Lower UM freshman scores called a `blip'

Higher tuition prompted less-selective admission

September 22, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

The average scores of freshmen entering the University of Maryland, College Park have fallen slightly for the first time in six years -- and school officials say rising tuition is the primary reason.

To ensure they'd have enough students willing to pay up to $17,000 for a year's tuition, housing and fees, officials offered admission to about 1,000 more applicants than last year.

As a result, the admissions process was less selective. Median SAT scores dropped about 20 points, and the average grade point average dropped to 3.85 from 3.88.

While the change in scores is very small, officials said such a trend would be extremely worrisome.

"If this continues, I think we might find ourselves in the situation where the best students in the state are leaving the state," said William Destler, the school's provost.

University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan said he, too, was unconcerned about the drop in scores this year but worried about the future.

"If we're not careful and let in too many students, we're going to grow ourselves into mediocrity," Kirwan said.

Maryland's public universities have received little or no increases in state funding the past several years, and the state's Board of Regents has raised tuition nearly 30 percent over that time.

"This is an ongoing problem at nearly all public institutions as state appropriations to higher education continue to show a declining trend," said Sally Martin O'Briant of the Washington-based National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

Maryland's flagship College Park campus has worked aggressively the past decade to improve its academic standing by creating honors programs for accomplished students and building research facilities.

But given rising tuition, "we were concerned students might go elsewhere," Destler said. "We're in a competitive situation."

Last year, the university accepted nearly 10,500 students -- about 43 percent of those who applied -- and hoped about 4,100 would enroll. The school fell about 50 students short of that enrollment goal, and officials felt high tuition might have deterred some from accepting.

For this year, the school again wanted about 4,100 freshmen. Officials accepted about 11,500 students this time -- or nearly 52 percent of applicants. About 4,200 students enrolled at the school, about 100 more than expected.

Officials say this year's test scores are not a sign that the school is slipping academically.

"As a school goes up on the ladder or comes down the ladder, there can be slight blips on the way. I think this is probably an insignificant blip," said regent David H. Nevins.

The drop in grade point average -- which includes students from high schools where grades can exceed the traditional 4.0 -- is slight, Destler pointed out. "There is no real difference between a 3.88 and a 3.85," he said.

But nobody denies that the lower scores could be a foreboding sign for the school, which had an $81 million budget shortfall last year.

The university system has been told to prepare for no extra state funding this year, although Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has pledged to try to award more.

If there is no increase, Kirwan has said, tuition could have to go up by another 14 percent.

"To have quality, you need funding," he said.

Kirwan also was concerned that rising tuition could make it more difficult for public colleges to accurately predict how many students will enroll.

In-state student tuition does not cover the true cost of educating a student, which is closer to $18,000 a year. If a school does not predict its enrollment accurately, it will incur unexpected costs, Kirwan said.

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