By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; B01
At St. Mary's College of Maryland, a library card entitles the bearer to check out a boat. An unofficial Frisbee golf course snakes around campus. Someone walking past the student center on a recent day might have glimpsed this slogan, scrawled on a brick wall above a row of unlocked bicycles: "Every man dies. Not every man really lives."
St. Mary's is a public liberal arts college, one of a handful of tax-funded institutions across the nation with courses and teaching methods that mirror such colleges as Swarthmore and Amherst.
At a time when many people are balking at the $40,000 annual cost of attending top private liberal arts schools, this "poor man's Swarthmore" in Southern Maryland is doing a brisk business. Last fall it had one of the busiest admission seasons on record, with 2,400 students vying for fewer than 500 freshman seats at a school with a $13,630 price tag for resident students.
Joseph Urgo, who starts July 1 as the school's first new president since 1996, envisions the college as an untapped national model.
"It's intriguing, and it works, and it's successful," said Urgo, an administrator at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "Often, you can be doing something somewhere and not realize it's revolutionary."
Urgo arrives at the end of an era that rates as tumultuous by the serene standards of St. Mary's. The previous president, Jane Margaret O'Brien, resigned last year under pressure from faculty, who said her management style had become autocratic and opaque after 13 years.
In the past 30 years, St. Mary's College has evolved from being considered a party school to an officially designated "honors college," with the highest graduation rate of any public college in Maryland.
And it is unquestionably public. Among the 100 top liberal arts schools in U.S. News & World Report's rankings, St. Mary's is the cheapest by far, apart from three military academies. In a region with an inordinate number and variety of highly regarded public colleges, the institution pops up regularly on lists of collegiate "best buys," alongside the universities of Virginia and Maryland, the College of William and Mary and the University of Mary Washington.
The typical St. Mary's student discovers the college through word of mouth, drives the 70 miles from the District to the banks of the St. Mary's River for a visit and never wants to leave.
"It's nice waking up and seeing the water," said Mike Selckmann, a newly minted 2010 graduate from Frederick County who, like half of his classmates, finished high school in the top 10 percent of his class.
"A lot of people here applied to a lot of schools, and this is the place they wanted to go," he said.More recognized
The Southern Maryland campus remains relatively unheralded, even within its own county, although that is changing. A recent survey found that half of Marylanders recognize the St. Mary's name, compared with about 40 percent five years ago, according to college spokesman Marc Apter. Even now, the school Web site includes this frequently asked question: "Are you a private, Catholic, female school?"
St. Mary's once advertised itself as Southern Maryland's best-kept secret. Today, that image could be a liability. St. Mary's is a first-tier liberal arts school with a public mission, which includes reaching out to minority students in the District and Baltimore.
The largest share of students, about one-third, comes from Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties. Slightly smaller numbers are from the city of Baltimore and from Baltimore, Anne Arundel and St. Mary's counties. Twenty students hail from the District.
Three-quarters of St. Mary's students are white, a larger share than at the University of Maryland at College Park. One-fifth are first-generation college students. Despite diversity initiatives, the college could still be largely characterized as a tuition-relief program for middle-class whites.
"Not enough first-generation students know about it. Not enough students of color know about it," Urgo said. "My sense is that we're not reaching those populations entirely."
The four-year graduation rate at St. Mary's is 72 percent overall and 71 percent for African American students, based on 2008 data. That makes it something of a national exemplar for equity in college attainment, an urgent priority of the Obama administration. By comparison, the four-year graduation rate for African American students is 41 percent at U-Md.'s flagship College Park campus and 18 percent among all public colleges in Maryland.
The school's success may not be widely touted, but it's well-known within the 26-member Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges in North Carolina. Bill Spellman, the council's director, said he wants to recruit St. Mary's and two or three other schools to "educate other members of COPLAC on how they do it, basically."
Faculty leaders at St. Mary's say their secret is their liberal arts approach: a small college with intimate classes and no lines outside the professor's door.
In 1988, Maryland's governor organized the state's colleges into a hierarchical state university system. St. Mary's president at the time, Ted Lewis, persuaded then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) to allow the college to remain separate and mostly independent, with its own governing board and spending authority. While other Maryland schools added students by the thousands and funneled them into ever-larger lecture halls, St. Mary's carried on with largely the same number of students and faculty. Few classes today exceed 30 students. The student-teacher ratio is 12 to 1.
Students and professors travel together on study-abroad outings. Seniors work with faculty one-on-one on projects.
"We sometimes joke when an incoming class comes in, 'We have to do their laundry as well,' " Björn Krondorfer, chairman of the philosophy and religious studies department, said.
St. Mary's has felt the pangs of the recession, just like the private liberal arts colleges -- Beloit College, Franklin & Marshall College, Dickinson College, Gettysburg College -- with which it competes. The difference: St. Mary's spends $23,000 per student, about half of the amount at the typical liberal arts school, according to school officials.Working with less
State revenue is flat. The downturn diminished St. Mary's endowment from about $30 million to $24 million.
That means fewer people are on an already light payroll. Provost Larry Vote has been filling in as acting president. The vice president of business oversees development and is liaison to the board of trustees.
"At Gettysburg, they have one secretary for their math department. And here, we have two secretaries for the entire building, which is math, physics, computer science and biology," said David Kung, math department chairman. "If you go to Franklin & Marshall, everything is meticulously groomed. We have a much wilder campus, and I like that better."