College offers less-is-more plan to state

December 01, 1991|By Patricia Meisol blB

In a bid to remain competitive with liberal arts colleges nationally, St. Mary's College is making an offer it hopes 'N taxpayers and prospective students won't refuse.

It is asking the state for less money but a guaranteed amount in the next five years, and it is asking students to pay twice as much. And while it would remain public, the small college in Southern Maryland wants to cut many of its strings to the state.

In return for this radical proposition, St. Mary's is promising to continue hiring top quality new faculty; to offer the same courses and programs advertised when its current student body enrolled, or better ones; and to guarantee to meet the financial need of any state resident who is bright enough to be admitted but who can't afford the new tuition.

The plan is designed to steady the course in a decade when the economy promises to be bumpy at best. College officials say it could save the state about $5 million. If it works, St. Mary's would be virtually immune to more budget cuts of the sort that are wreaking havoc at other public campuses statewide.

"We are buying freedom," said Edward T. Lewis, St. Mary's president.

The proposal, to be presented to the Maryland Higher Education Commission Tuesday, is the result of ideas suggested earlier this fall by state Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery to help maintain quality while cutting costs.

RF "It's an acknowledgment that in the next eight to 10 years, public

higher education is not going to be funded at the level it has been in the past," Dr. Lewis said. "The next round of cuts would be devastating to the college, and we want to be sure not only that we retain quality but that we enhance it."

This is the second time St. Mary's has made an offer designed to let it move ahead with its goal of national prominence while, at the same time, saving state money. Its new $16 million science building was moved ahead of other state construction projects three years ago after the college offered to contribute $4 million of the money from college funds and private donations. The college had been scheduled to receive $19.5 million for a four-year improvement plan.

The new proposal designed by Dr. Lewis and top college officials calls for the state to give St. Mary's a preset lump sum of money annually that the college can use as it thinks best. After declining the first few years, the annual state contribution would increase according to an index based on inflation and other factors. Next year, the state will pay $11.1 million if the plan is approved. In 1994, the state contribution would drop to $10.6 million. Thereafter, it would grow by the amount specified in the index.

In return, the state would shield St. Mary's from any more budget cuts this year. In the future, a cut to the budget would require changing the law establishing the block-grant funding formula. In short, St. Mary's would remove itself from the discretionary part of the state budget and slip into the 70 percent of the budget mandated by law.

Within five years, the state's contribution to St. Mary's budget would drop from the present 49 percent to 41.3 percent. The college would make up the difference by admitting more students and continuing to raise money from private sources. To date, St. Mary's has been highly successful at private fund-raising. It has already raised $8.5 million in a $11 million fund-raising drive and expects to complete the drive two years early.

In return, St. Mary's would call itself state-related, a term used to describe Penn State University and three other campuses in Pennsylvania, as well as the University of Michigan. Those highly rated institutions are the models for the St. Mary's plan.

It means that the college would continue to be public and accountable to state higher education officials for such things as desegregation goals or quality standards, and it would need state permission to start new academic programs. But it would be freed from the detailed oversight now performed by officials of the Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning, who recommend budget levels to the governor, and from the General Assembly, which now has the power to cut any line in the St. Mary's budget.

The idea stems from a discussion of officials as they looked around to see what more they could possibly cut on a campus of 1,500 students with a comparably tiny budget of $19 million, of which $9.4 million comes from state money this year.

The college would raise the difference in part by admitting 11 percent more students, about 40 more each year.

By the end of five years, its students would be paying 41 percent of the actual cost of their education. Today, they are paying 28 percent.

By comparison, students in the 11-campus University of Maryland System pay about 25 percent of the actual cost of their education.

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