Joseph Urgo, president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, speaking during the college’s Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast Jan. 21. Urgo and said he is optimistic the bill freezing tuition for five years will pass in the General Assembly. (Reid Silverman/The Enterprise)

St. Mary’s College of Maryland students could get a five-year freeze on in-state tuition rates if a Maryland General Assembly bill is approved in the spring.

College President Joseph Urgo said the bill, introduced by Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), would prohibit the college’s board of trustees from raising tuition for five years. In exchange, the state would give funding increases equivalent to a 4 percent tuition increase, or about $800,000, each year. That would save students or their parents about $500 a year.

The college board of trustees met Saturday in Annapolis and voted to approve a 4 percent increase in tuition for in-state students. The board would rescind the vote in the spring if the legislation for the tuition freeze is approved.

The trustees also voted for a 3 percent increase to room rates, which will now start at $6,575 per academic year, and a 2 percent increase for food plans, which will have an average cost of $4,860 per academic year.

Room and board rates would not be affected by the freeze.

Bohanan, chairman of the Education and Economic Development Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, could not be reached for comment.

Urgo and several of the college’s trustees said they have high hopes that the bill will pass.

Urgo said the governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 increases funding to higher education. “There is money available,” he said.

He said people have come to recognize that St. Mary’s College was hurt by not being included in a tuition freeze in place at most Maryland public colleges and universities for several years. The college continued raising its tuition to cover increasing costs and expanding programs.

If the freeze goes through, students from Maryland entering St. Mary’s College in the fall as freshmen would pay the current $12,245 annual tuition throughout college. The freeze would only apply to Maryland residents.

If the freeze is not approved, tuition rates for in-state students next year would be $12,735.

Some members of the state legislature have criticized the college in recent years for its high tuition. Tuition at the University of Maryland this year is $7,175, about $5,000 less than that of St. Mary’s College.

“We can’t just price ourselves out” of being affordable to many students, said Gail Harmon, vice chairman of the board of trustees.

She said the college needs to think about the high cost to students who attend St. Mary’s from other states, for whom tuition rates will be $26,045 next year.

Student trustee Alex Walls said the five-year freeze, if approved, would give the trustees time to work on a more sustainable way to fund the public liberal arts college.

Bohanan’s bill and a companion bill introduced by Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) also include state funding to expand St. Mary’s College’s DeSousa-Brent Scholars program.

The program currently directs resources such as mentors, study services and summer enrichment opportunities to a group of 30 freshmen each year, said Sybol Anderson, associate professor of philosophy and director of the program. Students are selected if they are considered underrepresented at the college, based on factors such as first-generation college status, income, ethnicity, disability and geography.

The college would like to expand that program, increasing the number of students to about 50 per graduating class and offering support to them for all four years of college.

The funding would be phased in starting in the fall and ultimately would provide St. Mary’s $800,000 per year — about $4,000 per student.

The funding would continue if the students entering the college in 2015 in the DeSousa-Brent program meet certain retention and graduation rates each year, including a 70 percent four-year graduation rate. Money would be used to pay for mentors and other support.

Urgo said the performance-based funding is a new concept for a higher education program like the DeSousa-Brent Scholars. He said if the program continues to be successful, it could be used as a model for other colleges and universities.