St. Mary's College offers a unique liberal arts education at an affordable price

June 01, 2013

St. Mary's College alumni are currently aware of the "crisis" in admissions, which is unfortunate and reflects a number of factors, including the admissions strategy of the new college president as well as the changing nature and economics of higher education. While this situation works itself out they are right to express concern over St. Mary's future.

However, to suggest, as commentator Anne D. Neal does, that St. Mary's does not deserve to survive because of the kind of education it offers or because its curriculum is somehow inadequate, reflects a serious misunderstanding of a public liberal arts education and what the college means to its students and alumni ("Cautionary campus tale," May 30).

I do not speak in defense of President Joseph Urgo or his management decisions but rather on behalf of the faculty and alumni who best represent what St. Mary's ultimately is — a phenomenal and unique college education that we are all very, very proud of.

Yes, the annual tuition at St. Mary's is higher than other public state schools, perhaps because of the type of institution it is: A small, semi-public institution in a unique historical setting, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in this state.

Yes, St. Mary's students are at times a bit over-exposed to literature, the arts and philosophy, and they are required to take a seminar that may or may not have the title of the professor's recently published book. In other words, students go to St. Mary's for a quality, affordable liberal arts education in a small setting, and that's exactly what they receive.

That is the same reason folks choose to go to Bowdoin College in Maine, the College of Charleston, or even the Naval Academy. The difference St. Mary's offers from those schools is that it is a liberal arts experience available to the public at a relatively affordable price (compare St. Mary's $14,000 annual in-state tuition, to Bowdoin or Colgate University's, which both sport price tags in the mid-$40,000 range).

In addition, to compare St. Mary's to the University of Maryland or other large research universities is misleading because they are two different types of institutions with two different types of funding structures. St. Mary's can only count on part of its funding from the state, and must rely a bit more heavily on other funding sources than a traditional state university, including student tuition from a much smaller applicant pool, grants, and alumni gifts.

In citing a study conducted by her own organization, Ms. Neal claims that St. Mary's students could graduate from the college with "immense gaps in their skills and knowledge," for which she gives the school a "D." To support this conclusion she cites several "chic" or "boutique" freshman seminar topics and suggests that they are indicative of the entire St. Mary's curriculum.

I'm not sure how any seminar requirement serves as the basis for the quality of an entire institution, but a closer examination of the seminar requirement might suggest that these topics, while a bit niche-oriented, are just a few of the wide variety offered to freshmen. Other broader subjects pose very important and less flashy questions, such as "Can We Save the Chesapeake Bay?" "Science and Religion," and "The Nature of Altruism," which are sure to engage students in important questions very early in their college education experience.

Freshman seminars are a very common part of general education requirements across the state and the country, and they serve different purposes. Does the fact that the University of Maryland College Park offers a 100-level freshman seminar to act as a "sounding board" for first-year students while they adjust to the campus detract from the quality of the degree they will eventually receive?

Is the two-credit diversity requirement that is part of College Park's core general education a sign that "the bubble is bound to burst" or "the sagging has begun"?

No. These requirements reflect the qualitative nature of the world we live in and which St. Mary's prepares its students for, in its own unique way. To take a small sample of topics for a freshman seminar, which is a solitary and minor step in a student's college education and suggest, as Ms. Neal does, that they are the only kind of courses offered at St. Mary's is misleading and insulting to the outstanding and unique type of strong education that the institution offers.

In fact, within each major at St. Mary's, students engage in a rigorous program of study that is generous in its variety of offerings and does not deviate in any significant way from other universities except in the sense that class sizes are significantly smaller.

I would suggest that Ms. Neal's critiques are a bit misplaced. To argue that this year's admissions numbers — which are not part of an alarming, multi-year trend — somehow indicate that St. Mary's is a poster-boy for what she calls "America's bloated education system" is misleading at best and insulting at worst.

Perhaps Ms. Neal's Oliver Twist quotes are better served inquiring into recent management decisions by the college's president that have affected admissions, and which have nothing to do with the type or quality of curriculum the school offers.

In terms of the economic side of our education, I will not bother to tick off a litany of examples of successful alumni. Suffice it to say that any incoming freshman can rest assured about the intellectual and market value of a degree from St. Mary's.

Joseph Rieu, Baltimore

The writer is a member of St. Mary's College of Maryland's class of 2005.

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