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St. Mary’s College of Maryland is looking at a smaller-than-expected freshman class next year that could lead to a deficit of millions of dollars.

President Joseph Urgo sent an all-campus email May 3 that said there is “a record low number of student deposits — significantly below our targets” for the fall semester.

Urgo said in the email that while the academic credentials of the new class are strong, “the shortfall results in a serious challenge to our operating budget” for next academic year.

The college president met with faculty and staff on campus this week to discuss the issue, according to some of those present, where he outlined some of the cuts departments can expect next year to make up for what could be a $3.5 million shortfall.

Urgo and Pat Goldsmith, vice president of admissions and financial aid, did not return messages by deadline Thursday.

According to a written account of one of those meetings provided to The Enterprise, Urgo said there could be a variety of factors that led to fewer students deciding to attend St. Mary’s, possibly including curriculum, pricing and the fact that the college is getting out-discounted by private colleges that have larger endowments to award financial aid.

Urgo said in his email that the actual number of applications for admission was up, but the number of students committed to attend is down.

According to notes from the meeting, some professors said that could have to do with how prospective students feel about the campus after pre-enrollment visits.

The college tracks applications received and how many students make a decision to attend. About 150 fewer students have committed to attend St. Mary’s College next fall compared to the usual number this time of the year, according to the notes from the meeting.

That number could still change some between now and the start of the fall semester, but by not filling all available seats, the college could face a $3.5 million budget shortfall, according to sources.

Faculty departments are being asked to make cuts that could include eliminating positions that are currently vacant, according to the meeting notes.

Urgo said last year that he hoped to reverse a trend of fewer applications to the public liberal arts college and subsequently made changes to the admissions office and application process.

From the start of his career at St. Mary’s College, Urgo has said he wants to create a more diverse student body, including increasing the amount of need-based financial aid available.

He cited fears last year that the student body would become less diverse if changes were not made to the college’s admissions and financial aid processes.

The college began using a common college application two years ago that allowed students to fill out one form to apply to multiple colleges.

Students applying to St. Mary’s College at first were also required to fill out a supplemental section of the application. That may have turned off some students, college officials said, and that part of the application was dropped.

Some at the college have said that using the common admission application doesn’t present the unique image St. Mary’s College wants to portray, and that it encourages students to compare the costs of other public colleges with St. Mary’s, where tuition is higher.

St. Mary’s College also is attempting to award larger amounts of need-based aid, align application deadlines with other colleges, revise recruitment materials and step up recruitment travel schedules as a result of changes in the admissions office last year.

The college’s board trustees plan to meet May 10 at 3 p.m. in the Glendening Hall Annex before the college’s commencement the next day. The agenda includes approving the college’s operating and capital budget, as well as a staff salary plan.

Trustees this year were to review Urgo’s performance as president since he came on in 2010. The trustees will decide whether to offer him a continuation of his initial three-year contact, which expires this summer.

Urgo last year merged the admissions and financial aid offices, he said, so they could work more closely.

The college has been ramping up a campaign to raise private funds to supplement financial aid.

However, those efforts ran into a snafu this past summer after a longtime admissions officer was dismissed, drawing ire from alumni and others who organized a petition to have him reinstated. Some alumni said they would stop giving to the college.

Urgo was able to successfully include St. Mary’s in a tuition buydown last year with the state government, trimming a planned tuition increase to 2 percent. The legislature this year voted to provide extra money to the college to freeze tuition at $12,245 for the next two years. In the 2010-2011 academic year St. Mary’s had the fifth-highest tuition among public four-year institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

jyeatman@somdnews.com