Applications rise steadily at most of the region’s selective colleges. But at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the esteemed public liberal arts school, applications are at their lowest ebb in at least eight years.
Selectivity, too, is down. St. Mary’s admitted 72 percent of applicants for this fall, an unusually large figure for a school that typically accepts between half and two-thirds of those who apply.
The college has parted company with its longtime admissions director, Rich Edgar, in an apparent case of philosophical differences. (We have been seeing a lot of that this summer.)
President Joseph Urgo believes the admit rate is approaching the red zone— a number beyond which the institution can no longer guarantee the academic integrity of its freshman class.
It’s a surprising turn for St. Mary’s, an institution that rivals the flagship University of Maryland on some academic measures (it has the highest graduation rate among public institutions in its state) and offers - - in theory, at least — a considerable value in a sector of liberal arts colleges that more commonly charge $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
St. Mary’s charges about $15,000 a year, which is a lot more than most public colleges, but a lot less than most of its competitors.
The institution has an unusual mission as a public liberal arts school, competing for students with rival public campuses but and also with private lib-arts schools including Washington College, Goucher College and the University of Richmond.
The state legislature liberated St. Mary’s from the state university system in 1992 and allowed the school independence in setting tuition. The extra cash helps the school maintain an 11-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio. Tuition and fees have nearly doubled over 10 years. Financial aid has increased at a faster rate, according to Urgo, with all the new funds going to need-based aid.
Urgo arrived at St. Mary’s two years ago and set out to raise the school’s admissions profile and improve its aid effort.
Applications have been essentially flat over the past several years. As a potential solution, Urgo introduced the Common Application last year. The Common Application makes it easier for students to apply to multiple schools; institutions that adopt it generally see a significant bump in applications.
St. Mary’s, by contrast, saw applications decline from 2,359 to 2,003 in the year it added the Common App.
What went wrong? Urgo said the admissions staff loaded down the application with too much supplementary baggage, making it too complicated for some students to bother completing.
Next year, the supplement will be gone, and Urgo hopes applications will rebound.
Such debates are frequent on college campuses that consider adding the Common App. A college that hews to its own application generally attracts students who really want to attend, resulting in a high yield of admitted students who choose to enroll. The Common App, by contrast, encourages students to apply indiscriminately and tends to lower a school’s yield. But it also tends to generate many more applications and expand a school’s recruitment base; many schools that have adopted the generic form have not looked back.
Very few top universities have held out against the Common App bandwagon, Georgetown being the prominent local example.
Meanwhile, the Southern Maryland Newspapers reports an outpouring of support for Edgar from the St. Mary’s community. Edgar told that publication, “I hope the staff can continue to do the fine work they’re doing, but morale is down.”
Urgo has also moved in to change the way St. Mary’s awards aid. The main problem, he said, was a disconnect between the admissions and aid operations, with the result that the admissions staff paid too little mind to need and needy students sometimes received too little aid. Now, the two offices work together.
St. Mary’s used to be need-blind, meaning that students were admitted without regard to aid. That is a noble policy - - but it is very costly, and some schools have retreated from need-blind admissions since the downturn.
Now, St. Mary’s is need-sensitive, meaning the institution considers each family’s financial need in making admission decisions. What that means in practical terms is that the school doesn’t accept students whose need it cannot meet. Very few private colleges are entirely need-blind. Need-sensitivity works to the advantage of the wealthy, who can afford to attend without aid, but it also allows a school to ensure that every needy student who is admitted has sufficient aid.
In past years, Urgo said, “not only did we award too little need-based aid, we tolerated large gaps between aid package and estimated family contribution, thus implicitly encouraging more debt.”
Three years ago, three-quarters of the aid dispensed at St. Mary’s was based on merit rather than need. The admission staff handled merit aid, and the financial aid staff handled need-based aid. From now on, those aid sources will be roughly equal, and the two departments will apparently work in tandem. Urgo has raised the upper limit of aid that can be awarded to any one student.
He explained the shift in an e-mail to the campus community Monday:
“In admissions, we admitted students regardless of their financial profile and awarded merit aid to the highest achievers. Then, in financial aid, we distributed our limited budget for need-based aid equitably among accepted students who qualified, and capped the amount any single student could be awarded. These policies resulted in many students being left with a large gap between what they were awarded and what they could afford, and we lost many students whom we believed would benefit from a St. Mary’s College education.
“We need to do better - - and we will.”
Urgo told the university community that the school will cast “a wider net” for applicants, revise recruiting materials and step up recruitment travel. “We’re not changing our end goal,” he wrote, “but our strategy is evolving.”