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Students and their families at St. Mary’s College of Maryland will see some relief from steady tuition hikes now that the Maryland General Assembly has passed legislation to freeze those costs for two years.

The state will pay the college an extra $800,000, or the equivalent of a 4 percent tuition increase, on top of other inflationary increases built into the state funding formula for fiscal year 2014.

“We’ll get it from the state, instead of the students, which is terrific,” President Joseph Urgo said. Tuition for Maryland students is currently $12,245 a year; the freeze will save students about $500 per year.

The college is also obligated to keep tuition frozen for the 2014-2015 academic year, when the state will give another increase equivalent to a 4 percent tuition hike. The tuition freeze only applies to Maryland residents, not out-of-state students.

A government report showed that two years ago tuition and fees at St. Mary’s College were among the highest in the nation for public colleges.

Both the Maryland House of Delegates and the Senate voted unanimously for the tuition freeze.

“That is extremely gratifying,” Urgo said. “It really does show the state supports the college.”

The college’s board of trustees in February approved a 4 percent tuition hike for the next academic year with hopes the legislature would provide money to offset that hike. Now, with the state’s approval, the board plans to rescind that tuition increase.

“We’ve had full trustee support” of the tuition freeze, Urgo said, adding that he expected an April 11 board vote to pass unanimously.

Urgo said the college will have to moderate any new programs or initiatives during the next two years, but that the money will be enough to provide raises to employees as mandated by the state.

“We’re going to make sure it is” enough money, he said.

Urgo said he expects a liberal arts education, as is provided at St. Mary’s College, will be more expensive than a traditional college. However, he would like to bring the cost more under control, and at one point proposed a 12 percent reduction to tuition.

Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), who introduced the bill, said initially the hope was to freeze tuition for five years. That was reduced to just two years, although Bohanan said the freeze could be extended after that time. “We’ll see where they are vis-a-vis other institutions” in two years, Bohanan said.

St. Mary’s College has the fifth-highest in-state tuition and fees among public four-year institutions in the country, according to a government report looking at 2010-2011 rates. “That runs totally counter to the initiatives we’ve had running in the state for seven years now,” Bohanan said.

The governor and General Assembly in recent years have either frozen or limited tuition increases at other state colleges and universities; those efforts did not involve St. Mary’s College, which is funded under a unique block grant arrangement.

“We’re trying to close that gap” between the cost of going to college at St. Mary’s and other Maryland colleges, Urgo said. The legislation also includes state funding to expand St. Mary’s College’s DeSousa-Brent Scholars program based on a new performance-based model.

The funding would be phased in starting this fall, and would ultimately provide St. Mary’s $800,000 per year.

The program currently directs extra resources to a group of about 30 freshmen each year who are selected because they are considered underrepresented at the college, based on factors such as first-generation college status, income, ethnicity, disability and geography. The college plans to expand that program, increasing the number of students to about 50 per graduating class and offering support to them all four years of college.

New funding outlined in the legislation would continue past 2019 if the group of students starting college in 2015 in the DeSousa-Brent program meet certain retention and graduation rates each year, including a 70 percent four-year graduation rate.

Urgo said the performance-based funding is a new concept for a higher education program like the DeSousa-Brent Scholars. He said if the program continues to be successful, it could be used as a model for other colleges and universities.

jyeatman@somdnews.com