names of students from the College Board who took the PSAT’s and want colleges to contact them. Another goal is to widen the funnel, so to speak, of places to recruit students. More National Merit students are also desired as well as more students in the tops of their classes.
Financial aid is a serious issue for the college. Many students may not otherwise be able to attend the college without merit or need based aid. President Urgo would like to focus on need based aid more, and currently the college has gone from 25 percent need and 75 percent merit to an even 50/50 split. St. Mary’s evaluates financial admissions only after looking at all other factors for a student, and in this way they can plan their incoming class better. Jean Fetter, Dean of Admissions at Stanford, concluded the presentation about the process, calling it “an imperfect art and a constant balancing act.”
A few students were in attendance, but the majority were either professors or other adults. According to one Professor, Bob Paul, “I’ve been concerned about admissions ever since I came, it touches every facet of the college, and I want polices to give us the best students possible.”

Tuition Raises Will Hurt Families With Student Loans

I have heard through the grapevine that there is going to be a four percent tuition increase here at St. Mary’s. The increase is going to begin next year. When I heard about this, I was wondering how students like me are going to afford college tuition.

Currently, Maryland residents have to pay about $26,000 if living on campus and about $15,000 if they are commuters. Non-Maryland residents, when living on campus, have to pay almost $39,000. Granted, some students receive scholarships, and loans are given to students who do not have scholarships.

I have spoken to students who pay for college completely using scholarships and loans; when all is said and done, they are going to have a lot of college loan money due if that is how they’re paying for school. Admittedly, a few of these students are seniors, so they will not have to endure the tuition increase, but what about the rest of us?

I, personally, am not a student who is paying for college only using loans and scholarships. I do have a scholarship, but the rest of tuition is being paid for by my parents. Now, while my family are not so badly off that I will have to transfer to a cheaper school, there is no denying that the tuition increase will hurt us financially, along with other students’ families.

I have not asked students how this will hit their families, but I do know that students who have taken out loans – and whose loans are the only way they can pay for college – will have more money due when all is said and done. Though there is often a plan for paying back college loans, the more expensive tuition is, the more students will have to pay back. The idea of taking out college loans is stressful enough; the idea that even more is needed is even more so.

College is expensive enough. There are some students who, when I asked them what they thought about the tuition increase, said jokingly that they intended to transfer. While it may be a joke now, any further increasing of the tuition might cause just that: students may transfer to colleges that are not as expensive. When not from Maryland and students live on campus – which most students do – tuition is nearly $39,000. Four percent does not seem like a very large increase, but it will hit families.

Board of Trustees Decide Tuition for 2012-2013 School Year

On Saturday, March 10, the Board of Trustees voted to raise tuition by four percent for both in-state and out-of-state students for the 2012-2013 school year.

The ruling, decided by unanimous vote, means that in-state tuition costs will jump from $12,005 to $12,485, a $480 increase, and out-of-state will go up $963 from $24,082 to $25,045.  Other cost hikes include a four percent rise in room costs for all housing options, and a three percent rise in board costs for all meal plan options.

“Looking at rising costs, we came to the conclusion that we didn’t have much of a choice to raise tuition,” said President Joe Urgo.

“The board saw it as a good way to balance the budget,” said Vice President for Business and Finance Tom Botzman. “The aim was to keep it affordable while also keeping a strong academic program.”

According to Botzman, the four percent raise will give the College the ability to increase the budget for financial aid and the ability to strengthen the faculty while still paying all the state-mandated costs.

Another thing the College will be able to do for the first time is give raises to faculty and staff.  “The State will mandate a two percent raise, which means the pay freeze is off, so we’re hoping we can also do more,” said Urgo.

The College will also enhance Information Technology (IT) services as a result of the cost increase.  Such planned updates include improving Internet speed across campus, bettering security, and updating software.

According to Urgo, the tuition hikes for the College are consistent with nationwide college tuitions.  “Overall, we’ve seen a three to five percent raise across the country, and even higher in some cases,” he said.

Though the future is uncertain, Urgo claimed that he “doesn’t foresee a time when education costs aren’t going to go up.  You expect a college to have the best equipment with the latest technology.”

First-year Katherine Mahoney claims she is not a fan of the cost increase, especially because she knows students who have to pay for their college education on their own.  “I mean you get the good name, but it’s still a lot of money. [St. Mary’s] is already expensive compared to other Maryland universities.”

St. Mary's Not Included in State Tuition Buyback

The state of Maryland has instated a two percent tuition buyback for schools in the state system for the 2012-2013 school year; however, St. Mary’s will not be included in the program.

The plan simply means that whatever increase in tuition for state schools like Towson University, Salisbury University, Bowie State University, Morgan State University, Frostburg State University, and all the University of Maryland institutions, the state of Maryland will cover two percent of the hike in price.

Though the College’s Board of Trustees decided to table voting on the tuition cost for the 2012-2013 school year until March 17 in their meeting on Saturday, Feb. 25, students at St. Mary’s will not receive the assistance being given at the other colleges no matter the decision.

According to Vice President for Business and Affairs Tom Botzman, the state will not include the College in the buyback program because it is funded by a unique block grant that was agreed on in 1992, therefore giving it freedom from the state system and a steady source of funding.  In a budget presentation on Feb. 22 in St. Mary’s Hall, President Joe Urgo said, “We are lucky and pleased that the state has kept its promise all these years [with the block grant program].”

“The state allows us to operate as a quasi-private and independent institution, but we’re still public,” said Botzman.  “That agreement was made so [St. Mary’s] could build an academically rigorous program, and so that we could thrive on diversity.” He also noted that this position allows the college to set its own tuition to compete against its private peer institutions.

As far as tuition goes, Botzman, in the Feb. 22 budget presentation, gave the audience possible budget scenarios for tuition increases between zero and six percent.

If the College were to keep both in and out-of-state tuition at this year’s price, it would face a pro-forma deficit of 1.3 million dollars.  Cuts would come from cancelling IT (Information Technology) upgrades, faculty and staff reductions, and having to identify $419,000 in reductions to current academic and non-academic programs, and cancelling all new initiatives like the creation of faculty and staff positions.

If the tuition were to go up three percent, the pro-forma deficit would be at $684,000, forcing the College to cancel most new initiatives, including new personnel positions, and cutting IT upgrades by $70,000. It would also cap the faculty salary at two percent after a three-year salary freeze. A four or five percent increase would still leave the College in a six-digit deficit, having to freeze new faculty lines and taking an impact on students’ ability to pay and the College’s retention rate.  Finally, a six percent increase, Botzman explained, would actually leave a budget surplus of $70,000, but would severely reduce diversity and increase student financial strain.

Botzman also presented on the possible expenses with potential for reduction, which include reducing College coverage of unfunded Foundation scholarships by $500,000; closing Anne Arundel Hall in December 2012, saving $80,000 in construction costs; eliminating several open houses, saving around $5,000; eliminating admissions mailings, saving around $10,000; and delaying the implementation of two housekeeping positions, saving around $100,000.

“They are relatively little options, but they add up,” said Botzman.

Though the Board of Trustees gave recommendations at the Feb. 25 meeting ranging from a zero percent increase, raising it two percent for in-state and four percent for out-of-state students, and a four percent raise across the board, the final decision will not be made until March 17.

Tuition has seen a steady increase over the past twelve years.  “We will try to slow down the rate of tuition increase,” said Botzman.  “With that said, there are certain costs that go up every year in which we have to cover, and then there are some things that we want to do.  We always try to find the balance.” Though 44 percent of the College’s revenue comes from tuition and fees, Botzman said that in the future, the goal is to reduce that to about 35 percent.  The target budget includes filling the nine percent gap mostly with more funding from private donations and fundraising.

Though the tuition increase is inevitable, students are concerned about the climbing cost.  Student Government Association President Mark Snyder commented on the situation, saying, “It’s going to get harder and harder for people to come here.  It’s supposed to be a small, affordable, liberal arts college. It’s just slipping out of people’s reach, it’s not good.”

Tuition Discussed at Board of Trustees Meeting

At the General Session of the meeting of the St. Mary’s Board of Trustees on Feb. 25, sophomore Michael Killius was announced as the new Student Trustee-in-Training, and the controversial topic of the tuition raise for the 2012-2013 academic year was also discussed.

Current Student Trustee Maurielle Stewart introduced Killius, saying, “I’m sure he will represent the students well and interact with the board in [an efficient] manner.” Killius is a Nitze Scholar and Judicial Board member from St. Mary’s County.

One of the first orders of business was to approve Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the current mayor of Baltimore, as the commencement speaker for the class of 2012. The vote was unanimous.

Molly Mahoney Matthews, the Chairwoman of the Board, opened the session by saying that the “budget proposals [sought by President Joe Urgo and trustee Gary Jobson at the Maryland Senate Budget Hearing] for the College did not include the extra dollars that we feel our students deserve. Others students in Maryland public institutions have tuition brought down, and we want the same for St. Mary’s. As a consequence of not receiving the funding we wanted, we must thoughtfully review programs, remaining committed to active involvement in community.”

Urgo announced the establishment of The Joseph and Kathleen Garner Endowed Scholarship Fund, the result of a $1 million donation by alumnus Joseph Garner. The Fund “will provide tuition and supplementary co-curricular support to academically talented, financially challenged students attending St. Mary’s College, with a preference for St. Mary’s Ryken High School graduates,” according to the St. Mary’s website. “It is with profound humility that we contemplate this gift,” said Urgo, “which secures access to those with financial need and is designed to support the whole student experience.”

Urgo also lauded the success of St. Mary’s Day, in which the strategic visioning plan for the College, as well as the diversity of the campus, was discussed amongst students, faculty, and staff. “I’ve seen race and other conversations staged at different institutions,” said Urgo, “but I have never seen such an honest, insightful, and courageous production as ‘St. Mary’s Hear and Now.’”

The majority of the General Session was devoted to the discussion of how much tuition should be increased, if at all. Many trustees were reluctant to raise tuition to the suggested four percent, especially after hearing testimonies from students, faculty, and staff about the living wage issue and the constant struggle for students to pay their tuition bills.

Multiple amendments and suggestions were made by trustees that ranged from keeping tuition at a zero percent increase, raising tuition two percent for in-state students and four percent for out-of-state students, or the general four percent raise across the board.

Maryland Congressman and trustee Steny Hoyer summarized this issue by saying, “[The money to run the College] needs to come out of a pocket, but we’re running out of pockets and they’re getting pretty thin.”

Tom Botzman, Vice President of Business and Finance, explained some of the cuts that would have to happen if tuition were not increased: “The supplemental raise pool for faculty and staff would have to be cut, we would remove three additional faculty positions that were supposed to be created, we could not fund IT (Information Techonology) enhancements that are mandated by state, we would cut two housekeepers, reduce our advertising budget, and we would have another $400,000 of cuts, probably more staff.”

As the tuition was such a delicate issue, the Board agreed with trustee Gail Harmon’s motion to postpone the voting on the tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year until March 17, at which time Botzman will present the consequences and trade-offs that would result from each tuition plan that was proposed.

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.

St. Mary’s College of MD is a Pretty Awesome Place

The recent 7% hike in tuition prices has left many St. Mary’s students and potential students questioning whether they should shove out $25,360 for in-state tuition, and has every out-of-state student second guessing the $37,437 price tag that comes with a liberal arts education at a small, public, honors college. St. Mary’s is a small school with a big price tag. With the start of another school year many incoming students may be questioning whether they made the right choice to come to this school. While returning students are cringing at the price tag and the ever amounting debt they will soon face, most of us have come to realize that a college education from St. Mary’s is worth the ever-growing cost.

The Washington Post recently rated St. Mary’s as the fourth most expensive public college in the United States. Yes, $25,360 is a ridiculous amount for a public, instate college, and $37,437 is an even more ridiculous amount of money for a college that has only about 2,000 students (which is a generous approximation) but those of you who are reconsidering your choice should consider the price of doing business. Not only does your tuition cover class fee’s, housing, meal plan, etc. That money goes towards retaining all of the facilities and benefits that students enjoy, one of those being the amazing waterfront most of us list as out favorite part of St. Mary’s.

If the waterfront access is not enough to convince you that you made the right choice in coming to this college then look at the community you have been accepted into. Besides the waterfront, one of the main things that draws faculty, staff, and students to this school is the warm and welcoming St. Mary’s community. For those of us who have been here for a few years, we know that the sense of connectedness is not just a myth written on the admissions website. People really do have bonfires at The Point and someone will inevitably bring a guitar and a majority of the campus will show up, take their shoes off and relax. This sets us apart from other schools were you fall into a clique, sorority, fraternity, or you just become a number. It may seem like a drawback but the fact that there are less than 2,000 students at this school makes it really easy to form a bond with your fellow classmates.

Even if you aren’t really into the whole Bonfire at The Point thing than you find that you will soon be going to campus events and meeting people in various clubs, sports, and classes that you somehow know. The joke here besides doing something stupid and yelling “Honor’s College,” is that St. Mary’s is so small that everyone knows everyone else. You soon learn that it is weird when you meet someone and realize you have never before seen them on campus. As corny as it sounds, when you come to St. Mary’s you come to a community that is ready to accept you.

If all of this waterfront/community stuff doesn’t make you want to love St. Mary’s despite the exuberant price then look at the facts of what you get despite the small size. St. Mary’s students have every advantage that students who go to larger school have, in my opinion we have even more perks. We can boast the highest graduation rate of any public college in Maryland, we have a 90% retention rate, 66% of alumni seeking employment find jobs 4 months after graduation, more than 60% of alumni attend professional or graduate schools, and 92% of our students are accepted into medical school. All of this information comes courtesy of the Admissions Office.

St. Mary’s also has some of the best professors, with 98% of them holding doctorate degrees and some Fulbright Scholars. These people are not only teaching you but they become mentors and friends during your four years at the College. So for your money you are getting taught by the best and brightest who happen to be people who are warm-hearted, love teaching, and generally care for their students. This is something that is difficult to find in even the smallest colleges in the nations, but something that comes in handy in multiple situations.

So basically I say that if you are fortuante to be able to afford St. Mary’s than take every opportunity that the college has to offer you. As I am sure many of my fellow students will attest, this place offers a great education and is a wonderful place to spend four years of your life.

Tuition Likely To Increase In Spring

With the continuation of tough financial times and the related difficulties of budget planning, St. Mary’s College tuition is most likely to increase once again this semester. How much of an increase, however, is currently up in the air.

Vice President of Business and Finance Tom Botzman laid out the current budget concerns, the many factors going into the rising cost of the College’s operation, and potential solutions (including tuition increase) in his presentation to concerned members of the campus community Friday entitled Sustainability of the College’s Financial Model.

In this presentation, Botzman first outlined how the St. Mary’s budget works. He said that the budget is divided between the operating budget, which is what the College uses for day-to-day operations, the capital budget, which is used for building projects and maintenance, and the St. Marys College of Maryland Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization which handles the College’s endowment portfolio (money which is donated to the College to be used as investment capital).

The operating budget of the College is, according to Botzman, around $69 million.

Botzman noted that the College’s revenue comes from four sources: tuition and fees (44 percent); auxiliary services, including the book store and money paid for housing (27 percent); a state block grant based on the cost of living (27 percent); and other sources (22 percent).

Botzman also outlined the primary reasons that the College is in a difficult financial situation. The biggest one, and the one from which many of the others stem, is the current economic recession. Botzman asserted that the past two years “[were] the most difficult budgeting years since the Great Depression.”

This difficult economy has in turn led to a substantial decrease in the amount of money coming from investments made with endowment money, even fixed investments. According to Botzman, case transfer from the Foundation to the College (disregarding money for facilities) went from a high in fiscal year (FY) 2006 of $1.8 million to only $400,000 in FY 2010.

Vice President for Development Maureen Silva, who gave a presentation entitled Trends in Board Fundraising before Botzman’s, said that there was a loss of around $2 million in the endowment during 2008 and 2009, but that it had been recovered for the most part this year and that it was relatively, “not a dramatic decline, and certainly not as dramatic as other institutions.”

Another major problem facing the College is the ballooning cost of health care, for current, and especially retired, faculty. Botzman said that heath insurance costs for the College will increase by $427,000 next year. In contrast, the increase in the College’s state block grant is expected to only be around $280 thousand.

According to Botzman, it would take a three percent increase in tuition next year just to cover health insurance and retiree health benefits.

Other challenges for the College include the meal plans, upon which all profits or loss are taken by the College and a drop in revenue from the book store.

Botzman also discussed how increases in tuition would affect the College. A one percent increase would amount to a $1.2 million deficit and a $200,000 increase in revenue, with each percentage point increasing revenue (and therefore decrease deficit) by around $200,000.

Botzman then outlined three possible scenarios: an increase in tuition by three, six, and nine percent.

A three or six percent increase would still require the College to freeze faculty lines and reduce transfer to the Physical Plant budget, though the nine percent increase would allow an increase to financial aid and would allow the College to restore two eliminated faculty positions.

However, Botzman said he realizes any increase in tuition will increase student strain and decrease diversity on campus.

The College is also in the process of attempting to boost fundraising in order to lessen the need for tuition increase and make the College more stable in the tough economy. In her presentation, Silva emphasized reaching out to alumni and friends of the College, and was optimistic about efforts on this front.

She said, “we’ve more than doubled what was raised last fall… there are a lot of alumni excited about [President Joseph Urgo] and the way the College is heading.” She also said she was confident that she could significantly increase alumni giving through outreach, and planning for a new fund-raising campaign will begin in 2011.

Another possibility for helping the College’s finances would be to reapply for the yearly state block grant, which was last set in 1992 and not tied to the number of students currently enrolled. Since 1992, the College has added around 400 on-campus students.

Botzman said, however, that this possibility was difficult to justify unless the College were to go on a growth campaign, which there are no plans of doing.

Considering that the state has just announced a $1.6 billion deficit that needs to be fixed this year, Botzman said this was an unlikely solution for the short-term. He did say, however, that “the Governor has been really supportive of the College.”

Botzman said that the final tuition increase will most likely be announced in February, at the next Board of Trustees meeting and after the Governor’s budget comes out the following month.
Despite the difficulties of the budget, Botzman remained optimistic.

“The President and Board of Trustees are committed to keeping the quality of academic and residence programs while keeping the cost of the College affordable for students and there families. That’s always the balance.”

Tuition to Rise Three Percent

In a meeting on Dec. 5, the Board of Trustees, headed by Chairman James Muldoon, voted to increase tuition rates for 2009-2010. (Photo by Dave Chase)
In a meeting on Dec. 5, the Board of Trustees, headed by Chairman James Muldoon, voted to increase tuition rates for 2009-2010. (Photo by Dave Chase)

The Board of Trustees unanimously voted to raise tuition for the 2010-2011 academic year by $300 at their Saturday, Dec. 5 meeting.

The tuition hike represents a three-percent increase for in-state students and slightly more than a two-percent increase for out-of-state students. The Board also voted to increase fees, room and board by three percent for all students.

The increases come as the Board and school administration try to balance the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The current global recession has affected the school’s fundraising ability as Gail Harmon, Trustee, reported to the Board, “This is a tough time for development.”

Harmon added, “[The school] has lost [its] two top fundraisers, the College president and vice president of development” but feels confident that the development staff can reach its goal of $3 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

In terms of costs, the school’s greatest increases over the last year have been in the cost of health care and energy, according to Tom Botzman, Vice President of Business and Finance. Although, he said, “prices in general have not risen much in the last year, which helps with our budget considerations.”

Fortunately, the College was spared in the latest round of state budget cuts, approved by the Governor on Wednesday, Nov. 18. The College’s funding from the state comes in the form of a block grant. “It’s [an unofficial] agreement between the college, the legislature and the governor that [the College] won’t ask for increases in good times and in bad times [the College] won’t get cut,” according to Michael Cain, chair of the political science department and director of the Center for Democracy Studies.

“It’s been a really good strategy for [the College] to maintain a steady income from the state,” said Cain and, “if [the College] does get cut I am not anticipating that [the College] will get really large cuts.”

The grant block that the College receives each year is indexed to inflation and this year the school gained an additional $153,000 to compensate for inflation, according to trustee Peg Duchesne ‘97. She added that, “overall the College has been treated very favorable as the state addresses revenue falls.”

During the board meeting, Steny Hoyer, trustee and U.S. House Majority Leader, noted that the school’s financial outlook was greatly helped by the Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed earlier this year by Congress but that the funding will likely not be available next year as Congress will focus on, “job creation and financial responsibility.”

According to Botzman, federal funding for next year “is not yet an immediate concern,” and that he will wait until “the quarterly estimate scheduled to come out in December” before worrying about federal funding. “The College has built a solid budget for next year and that board is very careful about how [it] spends money…. [The Board] is trying to keep tuition increases as low as possible.” The three percent increase is lower than the national average.

St. Mary’s Tuition to Climb By Five Percent

Tashia Graham, Mary Donahue, Tess Wier and Rhett Greenfield prepare to protest an increase in tuition. (Photo by Brendan Larrabee)
Tashia Graham, Mary Donahue, Tess Wier and Rhett Greenfield prepare to protest an increase in tuition. (Photo by Brendan Larrabee)

The Board of Trustees chose not to break from over a decade of precedent and voted last Saturday to once again raise the cost of obtaining a St. Mary’s education.

Tuition, fees and room prices will increase five percent for the 2009-2010 academic year, while meal plans will spike about 11 percent. The Board voted nearly unanimously in favor of the rate upturn, with Student Trustee Jeremy Pevner casting the sole dissenting vote.

After hearing the opinions of over 100 students, Pevner chose to vote as a representative of the student body. “Students were looking for some way to feel that they had a voice, to feel that they had some sense of efficacy on the Board,” he said.

Still, he acknowledged that increases are needed to maintain “the premier liberal arts education that the Board expects, that the administration provides and that the students demand.”

The Trustees discussed the proposed cost changes for over a half-hour, making them the centerpiece issue of the hour-and-a-half general session. Most debate focused on preserving the accessibility and quality of Maryland’s designated Public Honors College in the face of rapidly escalating operational costs.

Secretary of the Board Molly Mahoney said, “I think I speak on behalf of the Board in saying that this is not something we do easily.” She stressed that the Board’s aim was to support the students of the College.

The Board and the high-level administrators of St. Mary’s ultimately concluded that maintaining the College’s academic program and student services has sufficient utility to approve a rate increase.

Trustee Gary Jobson said, “No one around this table wants to compromise the quality of education in any way.”

“The one thing that is inviolable is our superior academic program,” added President Jane Margaret O’Brien.

Both O’Brien and Vice President for Business and Finance Tom Botzman were frank about the need for raising tuition, fees, and room and board.

One factor is rapidly growing operational costs. The College’s medical insurance premiums are skyrocketing by approximately 1.2 million dollars and energy costs are increasing by about 1 million dollars.

Student initiatives have aided the College in conserving money, but the savings are not enough to offset escalating costs. The Great Room’s trayless program reduces food waste by 23 percent and sustainability efforts have saved over 20 percent on heating oil and electric bills, according to Botzman.

“We are absolutely thrilled that the students are helping us,” he said.

Cuts were also made by the administration. After hiring 16 new faculty members, plans to employ three more have been delayed. Also, some vacant staff positions, including posts in institutional research and athletics, have not been filled and their duties have been reassigned when possible. Salary increases have been delayed as well.

St. Mary’s is also anticipating a cut in Maryland state funding. The College’s block grant is currently around 17 million dollars. “We will find out, we believe in the next month, that the state has rescinded funding [to the College] in the amount of about a million dollars,” said O’Brien.

The St. Mary’s College of Maryland Foundation – the College’s endowment – has suffered during the country’s recession and has seen its returns shrink.

Botzman said, “The endowment has not been strong. In fact, the College will supplement endowment funds for next year. Any scholarships typically come from the Foundation, what the Foundation can’t support, the College will.”

In addition to scholarships, St. Mary’s will add to its financial aid pool in proportion to rate increases so that sufficient need-based aid can still be designated to students.

Botzman noted that each percentage point raise in tuition, fees, and room and board brings St. Mary’s about 200,000 dollars in revenue. The College would face around a 1 million dollar deficit if rates were frozen for the 2009-2010 academic year and a 3.5 million dollar shortage if they were held constant for two years.

“We would have extreme difficultly closing that gap,” Botzman said.

The Trustees were also concerned about a possible rate freeze affecting future students of the College. “Five percent is a lot, but it could be a lot worse,” said Jobson. He added that if tuition, fees, and room and board were not raised this year the College could be forced to implement a 15 to 20 percent increase in the near future.

If the increases were voted down, St. Mary’s would also have to make more wide-reaching cuts to its spending. “If we do have to decide to reduce expenditures, it will affect the academic program,” said O’Brien.

Though the Trustees voted to approve the rate hike with the long-term interests of the College and its student body in mind, not all students agreed with the Board’s rationale.

After hearing of a possible protest against cost increases, James Muldoon, Chairman of the Board, invited sophomore Sarah Shipley to address the Trustees before they voted.

She said, “The student body is extremely concerned about the increase in tuition for next year” and added that most students are “confused” as to where their tuition money actually goes.

Student Government Association Vice President Matt Fafoutis agreed that there should be an increase in transparency and student participation in the budgeting process. “Usually our exposure to the budget is ‘This is how the budget is’ and we have to say ‘Oh, okay.’ The process doesn’t always directly involve the students,” he said after the meeting.

Botzman offered to review the budget with students and present it to the SGA.

In her presentation, Shipley told the Board that, “You all are charged with looking after the long-term health of this College.” She said the “health” of St. Mary’s was staked on the diversity and happiness of its students and that both factors could only decrease as tuition increased.

Shipley originally planned to protest tuition increases outside of Aldom Lounge, the site of the Trustee’s meeting. Senior Tashia Graham, who is also one of the SGA’s Commuter Senators, organized the demonstration on Facebook. 24 students confirmed their participation online, but only around five attended. Protesters cited the cold weather and the relatively early starting time of the meeting – 11:00 a.m. on a Saturday – as the chief factors that thinned the crowd.

The protesters largely focused on the burden of higher tuition prices and the possible loss of socioeconomic diversity at St. Mary’s. Graham said, “I just see the economic diversity that was at St. Mary’s my freshman year dwindling.”

“Economic diversity provides different perspectives. People who come from more economically diverse backgrounds bring different ideas and different experiences,” she added.

Fafoutis did not protest, but was one of about seven students who attended the Board’s open meeting. He said, “I think we’ve reached a tipping point with socioeconomic diversity. I feel like we’re not nearly as diverse as even during my freshman year.”

Sophomore Mary Donahue, another protester, was concerned with her burgeoning debt load and the prohibitive cost of higher education across the country. “I need to pay for my own college education. My interest rates aren’t looking very good. To have to take more loans is so daunting of an idea,” she said.

Pevner also shared the stories he heard from students struggling to pay for college. One student he quoted said, “If you’re going to tell the Board anything, tell them not to forget the working-class students.”

Though attendance at the protest and the Board’s meeting was low, Trustees still took notice of student dissent. “I think it’s important that the students’ voices were heard about this issue and I believe they were,” Fafoutis said.

House Majority Leader and Trustee Steny Hoyer praised Shipley’s presentation and agreed that St. Mary’s should closely look at its expenditures. He also acknowledged a protester with a sign that read “$67,000 in Student Loan Debt” and said, “debt is a tremendous challenge for our country.”

The Office of Admissions and the Office of Business and Finance plan to aid both current and incoming students. “Access is part of our mission,” Botzman said.

The College has budgeted for sufficient need-based financial aid and will support scholarships that the Foundation cannot. Admission is need-blind, unlike many private institutions, and does not consider the financial situation of students before offering them acceptance, according to Rich Edgar, the Director of Admissions.

The Office of Admissions will continue to recruit a diverse student body. “The students have my word. We’re working hard to preserve the socioeconomic diversity of this institution,” Edgar said.

Botzman said that the Foundation’s end of the year appeal for funds is now for a call for donors to consider a gift to the Emergency Assistance Fund, which “goes directly to students struggling in the aftermath of an unexpected financial setback,” according to the College’s website. Both Admissions and Business and Finance also work directly with students to help them secure loans when necessary.

Botzman and Edgar also stressed that rapidly growing tuition costs are a national issue and that students considering St. Mary’s will likely see an equal, if not greater, upturn in costs.

“It is not insular…it’s a broader picture, everyone is going to have increases at this time and everyone is going to have cuts,” Edgar said.

After the concrete raises to tuition, fees, and room and board were in place, Pevner said he was “pleased with the amount of discussion that the Board had” and that he believes the Trustees will scrutinize the budget even further at future meetings. He added that he voted against the increases to give a “voice” to the students.

“It is important that the students feel that their voice was heard. Because, if not, then we stop caring and we can’t stop caring about this campus. As soon as we start doing that, then that makes us the same as everyone else,” Pevner said. “From here we move forward as a community,” he added.