Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Despite the name, St. Mary’s College is not a religious institution. It’s a publicly funded, liberal arts school nestled along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Kojo talks with the president of the college about the value of a liberal arts education, the decision to serve alcohol in a new campus pub and encouraging first-generation students to pursue a degree.
- Joseph Urgo President, St. Mary's College
MR. KOJO NNAMDIElite and accessible are two qualities that don't typically go hand in hand, especially in the realm of higher education. But in a workplace environment where a college degree has gone from being a luxury to more of a necessity, some middle ground is being sought. And St. Mary's College President Joseph Urgo is determined to find it and create a viable model for offering an elite liberal arts education that's accessible to all. So just how do you do that? Well, he's here to explain it. Joseph Urgo is the president of St. Mary's College in Maryland. Thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JOSEPH URGOPleasure to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIStraight off the bat I imagine people hear St. Mary's and assume private Catholic college but they'd be wrong so what is it?
URGOWell, we are named for St. Mary's County. St. Mary's College of Maryland is the public liberal arts college established in 1992 by a legislative act -- legislative mission to serve exactly the mission you just spoke to. Which is to provide a high level -- highest level liberal arts college education, and also be accessible to segments of the population that might not otherwise have access to such education.
NNAMDIDo you get tired of explaining to people that it's not a private Catholic college and having to explain the history of St. Mary's County?
URGOI never get tired of talking about St. Mary's College or St. Mary's County.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join the conversation with President Urgo. If you attended a liberal arts college call and tell us about your experience, 800-433-8850. For those who have not been out to St. Mary's, either the college of the town, can you describe the atmosphere, the environment there for us?
URGOWe are at the southernmost tip of the Western Maryland Peninsula. And so another ten miles past the college and you're in the Chesapeake. It's rural. It's a gorgeous area. We are on the banks of the St. Mary's River. The River plays an important part in our culture at the college. We have a world class sailing team as well as the one fact that our students enjoy with your library card you can check out a kayak or a sailboat or anything you are equipped to handle on the water.
NNAMDIAnd when one goes to the college's website one sees that there is a fencing club and a very familiar face is on that website fencing. That would be you.
URGOThat would be myself. On my way to the inauguration I was stopped by the fencing club and asked to participate in some of their activities. I convinced them that I should -- that should be my one sole appearance.
NNAMDISo you're not a regular fencer.
URGONo, I'm not a regular face there.
NNAMDIThe import and value of a liberal arts education is much debated but before we get to that how do you define a liberal arts education and institution?
URGOA liberal arts education is aimed for those students who are a high academic achiever. They love school. They love learning. They're not sure what they want -- they may not be sure what they want to do with it yet but they are quite interested in pursuing the highest cognitive skills and highest cognitive levels. So for example, instead of learning how to write reports, they're studying the history of the English language. Instead of studying how to make something in mechanical engineering, they're studying physics at the abstract level. That's where they want to start their education.
URGOAnd they usually end up for the long haul. Seventy percent of our students are planning to go to graduate school and prepare for these higher level kinds of jobs.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you have a degree in a liberal arts field? What have you done with it? You can also send email to us at email@example.com. If on the other hand you considered and decided against a liberal arts school or major, tell us why. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. The import and value of a liberal arts education in a down economy or really any time, I imagine you hear from a lot of students and parents who are not sure they're going to get the best value for their money at a liberal arts college. Who is best served by this kind of education?
URGOIt's a fair question. Certainly it's not a degree that leads immediately for one to deduce what the job is going to be. I always enjoy meeting our alums -- by the way, we have some 2,000 alums living and working in the D.C. area -- I always enjoy meeting them because they're in any possible profession you could imagine. One of the worries people have about a liberal arts education is we really can't predict what our students are going to do when they start on this course of study.
URGOWe have students who come in thinking they're going to pursue something in sociology or criminal justice and end up majoring in biology or mathematics because we do encourage them and require them to explore lots of different fields. It is an education for those who are willing to delay gratification for a while because it's going to be a while before they figure out what they want to do. But these do tend to be the leaders in our society. If you take the -- I could give you a statistic.
URGOTwo or three percent of students who are in college right now are at a residential liberal arts college. It's a very small percentage. But if you take women in science, over 50 percent of women who are doing research in the sciences came from a liberal arts college. Of the Nobel Prize winners in the United States in the 20th century, 20 percent went to a liberal arts college. These tend to be the leaders in industries and science but it's not something you would predict when they come in as a freshman and they're majoring in philosophy, and to see where that's going to go.
NNAMDIOur guest is Joseph Urgo. He is president of St. Mary's College in Maryland. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'll start with Andy in Annandale, Va. Andy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDYHi there. I teach an advanced composition course at George Mason University and the course focuses heavily on research, computer skills, library resources and so on. It's a very good research course. And every student at Mason earning an undergraduate degree takes that course. And we now have a multidisciplinary approach to the course. So it tries to address all the diverse majors we come across, okay. And it's been quite a burden for the instructors to adjust, but I've had some great comments from students.
ANDYThey say things like, I feel like I can look up anything now. You know, they're amazed at the resources that are available to them at university libraries as well as online. And, you know, they also say that they feel very prepared for, you know, the advanced technology they come across at work. they also say that they learn -- whether or not they really want to be in that major once they start doing that heavy reading in the major, they sometimes change their majors after taking this course.
NNAMDII think that strikes a familiar chord with President Urgo because yes, you're a college president. You have to manage personal issues. You have to balance budgets. You have to keep students and alumni happy and be accountable to a governing board. But you have a liberal arts background. How did your own liberal arts background prepare you for this job?
URGOThat's an excellent question. I do have a liberal arts background and I feel like I have the training that I've had in that background has suited me wonderfully to be a president because I can't predict what topics and what subjects I'm going to be dealing with at any particular time. A year-and-a-half ago I was negotiating with a cruise line company to bring a cruise ship to campus to house students who had been -- had to leave their dorms because of some building structural problems we were having there. And I learned a lot about maritime law for example.
URGOIt's true that a liberal arts students, the main thing that that student knows is how to learn, hot to find out something.
NNAMDIAnd the students learned a lot about living on a ship, right?
URGOThey did indeed.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Andy. We move on now to Andrea in Washington, D.C. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREAYes, good afternoon, Kojo, and good afternoon to your guest. I do have a daughter that goes to St. Mary's College. It's a wonderful environment for children to learn. And the professors there and administrators there are very friendly. My daughter even said that you walk around the campus and she's never seen a president like you that is always present in the school. One question that I so have though as a parent of a child who is not quite sure what she wants to do as yet is it's very unnerving for me as a parent.
NNAMDIYeah, my mom too was a very nervous mother in that regard but go ahead, please, President Urgo.
URGOI understand the anxiety of not knowing how it's going to turn out. And that's very true. We -- often people are hostile toward the liberal arts because they say, what can you do with that degree? And the answer is you can do anything with that degree but it does induce some anxiety because we have this period where our students are exploring. But I can't see -- I can't think of anything better than to take the brightest students in the country and let them explore, let them take the time, let them find out what -- where their passion is. Because when they end up -- when they find that out and when they enter those fields they're going to make a difference.
URGOI would encourage you to be patient with your daughter and to encourage her to just explore and take the subjects that she's interested in. And then find out where that passion, which she loves to -- and find out what she loves to do.
NNAMDIAnd Andrea, it's my understanding -- President Urgo can talk a little bit more about this but it's my understanding that you can create your own major at St. Mary's if you're so inclined. But how do you go about doing that and what are your most popular fields of study?
URGOIf a student, for example, has a strong interest in biology and another strong English (sic) in English and she wants to do a -- create a major about, you know, writing about the sciences, she can do that if she can find the professors who are willing to support her in that. And that's not hard to do. And you can carve out a distinctive kind of measure. Environmental studies, for example, started off as a self-created measure or minor by students. Now it's an official minor and the students are acting to make it into a major eventually. So it is a -- we are a student-directed organization, there's no question about that.
NNAMDIAndrea, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIAnd good luck to you and your daughter. Here is Jake in St. Mary's County, Md. Jake, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAKEYeah, hi. So I go to St. Mary's College in Maryland. It's a great school. I've nothing but sort of positive things to say about it. But I would say that in terms of I guess following this kind of downward turn of people going to liberal arts schools, I think one of the things you have to look at is sort of the fundamental problems with, I guess, the infrastructure and sort of way that the programs are sort of arranged.
JAKEFirst off I guess my question would be, if we're trying to make it accessible to everyone why did we change admissions, which used to be knee blind to something that is sort of focused on whether or not the family can actually afford the school, before we even really look at the application.
URGOWell, that's not quite accurate. We don't look at the financials of the application until very, very late in the process. We're in the process now of making decisions on admissions and those aren't made according to financial background. Also, there is not a decline in the number of students going to liberal arts colleges. There is, of course, a large rise in students going to all different kinds of colleges, and more college degrees are needed now than ever for different kinds of fields which, you know, back in the previous eras, a high school degree was sufficient for many careers is not the case any longer.
URGOBut you do raise a good point that it is -- a liberal arts college degree is a very expensive way to issue -- to hold an education. We're talking about a student-faculty ratio of 12 to 1, close interactions with faculty, housing all the students on campus. It's an expensive proposition. We certainly think that these students that we serve are well worth it, but keeping that price low, and keeping it accessible, is a constant challenge, and one that we are working hard to meet.
NNAMDIAnd Jake, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Joseph Urgo. He is president of St. Mary's College in Maryland. You can still call us, 800-433-8850. When we come back, we're going to be talking about -- well, a pub on campus. Do you think college campuses should promote responsible drinking? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Joseph Urgo. He is president of St. Mary's College in Maryland, and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We got an email from Celeste who says, "My degree prepared me well for two law degrees. First a juris doctor, then an LLM, master in law and environmental law. My psychology degree has also helped me equally with the colleagues and clients both." So you get a testimonial of sorts there.
NNAMDII imagine there are not a whole lot of bars and clubs for students who are of age to hit up out in St. Mary's, but last May a new option opened up on campus. In an era where concerns about binge drinking are dominant on many campuses, why did you decide to open a bar?
URGOWell, drinking on college campuses is a problem that all college presidents and all colleges deal with, and I -- one thing I did not want to do was not to talk to the students about it. It's a year-long -- during my first year, now in the third year, initiative to promote responsible drinking as you say. One part of this is during orientation, the first weekend when our students are moving in, we have a dry campus. There is no drinking on campus, no parties allowed, and that includes the annual faculty party which used to be that weekend which we held it as a dry event.
URGOAnd the idea behind that is it's not a good idea -- not the best idea when you're meeting people for the first time to be drinking heavily. Students agreed with that. That's been quite successful.
NNAMDIThey say it's orientation, not disorientation.
URGOThat's precisely what it is. But to demonstrate at the same time that responsible drinking does include drinking responsibly, it's not -- doesn't mean a ban on drinking, we opened the pub on campus. That's to promote a place where faculty, students, and staff can gather together on a Thursday or Friday afternoon for a beer or a glass of wine, and it's quite well attended. We have between 250 and 350 people a night that attend that. The beer and wine is only one part of it.
URGOThe second part is that is offers a range of eating options until two o'clock in the morning. We serve alcohol until 10:00. From 10:00 to 2:00, it's solely burritos and all sorts of good food like that. If you know the county, St. Mary's county, if a student is hungry at midnight or one o'clock in the morning, the other choice...
NNAMDIGood luck with that.
URGO...the other choice is to get in your car and drive 20 or 30 miles away and get a hotdog somewhere. And I didn't like the idea of our students being on the road at those hours of the night.
NNAMDIYou are part of the Amethyst Initiative. Please explain what that is and why you signed on.
URGOThat's a group of presidents who have asked us -- asked us as a country to reexamine the drinking age. That's not necessarily promoting a lower drinking age, but promoting the discussion of it, and to ask ourselves is 21 really where that age should be? Is it serving our students? Is it serving our society at large? And we'd like to have that dialogue.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here's Greg in Potomac, Md. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGHi. Okay. So Kojo, I love your show.
GREGAnd I want to see you ask this person a question about medical students. I'm a pre-med student at Virginia Tech, and you had mentioned that you have students who basically are figuring out what they want to do with their lives, but as a pre-med student, like taking these liberal arts courses really takes up a lot of time that I feel like I don't have taking some pretty tough courses stacked on top of one another, and it just seems like taking a liberal arts education in such a sort amount of time if your focus is medicine, isn't a really good idea if you're trying to figure out what you want to do because it's really expensive.
GREGAnd so, I just wanted to know whether you have a lot of students who go onto medical school, and whether you see any merit in that thought.
NNAMDIWhere does science fit it at St. Mary's?
URGOTwenty-five percent of our students major in one of the stem fields, science, technology, engineering, mathematics. We send a number of students onto medical school. If you ask admissions officers at medical school, many will say an English degree is perhaps a preferable major to a science degree for preparing for medicine in terms of preparing doctors to interact with patients. I don't see a science education and a liberal arts education at antithetical, in fact, the sciences are a major part of a liberal arts education.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe move onto Jason in Washington DC. Jason, your turn.
JASONHi, Kojo. It's a real pleasure to be on the show. I love your show and actually based in DC. When I go up to New Jersey, I always pass through St. Mary's taking the back way through Pennsylvania. I'm a career coach, and, you know, I love hearing about concerned parents and concerned students as they're making the correlation between the major that you have and the job that you get. And study after study shows there's no correlation whatsoever.
JASONIf you just look at the statistics, the opportunity for a liberal arts major is just as much as an engineering major. And so I think it's important, not only for students, for parents, that students should be following majors that they're interested in, but at the same time, you're going to get hired not only for your academic success, but also internships and work outside the classroom, and I think it's really important to communicate that to everybody.
JASONAnd finally, in making an evaluation on what you want to do, that's not only in the classroom. You need to be talking to people that are actually doing the work, and so not enough students are -- and it happens too often. You're a senior, you haven't done an internship, you've never done an informational interview, and then all of a sudden you don't know what you want to do next. So those are my thoughts.
NNAMDICare to comment on that?
URGOExcellent comments, Jason. Yes. I couldn't agree with you more. At St. Mary's College, our curriculum requires all of our students to do either an internship, a service-learning project, or a study-abroad project. All those as you're suggesting are important to rounding out the student. Let me say a bit -- one thing, I recently went to a student's presentation of her senior project, and give you a glimpse of a liberal arts major.
URGOShe had done her biology and English senior project on oysters, and she did a presentation of the biological life of an oyster, the esthetic significance of oysters, the history of oysters and art, the way that oyster shells are used for construction throughout history for roads and so forth. She had -- that young woman knew everything one could possibly know about an oyster. And you might ask yourself, what kind of job could she get? What did that prepare her for?
URGOWell, I can tell you, as an employer, you could give her any project and she could find out everything there is to know about it because she'd already undertaken such a project. This is the kind of training that we have our students do.
NNAMDIHere we got -- and thank you for your call, Jason, here we got an email from Constance in Silver Spring. "As a survivor of a liberal arts education, I was constantly told that I will have several different careers in my lifetime, and my liberal arts degree was the best preparation for that. Unfortunately, there was very little support for career placement or even an old boy, old girls' network after we left the nest. As a result, many of my fellow liberal arts alumni flounder in an economic environment where really good jobs in any field are few and far between.
NNAMDI"We do our best, but when those appeals for donations come from the college, I don't think they know why we cannot afford to give anything. Without career support or an alumni network, a liberal arts education is not worth the money. You should get a mechanical engineering degree and study Aristotle in your own time." What do you say to someone like Constance?
URGOFair enough, Constance. One thing you'll see at liberal arts colleges around the country today is increased attention to career preparation. The career services office used to be sleepy little corner offices. Now, they're major parts of a student's experience whether at a college, and you are right, we are doing a better job than we have done in the past with getting students prepared for careers and for having them translate their liberal arts study into those careers that you're discussing.
NNAMDIHere's Jeff in Reston, Va. Jeff, your turn.
JEFFHey, thanks for having me on. I was just going to say, I did get a liberal arts degree, and I feel like a lot of what that gave to me was the ability to, you know, learn how to think and develop communication skills which have served me quite well. Now, I work with a small non-profit, and a lot of what we do is helping groups of citizens in thinking through complex problems, and we even -- part of our extending our work is we do teach that in college classrooms, teaching professors how to flip the classroom in this way to have...
JEFF...students collaborating with each other, and to generate different possibilities, and it's a lot easier to do that, I would say, when we partner with a liberal arts school rather than say a large public university.
NNAMDICare to comment on that?
URGONo, I think that's right. Liberal arts colleges are a lot more nimble than large universities. You'll also see more of the student design majors. You see more interdisciplinary work within the faculty because our faculty all know each other personally. We're not divided into those separate divisions or separate buildings, so it's much easier for our physics professors, for example, to interact with a history professor or with other people around the campus.
NNAMDIJeff, thank you for your call. One of your goals is increasing the diversity of the student body at St. Mary's. How do you intend to do so, and have you made any progress so far?
URGOYes, we have. A diverse student body is critical to the success of the student body. We want people with different experiences and backgrounds interacting with one another and creating the kind of -- sparking the kind of creativity that that inspires. I recently have finished a campaign to increase the number of scholarships available to Baltimore students, a $500,000 campaign that we just finished this past month.
URGOThat will provide a increase to pipeline for students from Baltimore City down to St. Mary's College. And we're, of course, regionally and nationally getting the word out about the college as a public liberal arts option for students who may want a liberal arts education but may shy away from the private model and want to be at a public institution, and we find that resonates with many students, particularly first generation students.
NNAMDIHad a partnership with Cardozo High School here in Washington DC, did you not?
URGOWe did indeed, which has resulted now in a long legacy of students coming through.
NNAMDIMore broadly, St. Mary's has made some recent changes to the way financial aid is allocated, and in selectivity overall. What has changed and what remains the same?
URGOWell, we're trying now to mix -- to use our financial aid more strategically so that if we have students with high need, we're able to meet ore of their need, and make it more possible for them to come, rather than accepting students and saying, well, we'll leave it up to you to try to find the funding for this. This remains a challenge. We are at the beginning of a campaign at the college, and the campaign will be focused on two goals.
URGOOne is to increase scholarship support for students which is our mission of acceptability, and the other is to enhance the academic program, which is the honors college admission.
NNAMDIHere is Leslie in Great Falls, Va. Leslie, your turn.
LESLIEHi. Thank you, Kojo. President Urgo, I just wanted to mention -- bring back a comment that you made earlier in the discussion with regard to liberal arts majors becoming leaders and Nobel Prize winners. And there's no doubt in that, however, many of those individuals had been educated decades ago when 90 percent of colleges were liberal arts...
LESLIE...versus professional colleges. So I wanted to address you to speak to that, but I was also interested in your take on general education. I'm a professor at Shenandoah University, which is in Winchester, Va., and we're under SACC accreditation, and so many of our general education really emphasizes the liberal arts paradigm. I'm not so familiar with middle states, but I just would like you to address that as well.
URGOI think general education, of course, is, you know, it's a core, and no pun there, just a core of many educational programs and curricula. The challenge that's general education is to make sure that it's created in such a way that the students don't just see it as an obstacle in their way between them and their major, but something they really want to do and attracts them and meets their needs.
URGOSo I do understand the challenges there. Your point about decades ago more students majored in liberal arts than other fields, that's fair enough. We certainly have a burgeoning of fields now that are pre-professional, and I think that's largely also due to the fact that there were professions that didn't require college degrees in the past that now require either an associate's or a bachelor's in fields that didn't exist 20, 30 years ago. You're absolutely right about that.
URGOSo we'll see whether liberal arts remains -- retains its competitive edge in the years ahead. The signs do look that way to me, but I'll accept your challenge, and we should check in about 10 years from now and see where we are.
NNAMDILeslie, thank you for your call. Onto Robalee (sp?) Silver Spring, Md. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBALEEHi. Good afternoon, and thank you. I'm calling because my oldest daughter, who is 35, went to St. Mary's a while ago, and then onto Northwestern, and all the time she was here at Blair through St. Mary's and then at graduate school she was very clear what she wanted to do. She then got out and worked in that field and decided she didn't want to be in that field. And for the last several years she's lived in Michigan, and you know the economics there.
ROBALEEAnd I think her liberal arts from St. Mary's has been very helpful in her findings jobs in that depressed area in Michigan because she has moved through several jobs as funding shifted. So I think St. Mary's was a great place for her to go, and...
ROBALEE...would be happy to talk to any parents about it.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. Joseph Urgo, does a liberal arts degree give one, as in the case of Robalee's daughter, a greater degree of flexibility if you will?
URGOAbsolutely. One thing our students will do is they work very hard. The hardest working students in the country are at liberal arts colleges. There was a study called Academically Adrift recently which accused many colleges of not teaching students very much. They don't learn as much coming out as we expect them to. The exception to that were liberal arts colleges where the increase in capacity is exponential compared to other colleges. So your daughter worked very hard, Robalee, and I suspect that's the reason that she's used to working hard and retains that flexibility as she maneuvers herself -- maneuvers through her career.
NNAMDIRobalee, thank you very much for your call. I'm afraid we're out of time. Joseph Urgo, is the president of St. Mary's College in Maryland. Thank you so much for joining us.
URGOIt's been a pleasure, thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo and guests explore what you can learn about D.C. by riding its bus system.
T.C. Boyle's latest novel explores the darker side of the American ideal of freedom, from a woman who follows the extreme libertarian "sovereign citizen" movement to a disturbed young man who models himself on the pioneer John Colter.
It's your turn to discuss these topics or whatever is on your mind.