A campanile tower at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. (Norm Shafer/courtesy UMW)

The University of Mary Washington in Virginia belongs to a small cluster of schools nationwide that face unusual financial challenges and market pressures: public liberal arts colleges.

Troy D. Paino, the new president of UMW, said in a visit this week to The Washington Post that he wants to help the school “adapt to 21st century realities.”

In many ways, those realities boil down to funding and enrollment.

With about 4,300 undergraduates, the school in Fredericksburg, Va., named for the mother of the first U.S. president, aims to offer a liberal arts experience at a small fraction of the price of the nation’s private colleges.

Classes are relatively small, with a student-faculty ratio of 14 to 1. Tuition and fees this year total $11,570 for Virginia students and $26,160 for those from out of state. Private liberal arts college tuition often tops $50,000 a year — money that funds seminar-style teaching in a residential setting.

For a public college, keeping classes small and building cohesive learning communities requires constant fiscal vigilance at a time when state funding for higher education — in Virginia and elsewhere — is far less than it was a few decades ago.

Troy Paino, president of the University of Mary Washington (courtesy UMW) Troy Paino, president of the University of Mary Washington. (Courtesy of UMW)

Small class sizes are “hard to support in this era of declining state support,” Paino said. “You can see why presidents go down the road of growing enrollment for economies of scale.”

Paino doesn’t want to do that. UMW enrolled a record first-year class of 980 students this fall. But he wants to limit that figure in future years to 950 or fewer, to ensure that undergraduates continue to have close contact with professors. Instead, Paino wants to expand graduate enrollment with master’s programs targeting adults in the Interstate 95 corridor between Washington and Richmond. He also wants new degrees in nursing and other subjects to help “meet regional needs.”

UMW has about 300 graduate students, mainly in business and education. Paino said he hopes to double or triple that total in the next five years. He also said the school could seek to expand its work with transfer students who are seeking to complete a degree.

About 82 percent of freshmen at UMW in 2014 re-enrolled as sophomores in 2015 — a retention rate Paino wants to raise. “It needs to get closer to 90 percent,” he said. He also wants to raise the six-year graduation rate — which stood at 70 percent in 2015 — to at least 75 percent. About 17 percent of undergraduates at UMW have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants.

In 2015, UMW was shaken by the killing of a 20-year-old student and allegations from a feminist group that school officials had failed to act on threats against its members that surfaced on the messaging app Yik Yak. Officials denied at the time that they ignored safety concerns. There were also complaints that year about a lewd chant from the school rugby team that was captured on a recording.

“That was a bad year with some bad headlines,” Paino acknowledged. He said he has reached out to student groups since taking office to assure them that he wants to promote a culture of respect and tolerance on campus.

Paino, 53, an American studies scholar with expertise in legal and sports history, started at UMW on July 1 after serving six years as president of Truman State University in Missouri. He wears another hat as president of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. These 30 schools include UMW and Truman State, as well as St. Mary’s College of Maryland, New College of Florida and the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

As a group, these colleges are far outnumbered by mid-sized and large public universities. Paino said the small colleges need to educate consumers about what they offer. “Our calling card is a strong sense of community,” he said.

Too often, he said, students choose schools based on “what teams they are watching on ESPN.” (Mary Washington has NCAA Division III athletics.) He wants students to think instead about the quality of the classes they take and whether they are likely to graduate with significant debt.

“A lot of students would thrive in a public liberal arts college,” Paino said. “But they don’t know what that means. We need to tell our story.”