Goucher College, suffering from an identity crisis since going coed three years ago and worried about the impact of an economic downturn on enrollment, said yesterday that it will offer $3.3 million in new scholarships to attract top students this fall.
The merit awards, including some worth $50,000 to $70,000 over four years, will be financed by dipping into the college's $62 million endowment, the first time Goucher has used the rainy-day fund for such a purpose.
They come at a time when Goucher and other liberal arts colleges are in intense competition for students because of a declining college-age population and comparatively low tuitions at public institutions.
Increasingly, expensive private colleges are moving to "buy" the brightest students, many of whom normally would not be able to afford the tuition.
"We're concerned about attracting very good students at a time when -- let's face it -- the economy is not yummy and college costs are a very big stumbling block for many kids and their families," said Rhoda M. Dorsey, president.
The scholarship program, approved by the college's trustees Oct. 13, will provide 25 full-tuition awards and five tuition-plus-room-and-board awards to students who meet academic requirements that Goucher officials did not specify.
As part of the new program, Goucher said it also will offer $5,000 awards to high school seniors selected by the state as Maryland distinguished scholars. Those are students who earn a minimum grade point average of 3.7.
When existing scholarships are included, it is one of the largest merit scholarship programs in the country, college officials said. Until now, Goucher has given $600,000 worth of four-year merit awards annually. Depending on the new enrollment, Goucher could be offering a free education to as much as one-fourth of its freshman class next year.
The liberal arts college, once an important conduit for women into the sciences, particularly through graduate study at the Johns Hopkins University, enrolled its smallest class in years this fall. Men now account for 23 percent of the student body and 33 percent of the freshmen class.
For Goucher, the merit awards are a way to help stem an enrollment drop that began in the 1970s, increased dramatically when men were admitted for the first time in 1987, and dropped again this year. Where once Goucher competed with a small number of women's colleges, it has had to compete since 1987 with long-established coed liberal arts colleges on the East Coast.
The scholarships are a first step in what college officials say is an effort to redefine the mission of a liberal arts college in the 21st century. Trustees and committees of faculty and students have been meeting to decide how to reshape the college and its curriculum since September.
"After 100 years as a women's college, we are faced with, and deal with every day, the fear of and the reality of not having a firm identity," said Steve Zimmer, a junior and one of 20 students on committees to discuss the future of Goucher. He called the task of building a new identity for Goucher both "scary and exciting."
The brainstorming for a new mission began this fall when Goucher enrolled 147 students, a drop of more than 25 percent. Increasing merit scholarships were a central part of a plan proposed by the faculty this summer to combat declining enrollment.
Goucher's tuition this year is $11,750. With room and board, one year's bill comes to $17,130. The student body numbers 950, and college officials said they hoped to have about 1,000 students next fall.
The average college entrance score for a Goucher freshman this year was 1,020. The average of those who received merit awards was 1,200, officials said.
In addition to merit scholarships, Goucher will continue to make awards to students based on financial need.