Tuesday, November 11, 2008

SMU-MN: A Modern Catholic Eductation at Yesterday's Prices

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At St. Mary’s, more of the middle class is getting in on the money.

Since 2007, qualifying freshmen at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona have paid no more than they would at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for in-state tuition, fees, room and board.

In the past, the students’ parents’ or guardians’ adjusted gross income could not exceed $75,000 to be eligable. That limit will increase to $100,000 for the 2009-2010 academic year.

Many lower- and middle-class applicants had been deterred from St. Mary’s because of the cost. Instead, they choose a public college, said Tony Piscitiello, St. Mary’s vice president for admission.

By keeping costs competitive with Minnesota’s largest public university, St. Mary’s hopes to attract students interested in a Catholic education, but not a private-school tuition.

Middle-class families often fall through the college-aid cracks, Piscitiello said. Their income is too high to qualify for some types of financial assistance, but they can’t afford to pay out of pocket or take out high loans.

And they’ll tell you that, too, he said.

“Some families will say that it’s not fair that because we have a two-earner income, or because we live in suburbia or are considered middle class that we don’t get the federal Pell grant or the State of Minnesota grant,” he said, referring to two financial aid resources available to lower-income students.

Pell grant or not, St. Mary’s wants to make sure middle-class students can afford to attend the school.

The cost of Catholic college

Of Catholic colleges and universities in Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas has the highest comprehensive costs — tuition, fees, room and board — in 2008-2009 at $35,434. It’s $34,504 at the College of St. Catherine, according to the Minnesota Private College Council, Fund and Research Foundation.

Non-Catholic private colleges range from $24,510 to $44,976 with an average comprehensive cost of $35,481.

It costs $30,530 to attend St. Mary’s — the lowest-priced of Minnesota’s Catholic colleges and universities. The University of Minnesota’s in-state tuition and fees are $10,756.

Add the U’s room and board estimate of $7,280, and you’ve got $17,836 — a difference of more than $12,000 from St. Mary’s list price.

The difference is covered through the Brother James Miller Program for Access. Started in 2007, the program took its name from a 1966 St. Mary’s graduate who did mission work in Nicaragua and Guatemala. The Lasallian brother was shot and killed in Guatemala on Feb. 13, 1982.

When the program began, it based its eligibility limit on the average adjusted gross income of a St. Mary’s student’s parents, which was near $75,000, Piscitiello said. Now that average is $100,000, so the program adjusted its eligibility limit.

St. Mary’s has allotted more than $4.3 million to fund this program and other freshmen scholarships and grants for the 2009-2010 academic year. The program is funded through the university’s budget and donors.

The University of Minnesota was chosen for comparison because it is Minnesota’s flagship public university, with costs in the median range of other Big 10 schools, according to St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s students eligible for the program could easily pay far below the $17,836 comparable to the University of Minnesota through additional state and federal grants and scholarships, Piscitiello said.

Keeping college affordable

St. Thomas doesn’t guarantee that students from families who earn below a certain adjusted gross income will receive a certain amount of aid, but applicants are often eligible for a variety of financial aid, said Kris Roach, St. Thomas’ director of admissions and financial aid.

“We set out an awarding policy that enables us to help the needy while also attracting students that are high-ability students, students who will add something to the St. Thomas community,” Roach said. “So there are need-based pots of money and there are merit-based pots of money.”

More than 90 percent of St. Thomas freshmen received financial assistance this year, Roach said. Of those who applied for assistance, the average award — including scholarships, grants, work study and federal loans — was about $17,100.

Additional merit scholarships are awarded based on applicants’ involvement in their school, church and community, and all students have the opportunity to work on campus, she added. St. Thomas merit scholarships granted this year ranged from $2,600 to $19,500 per year.

The College of St. Catherine grants financial aid in a process similar to St. Thomas. Almost 97 percent of St. Cath­erine’s first-year students received financial aid this year, said Beth Stevens, the school’s associate dean of enrollment and director of financial aid.

Stevens is especially mindful that students’ financial need might increase due to the current economy, and she said financial aid is considered on an individual basis.

It’s likely that a student applying to St. Catherine’s and St. Mary’s will have similar financial aid available to them at each institution, she said.

Rooted in mission to teach all

Over a four-year period, the estimated minimum value of St. Mary’s program will exceed $50,000 per student. Cur­rently, the average student at St. Mary’s pays about $20,000 annually for tuition, room and board, but that figure will likely decrease as more incoming students qualify for the program.

Since implementing the program in 2007, enrollment has increased, Piscitiello said. The freshman class the year before the program began was 367 students. The 2007-2008 school year welcomed 397 students, 27 of which were there because of the program, he said.

This year, St. Mary’s has 404 freshmen, largely because of the Brother James Miller program, Piscitiello said.

Reaching out to lower-income and middle-class students is part of the Lasallian tradition, Piscitiello said. The DeLaSalle Christian Brothers’ 17th-century founder, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle, dedicated his life to the education of children and the poor at a time when schooling was for the elite.

“The founding was to bring education to all economic classes of people; so it continues today,” Piscitiello said.

To qualify for the Brother James Miller Program for Access, students must be entering freshmen in fall 2009, have parental adjusted gross income of $100,000 or less, have a “B” average, be a dependent of one or both parents and meet other requirements. The Catholic Spirit
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