The Public Honors College
St. Mary's College of Maryland
On the Mission of St Mary’s College:
“Financial Aid” and the Public Trust

Joseph R. Urgo
President, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Address to the Board of Trustees - February 26,  2011

In a recent study receiving a great deal of attention in academic circles, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago 2011), observe that “When students enter higher education academically disadvantaged, they remain unequal, or in some instances grow even further apart. Initial inequalities are thus largely preserved and, in the case of African American students, even exacerbated. This pattern suggests that higher education in general reproduces social inequality” (40). This is a strong statement to make to those of us committed to education’s capacity to act as an engine of social and economic opportunity. I’d like to take the next 10 minutes or so to reflect on the problem, and then suggest how St. Mary’s College might participate in this national conversation. I’ll start with select passages from Academically Adrift to set the context for my remarks.

One final passage:
    There is no stronger argument for a public honors college. “Having high-performing students in the classroom can help improve achievement of all students, including those who have accumulated fewer skills before entering college.” However, if we allow ourselves to drift financially – if we allow our pricing structure to continue on a path that excludes or makes it more difficult for high-capacity, under-privileged and even middle-class students to attend, then we will have abandoned our historic mission. As the state’s “monument school”—a monument to freedom and inclusiveness—our mission is to provide an elite, academically rigorous liberal arts education in the public trust, accessible to all students, regardless of socioeconomic origins. Our classes, in other words, are for all classes.

    We are rightfully anguished, then, when we are faced with external cost pressures, with slowing support from the state, and with factors beyond our control that compel us to raise the comprehensive cost of attendance. My remarks today are in large part a response to our proposal to increase St. Mary’s comprehensive fee for 2011-2012 by 6%. The hard facts are these: since 2002 the portion of the College’s budget funded by the state has dropped from 39% to 26%, while the St. Mary’s Foundation endowment has risen from only $17.3M to $22.4M.  In addition, the annual fund has decreased from $223,000 in 2002 to just under $200,000 in 2010—and that 2010 figure includes $70,000 in emergency assistance funds. At the same time, the cost of educating a St. Mary’s College student has risen from $17,652 to $23,495. Thanks to our state funding formula, of which 26% is state funds, or $17.5M, we are able to keep the cost of a St. Mary’s residential liberal arts education to about one-half of our private peer institutions. Hamilton College costs $51,760 this year and the College of Wooster is at $45,668. We can truthfully state that St. Mary’s makes an elite liberal arts education accessible at a public price because it is underwritten by public funds.

    But for how much longer, with costs rising and state funds diminishing, will we be able to make that claim without inviting the criticism that even with this “public priced” model, we are unaffordable to key segments of society? Roughly half the students attending Hamilton and Wooster, schools I’ve just mentioned, are paying the full price of attendance. No doubt some are from Maryland. Those Maryland students, admitted to those fine schools, would likely be admitted here. If they were to attend St. Mary’s College, their families would save something like $100,000 in four years, largely due to our public subsidy. Some may get a Maryland Legislative Scholarship, if chosen by their delegate or senator. Some may even receive a merit scholarship from us because of their academic achievements.

   The scenario I’ve outlined-- of state and donor-raised funds going to students whose families have the financial resources to pay the full amount--is not only potentially true but quite likely so, and is, to me, a squandering of national resources. The tradition of non-need based merit scholarships is antiquated and counterproductive. It originated in an era when not all students were encouraged to attend college, and a “scholarship” was provided as an incentive to do so instead of entering the workforce. In a previous era, a college education was not the surest path to the good life, including a well-paying job, for all high school graduates. Today, it is. Today, every student who does not attend college faces greater challenges as a worker in this economy. Unless he or she finds employment in the increasingly shrinking segment of the workforce not requiring advanced education or training, the state may end up supporting them in some way. Nonetheless, higher education continues to incent high-capacity students from wealthy classes with financial awards, while tolerating a financial model that leaves higher education out of reach for many, especially first-generation, high school graduates. Even worse, and closer to home, it calls the question of the mission of St. Mary’s College. 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. And worse, it withholds resources from those who need it.

    Why are we in this situation? Why do colleges continue to give money to high-performing students to attract them to their campuses? We are an honors college; what the private sector more commonly calls a “more selective” rather than a “less selective” liberal arts college. The adverbs “more” and “less” signal just how selective a college is, and the adverb depends on the average SAT scores of the entering class, their high school GPA’s, on how many students apply and on how many we reject (as well as other factors, such as endowment strength). It has nothing to do with the quality of education delivered or on how much students learn in our classes. The correlation between high SAT scores and family wealth is a much more reliable indicator than the correlation between high SAT scores and college success. As a result, at the most “highly selective” private colleges you’ll find the highest percentage of financially wealthy and academically well-prepared students—the latter because they attended private or well-funded public high schools.

   Here is the predicament: If a school moves away from merit aid and no longer offer “merit reward” scholarships to wealthy, high-capacity students, they may go elsewhere (where they may get cash discounts), and as a result the school’s average SAT scores may drop, and with that drop will come a drop in the US News and World Report ranking (among other rankings) and the potential loss of a “more selective” designation. All but the most prestigious colleges are in this bind—what one Admissions Dean has called “an addiction, like crack cocaine.” But my questions for the Board this morning are these: how do we balance between two goals, our ranking and our mission? More importantly, if we provide merit aid to such a large degree, do we really know whether we are meeting our mission? And the more critical question: Is there a place for our mission in higher education? 

   To that last question, a resounding yes. The past twenty years have proven our case. Our mission—the liberal arts in the public trust, the public honors college—is more vital now than ever. To help us define the challenges before us, I have created a task force in academic affairs to study the relationship between financial aid and student performance. Their charge is to “follow the money” – are students on merit scholarships raising the academic bar for the College? Would it be 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?

   In the February 20 edition of the Washington Post Magazine, Daniel DeVise explains,
And then DeVise quotes the president of Earlham College, Douglas Bennet: “Every dollar that we spend on merit aid as opposed to need-based aid is wasted.” That’s a strong challenge to college presidents and trustees.

   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. With the assistance of the recently recruited, highly talented communications expert Maureen Silva has just brought on board, we are poised to articulate our mission and build our reputation—a critical element to our remaining an attractive option for families who can afford to consider many options. And as we continue to work to build diverse classes, we may become more attractive to both more middle and upper class minority students who may prefer to be at an institution explicitly working to address the cycle of privileged education in America by making an elite education accessible to the public.

   With a clearly articulated and policy-supported mission of the liberal arts in the public trust, we attract students with deep resources who are drawn to the quality of our academic program, and to the public mission. With increased resources for need-based aid, we attract high-capacity, low-financial-resource students drawn more to our egalitarian ethos than to institutions whose existence depend on massive amounts of private wealth. We attract in particular first-generation college students—the fastest growing demographic in the nation—and contribute to the end of the cycle of deficient education that afflicts too many families in America, and which weakens the competitiveness of our workforce.

   I am excited to see a national conversation emerging on the deployment of financial assistance in higher education, and look forward to the Board’s assistance in articulating its significance to an institution dedicated to the liberal arts in the public trust.

   Madame Chair, this concludes my address to the Board.
Aerial view of St. Mary's College of Maryland campus

St. Mary's College of Maryland
18952 E. Fisher Rd
St. Mary's City, MD 20686-3001