Dear Members of the Saint Mary’s College Community,
Students at Saint Mary’s and across the country are voicing concerns about the rising cost of college, loan debt and college affordability. I am writing to provide information on financial aid funding here at Saint Mary’s and the steps we are taking to attempt to address these very legitimate concerns. We hear nearly every day from families and students about the financial struggles they face, and my colleagues in the Financial Aid Office work tirelessly to help families identify every available funding option. The troubling economic conditions of the past four years, including job losses, bankruptcies and foreclosures, business losses and disappearing home equity, among others, have been particularly difficult for many Saint Mary’s families. In more than 30 years assisting students in the enrollment process, these have been the toughest years for students and families I have ever witnessed.
To make matters worse, much like the case at public institutions of higher education, federal and state funding programs have been reduced. Cal Grants that only a decade ago funded nearly half of an SMC student’s tuition now cover about a quarter. Federal Pell Grants, once seen as the bedrock of aid for the neediest, now meet less than 15% of tuition. Funding for such programs as Federal Work Study, the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) and the Perkins Loans have been reduced, limiting aid for students with the greatest need. Cutbacks in these programs alone affected 290 SMC students this year. Academic Competiveness Grants and National SMART Grants are no longer available, affecting another 238 SMC students this year. Finally, in an effort to reduce Cal Grant funding, the state tightened renewal criteria for returning students, resulting in almost 60 SMC students losing eligibility.
In response to these challenges, Saint Mary’s has increased institutional grant aid to students by 35% ($11.9 million) to $34.5 million over the past three years. With these substantial increases, SMC grant aid has taken the place of funding that would have previously come from state, federal or family resources. Nevertheless, given heightened levels of financial need, both students and their families are being stretched further than ever before. With assistance from the Christian Brother’s communities, Brother Ronald and the help of generous donors, we have been able to provide some additional emergency financial aid to help juniors and seniors in the last stretch of their academic careers to graduate.
As grant funding from state and federal sources has fallen relative to costs, the federal government has increased access to student loans to fill the gap and, as at nearly all institutions of higher education, students at SMC have increased their use of them to finance their education. In the most recent graduating class, about 60% of undergraduates utilized student loans, with an average loan debt of $33,061. To place these totals in context, nationally four-year private institutions have a higher proportion of students graduating with loan debt (65%) but with a smaller average debt ($28,310). In advising Saint Mary’s students and their families about financing an SMC education, Director of Financial Aid Priscilla Muha and her colleagues make sure that families have the most accurate information about college costs and the choices available to meet those expenses. In an effort to reduce the use of loans, we urge students to look for outside scholarships and have provided those sources on our website at http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/scholarships/scholarship-websites-that-work. We also offer an online Financial Literacy Program called Cash Course to help students better manage their finances at http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/web-resources/cash-course.
I urge students and families to work with our dedicated and caring Financial Aid staff members to explore every possible resource option. There is no easy solution to the financial problems many of our students and families face, but we are committed to doing all that we can to help with the options and resources available.
Vice Provost for Enrollment
Vice President for College Communications