When the Answer to 'Access or Excellence?' Has to Be 'Both'

St. Mary's of Maryland, a public honors college, wants to be affordable while offering a private liberal arts-style experience

Jay Premack for The Chronicle

Patricia Goldsmith, left, meets with the admissions staff of St. Mary's College of Maryland, where she will become dean of admissions and financial aid in January. Among her challenges will be to advance the dual mission of the public honors college, which by state charter must be both affordable and academically excellent.
October 16, 2011

Patricia F. Goldsmith has a new job and a new challenge. Just hired as vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at St. Mary's College of Maryland here, she has been asked to make sure her college is affordable, diverse, and academically excellent.

Pursuing both excellence and access is something most colleges try to do, and it's never easy. Top faculty and state-of-the-art facilities cost money, but raising tuition can shut some students out. If the college makes scholarships to attract high-performing students a priority, it might not be able to support those with financial need.

For St. Mary's, the tension between the two goals may be especially acute. Designated a public honors college by the State of Maryland in 1992, it competes with both private liberal-arts colleges and the state's public universities. As part of its charter, it is expected to remain affordable but also to provide state residents with the same educational environment they would find at a small, private college.

In large part, it has done so. With about 2,000 students on its scenic waterfront campus, St. Mary's offers a core curriculum and a 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio. About a third of its graduates go on to graduate school within a year after receiving their degrees. About 19 percent of the college's freshmen in the fall of 2010 were first-generation college students, and 23 percent were members of minority groups.

Today, St. Mary's is under special pressure to fulfill its dual mission. Families everywhere are having more trouble paying for higher education, and the college's tuition and fees—about $14,400 a year for Maryland residents and more than $26,500 for those from out of state—have come under scrutiny by the federal and state governments.

President Joseph R. Urgo, who took the helm in the summer of 2010, is eager to shift financial aid away from merit and toward need. He expects Ms. Goldsmith to help begin that process, as part of his project to make the college more affordable.

It's a position Ms. Goldsmith is happy to be in. "There's a tremendous amount of work to do at St. Mary's," she says. "That's exciting, because it's very doable."

A Range of Experience

First, St. Mary's must figure out exactly how the college's aid policies and families' needs and preferences play out when admitted students are considering the college.

So it was important to several members of the search committee that hired Ms. Goldsmith that the new dean be well-versed in financial-aid strategies. St. Mary's needs that to move forward. Ms. Goldsmith, who will move to St. Mary's this winter from Scripps College, oversaw both admissions and financial aid during most of her time there. The committee also liked the fact that she had worked at both public and private colleges.

Mr. Urgo has also worked for both types, and was the chief academic officer at Hamilton College in 2010 when it announced it would institute need-blind admissions and meet students' full demonstrated need. Being involved in that change clearly affected Mr. Urgo, who sees a move toward need-based aid as both the right thing to do and a way for a college to demonstrate its strength, showing that students enroll because the college is attractive, not because they get a discount.

Mr. Urgo describes colleges' aid policies as falling along a spectrum. On one end are colleges with purely need-based programs; on the other, those that essentially have to buy students with scholarships. Today, 41 percent of St. Mary's students receive merit scholarships, in amounts from $500 to $4,250. While Mr. Urgo would love for St. Mary's to base all its aid on need, he knows it is more realistic to figure out where along this spectrum St. Mary's falls, and how it might be nudged toward the need-based end.

The college's financial-aid director, Caroline Bright, agrees with the president's desire to offer more aid based on need.

Sometimes, students simply can't afford to attend St. Mary's. "I'm not as heartbroken," she says, "when a student decides to go to Bucknell because they got a bigger scholarship there."

Ms. Bright was part of a committee of faculty and staff members who studied the relationship between the college's financial-aid offers and, among other things, students' decisions to enroll. They found that the less able a student was to pay for college, the lower the student's chances of receiving a merit scholarship. And, Ms. Bright says, there's no indication that merit aid goes to the students who will ultimately do the most to enrich the campus: "Sometimes it's hard to predict who your shining stars will be."

At the same time, Ms. Bright realizes things are not black and white: Some of the St. Mary's merit aid does meet student need, and the college can be a financial stretch even for an upper-middle-class family.

Richard J. Edgar, the college's director of admissions, says the link between admissions and financial aid has become more important. "Before, we were always inexpensive, so aid was not discussed in the admissions world," says Mr. Edgar, who is in his 25th year at the college. But now, he says, St. Mary's operates much more like a private college.

St. Mary's sticker price compares favorably with many private liberal-arts colleges. Ms. Goldsmith, who will start her new job in January, was unfamiliar with the college before hearing about the job opening, says St. Mary's needs to do more to convey that message. "This place," she says, "is a gem for a middle-class family."

Still, compared with the other state public colleges, St. Mary's is expensive. In recent years, the University System of Maryland, of which St. Mary's is not a part, was under a tuition freeze. That only widened the price gap between St. Mary's and those institutions.

New Policies, New Messages

Mr. Urgo wonders, naturally enough, how the college might adjust its price. When Sewanee: the University of the South, announced last winter that it was cutting tuition, fees, and room and board by 10 percent, he was intrigued.

That move, Mr. Urgo says, speaks to the struggle that many colleges have with remaining affordable and communicating their value to prospective students. (Some Sewanee students complained that the price cut turned out to be less significant than they expected, because the college also reduced their merit aid, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.)

More recently, Seton Hall University announced it would offer a lower price to students who met certain academic criteria—a move some experts thought might just be a new way of branding what the university did all along.

Affordability has also been a worry at the Ivy League institutions and selective liberal-arts colleges that have rolled out, and marketed, generous and straightforward "no loan" financial-aid policies.

This past summer, the U.S. Department of Education released a set of lists of colleges, by sector, with especially high or low prices, or large price increases. St. Mary's had the fourth highest tuition among four-year public colleges, and the third-highest net price, or the average cost of attendance minus grant aid, among that group. That is not the kind of recognition to which colleges aspire.

And this spring, in their 2011 joint chairmen's report, the Maryland General Assembly's budget committees asked St. Mary's to submit a special report evaluating its tuition relative to the state's other public colleges, whether it is affordable for Maryland students, and whether its tuition should be adjusted.

In its response, which was submitted to the legislature on September 1, the college explained its plans to raise $10-million to $15-million for institutional financial aid. It also suggested three actions that would allow St. Mary's to be the kind of public honors college the state desires: Cut in-state tuition by 12 percent, create a $7,200 need-based grant for Pell Grant students, and raise its overall four-year graduation rate to 80 percent, from 72 percent.

If the college pursued all of those proposals, the report says, it would be able to meet the need of its low-income students, bring its cost more in line with other public colleges in the state, and get off of the list of the 10 public colleges with the highest tuition. But all of that would require a significant additional investment from the state: $5-million a year, the college estimates.

Whether Maryland will agree to provide the money is an open question, and the college is waiting for the governor to begin the budget process. "We've been reminded it's a tough budget year," Mr. Urgo says, "but it's never a good time to ask for money."

When Ms. Goldsmith arrives on campus, she will have not only the college's recent assessment of its tuition to digest, but also the financial-aid committee's work, which has raised new questions. In a survey about the college's financial aid, students were asked whether they would have been likely to attend St. Mary's that academic year without need-based aid, and without merit aid. Students gave mixed responses to the second question, but the survey report noted that it was unclear if that decision was about affordability (since merit scholarships can help meet financial need) or something else.

The committee also wanted to learn whether merit-aid recipients were in fact the college's best students, so it asked first-year seminar instructors to identify three students who had enhanced their classes. The resulting list of names could then be compared with a list of students with scholarships.

Once more information is available, "the board is going to have to weigh the benefits of more need-based aid ... and the consequences of it," says Molly Mahoney Matthews, chair of the board of trustees. In all likelihood, she says, the college will make incremental changes and analyze their effects along the way.

Not everyone on campus is convinced that a move to need-based aid would be wise.

Take Elizabeth A. Charlebois, an associate professor of English who served on the financial-aid committee. Ms. Charlebois says she admires Mr. Urgo's philosophy of working to make the college accessible—"everyone wants aid to be for people who need it." But she also worries about what would happen to the college's top students if merit aid were scaled back: "I still want those students to attend St. Mary's," she says, and she thinks they have a "positive impact on academic quality."

Mr. Urgo continues to believe that there is something wrong with providing aid to students who can pay full freight, but he knows it won't be possible to abandon merit aid in one fell swoop. Instead, he says, St. Mary's will have to think more strategically about its need-based aid, merit-based aid, and the role both play in shaping the college's student body.

When Ms. Goldsmith arrives on campus, Mr. Urgo says, that will be a high priority for her. But even as a new strategy is shaped, her first job, like every admission dean's, will be to bring in next year's class.