With costs rising, universities adapt to lure students -- Gazette.Net


Second in a two-part series

Last week: Private-college endowments recovering from stock market dive

Paying the freight

Undergraduate tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year at select Maryland private schools

Johns Hopkins: $43,900 (plus room and board, $13,390)

Loyola: about $55,000 total

Mount St. Mary’s: $41,000 total

St. John’s: $55,648

On a freezing winter day, Robert Brennan was walking to his office on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg when he spotted a father and daughter.

Huddled over a map, they were obviously lost. Brennan stopped to help.

But he didn’t just point them in the right direction. He walked them there.

Brennan, vice president for university advancement, doesn’t know if the daughter enrolled at the private school in northern Frederick County. He knows that getting them to visit was a plus.

“We have very few students who’ve never visited the campus before enrolling,” Brennan said, pointing to an internal study that shows students are 25 percent likelier to attend after visiting.

Getting students to enroll is but one hurdle confronting private, nonprofit institutions.

The biggest challenge? The disparity between tuition and financial aid, administrators say. They address it in ways that are both universal and unique.

Tina Bjarekull, president of the Maryland Independent College and University Association, an Annapolis-based nonprofit, said private schools are taking cost-cutting measures. Collaborative purchasing agreements and hiring and salary freezes for staff and faculty are among them.

At the same time, they are being more flexible about how they deliver their educational programs with redesigned introductory courses, increased work online and more responsiveness to older adults seeking job-related programs.

St. John’s College in Annapolis has tightened its budget without cutting the number of classes or teachers for its 435 undergraduate students. The school — which has hired consultants to analyze the student demographic — conducts marketing campaigns to attract students and has started a summer academy for high school students, a potential feeder for undergraduates.

“The world is a different place than it was four years ago and we have to adapt our business practices,” said Barbara Goyette, St. John’s College’s vice president for advancement.

When new President Thomas H. Powell arrived at Mount St. Mary’s 10 years ago, he initiated a rebranding campaign. The school’s designation changed from a college to a university to better reflect the growth of its graduate programs. The main, 1830s-era dormitory was renovated; classrooms upgraded; the fine arts center redesigned.

A marketing campaign highlights the on-campus spirit of community. A revamped website makes it easy to apply online. Perhaps most importantly, Mount St. Mary’s embraced its religious heritage.

“We are honest, clear and committed to a robust Catholic identity,” Michael Post, vice president for enrollment management, said of the 2,300-student school, which includes 1,730 undergraduates and graduate and seminary students.

To Post, the numbers tell the tale. Applications and enrollment are up roughly 70 percent from 2008 to 2013. Ninety percent of students live on campus.

The “retention rate,” the percent of students who do not transfer after their freshman year, has gone from 75 percent to the mid-80s.

Half of the undergraduates are from Maryland and the rest from the mid-Atlantic states and Virginia. But inquiries from southern states, Texas, Florida and California are not unusual.

“Our competition is the Maryland state schools. Most are much larger than us,” said Post, who is convinced that Mount St. Mary’s University’s emphasis on community and “unapologetic” Catholicism are important factors in its success.

Likewise, Loyola University of Maryland takes seriously its Catholic heritage.

“We want to provide a first-class holistic educational experience that remains consistent with out Jesuit mission and identity,” said Terrence Sawyer, the vice president for administration.

Many of Loyola’s 4,000 undergraduates are not from Maryland and live on campus. The school has taken its responsibility beyond its Baltimore City campus to adjacent communities and the York Road business corridor.

To that end, Loyola’s Sellinger School of Business advises local businesses and has established an incubator for startup companies. Students volunteer in local schools, youth groups and soup kitchens.

“Part of our strategic plan is to improve their quality of life,” Sawyer said of the neighborhood.

Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore does not have a name recognition problem or a lack of major donors. For example, unlike the University of Southern California film school that twice rejected Steven Spielberg’s application, Hopkins made the fortuitous decision to admit a Massachusetts high schooler with a mediocre record.

“Hopkins took a chance on me,” Michael Bloomberg, Class of 1964, a billionaire and mayor of New York City, has said publicly. Over the years, he has repaid the favor by donating $1.1 billion to the university and medical side.

Still, the Hopkins Homewood campus, the main venue for its 5,000 undergraduates, and the hospital/medical complex four miles away are in urban environments where safety and stability are concerning.

Hopkins has committed its resources to two projects — one new and one long-standing — in the surrounding communities.

The Homewood Community Partners Initiative last year issued recommendations to improve 10 neighborhoods and one commercial district. The recommendations are in the areas of housing, public education, business development and job creation.

Hopkins spearheaded the collaboration and has committed $10 million over five years to leverage another $50 million.

In August, the Henderson-Hopkins School, for kindergarten through eighth grade, will open. The public school is expected to be an anchor in the decade-long, $1.8 billion revitalization of 88 acres under the aegis of the East Baltimore Development Initiative. From the start, Hopkins has been a partner in the economic rebirth of the area around its hospital complex.

Hopkins contributed $3 million to construct the $30 million school and committed an additional $750,000 for operating costs. Hopkins School of Education designed the curriculum and, in partnership with Morgan State University, will operate the school, a first for Hopkins.

Other Hopkins schools — of medicine, nursing and public health — will provide services to students and parents.

Andy Frank, special adviser on economic development to Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, called the projects a combination of good business and moral obligation.

“We know from surveys and other research that real and perceived conditions of surrounding neighborhoods are a factor in whether students, faculty and staff will come to Hopkins,” Frank said.

“It’s self-interest,” he said, “but also doing what is right.”