Public liberal arts colleges seek to exploit niche in turbulent market

November 22, 2013

They occupy a tiny but significant niche in higher education: Public liberal arts colleges.

A Washington Post article on the scramble this fall at St. Mary’s College of Maryland to raise its enrollment underscores the unusual market position of these schools. They aim to be selective and intimate, like private liberal arts colleges, but with enough public funding to make them more affordable. That’s the theory.

At St. Mary’s, a well-regarded public institution about 70 miles southeast of Washington, tuition and fees have risen significantly in recent years. The list price, not counting room and board, now stands at $14,865 for Maryland residents. That is much higher than the in-state tuition and fees for the University of Maryland at College Park, which total $9,161.

The payoff for St. Mary’s students is lower class sizes and closer relationships with professors. The student-faculty ratio at St. Mary’s was 11 to 1 as of 2011, according to federal data. At College Park it was 18 to 1.

The catch is that St. Mary’s has posted two straight years of dwindling freshman enrollment. Its first-year class of 384 this fall is the lowest at the college since 377 students matriculated in fall 2000, according to federal data.

The college is pushing hard to reverse the slide. One key factor, in an increasingly competitive admissions world, is price.

St. Mary’s belongs to the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, which has 26 members in the United States and one from Canada. The Post analyzed information on tuition and fees at the 26 U.S. schools that was included by the nonprofit College Board in its 2013 annual survey of colleges.

The data showed that the in-state list price at St. Mary’s was the highest in the group, followed by $13,388 for Ramapo College of New Jersey and $12,776 for Keene State College of New Hampshire.

The lowest in-state price for the public liberal arts group was $5,790 for the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, at $5,790, followed by Southern Utah University ($5,924), and the University of North Carolina at Asheville ($6,241).

Other members include University of Mary Washington ($9,660) and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise ($8,508).

St. Mary’s also had the second-highest list price for out-of-state students among schools in the group: $28,665 in tuition and fees. Only at New College of Florida was the out-of-state price higher: $29,812.

Trustees of St. Mary’s froze in-state tuition this year in an effort to help the college stay competitive. (Fees rose modestly.)

List prices don’t tell the whole story. St. Mary’s, like many other colleges, offers discounts to lure students. It plans to revise its financial aid tactics this year to get more admitted students to enroll.

But it is probably not an accident that UNC-Asheville has a pretty low list price, relative to this group, and has had strong recruiting results lately.

Anne Ponder, the university’s chancellor, said the school has 596 first-year students this fall, its largest incoming class in four years. “Our tuition is a breathtaking bargain whatever your comparison is,” Ponder said of the $6,241 listed price. “Students and their families are looking very discerningly at the value proposition.”

In general, Ponder said, public liberal arts colleges are “very well positioned to respond and to flourish in an environment which is pretty turbulent and difficult in terms of enrollment planning.”

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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