In a letter to the campus community this week, St. Mary’s College of Maryland President Joseph Urgo offered some thoughts on why the school was cited by the federal government as the fourth-most-expensive public college in the nation.

“While not necessarily the kind of publicity we like, it does present us with an opportunity to tell our story,” Urgo said.

St. Mary’s charges $14,445 in tuition and fees. That compares to about $8,600 at the University of Maryland flagship campus in College Park

St. Mary’s has an unusual charge as a public liberal arts school. The college competes against College Park, to be sure, but also against Washington College, the University of Richmond and the other esteemed liberal arts schools around the Mid-Atlantic.

When the state legislature gave St. Mary’s its new identity as a public honors college in 1992, the institution was liberated from the state university system and given two things other Maryland public institutions lack: a broad measure of self-governance, and a dependable funding source. The goal was to give the college a fighting chance to compete with its private peers on measures such as student-faculty ratio, which remains a low 11-to-1 at St. Mary’s even after the economic downturn.

The college is funded through a unique block grant, adjusted each year for inflation but otherwise entirely predictable. The school is not subject to the financial whims of state government.

And St. Mary’s has been permitted to set — and raise — tuition as its board sees fit, to maintain its competitive position.

“Tuition and fees for a Maryland student attending St. Mary’s College have risen from $9,680 in FY05 to $13,630 for the current fiscal year, an increase of 40.8 percent,” Urgo said in Senate testimony earlier this year. “During the same period, tuition and fees at the University of Maryland–College Park have risen from $7,410 to $8,053, an increase of 8.7 percent.”

Tuition and fees have nearly doubled over 10 years. Financial aid has increased at a faster rate, Urgo said, with all the new funds going to need-based aid.

That fits the trend among the private colleges with which St. Mary’s competes: sticker prices have risen several percent a year, and financial aid has risen at an even faster pace.

St. Mary’s boasts an 86-percent graduation rate, the highest in Maryland.

“For a public college, our price may be high,” Urgo wrote in the e-mailed letter, “but we provide an educational environment that more closely resembles a private school, where the cost of attendance may be as much as twice ours.”