The University of Baltimore will offer every freshman who enrolls in the fall of 2007 a one-year scholarship covering all out-of-pocket tuition and fee expenses - a bold move designed to attract students to its first freshman class in three decades.
University officials hope that the one-time grant program will help publicize the downtown college's conversion from a school serving only junior and senior undergraduates - as well as graduate students - to one offering a full four-year undergraduate education.
"We made a determination that we would rather spend money on student support than on marketing dollars," said Robert L. Bogomolny, president of the public university. "We think when word gets out on the availability of the scholarship, that it will be very powerful. We'll see."
The university is aiming for an initial enrollment of 100 to 130 freshmen. With undergraduate tuition and fees for 2007 expected to be roughly $7,000, the total costs of the free-tuition program could approach $900,000.
But university officials expect that most admitted students will also qualify for federal financial aid grants, cutting the college's burden by about half.
The university is expected to formally announce the free-tuition promotion, dubbed the "UB First Scholars" program, on Tuesday.
Bogomolny said the scholarship will be funded by an anonymous donor whom he approached after the university hatched the scholarship idea in August last year.
Early responses from area college counselors was enthusiastic.
"It's a heck of an opportunity," said Craig Spilman, executive director of the CollegeBound Foundation, a nonprofit that administers college advice and scholarships to students in Baltimore's public high schools. "For some kids, money is a hell of a motivator."
Spilman said the offer would help put the college "in play" with regional campuses like Towson University, Morgan State University, Loyola College and Villa Julie College.
Admission prerequisites include completion of a college-preparatory high school curriculum, personal statement and completion of the SAT or ACT tests. There are no minimum test scores or high school grade-point averages, but officials said they recommend a GPA of "at least a B or B- ... to be successful in our academic programs."
Brenda Wilson, a guidance counselor at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said that while her public high school's curriculum focuses on science and engineering, some Poly students will be attracted by the University of Baltimore's location and its pre-professional focus on careers in business, law and criminal justice.
"I also think some students who really don't know where they're going would really look at it because it's free," Wilson said.
Because of their cost, blanket free-tuition offers of this type are exceedingly rare but not unprecedented.
In 1996, the new Rowan University College of Engineering, a public school in New Jersey, offered free tuition for four years to its first entering class, which ended up being 102 students.
"It was a way of instantaneously filling up the class and getting credibility, and we got very talented students to enroll," said spokesman Joe Cardona. "It absolutely worked."
Rowan's undergraduate engineering program is ranked 20th by U.S. News and World Report.
The University of Baltimore is not aspiring to such selectivity, Bogomolny said, but rather to maintaining its mission of making education affordable and accessible to people in and around the city. "I thought the scholarship was a way to make a very strong statement that this is a university that values access and values economic diversity," he said. "That is who we are, and that is the kind of support we want to give students."
Founded as a private law and business school in 1925, the University of Baltimore came under financial strains in the 1970s and asked to join what is now the University System of Maryland.
It was admitted in 1975 only after agreeing to limit its undergraduate enrollment to the third and fourth years of college, according to H. Mebane Turner, its former president, so that it wouldn't compete with Baltimore's new community college, then establishing a campus in the Inner Harbor.
"The political compromise solution was that UB would be restricted to upper-division programs," said former system Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg.
Popular in the 1970s and 1980s, many other "upper-division" schools have converted to four-year colleges in recent years.
"They're becoming extinct," Langenberg said, "because such restricted missions make little sense, either academically or economically. Something analogous is happening to small single-sex liberal arts colleges."
In response to a 2004 proposal by the school, state higher-education officials decided last year to let the University of Baltimore enroll freshmen and sophomores again, in part to help accommodate a projected surge in statewide enrollment.
This time, there was no objection from community colleges. "I think it's fair to say that there's more than enough students in Baltimore to go around," said H. Clay Whitlow, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
Whitlow said the University of Baltimore was more likely to compete for students with Towson University than with community colleges.
Towson's provost, James F. Brennan, had the opposite take. "I don't see us tripping over each at all," Brennan said. "My sense is that they may run head on with Baltimore City Community Colleges and maybe" the Community College of Baltimore County.
University of Baltimore officials played down the question of competition. "The truth of the matter is that data and enrollment tell us that there are going to be more students of college age than seats in the classroom," said Peter Toran, vice president of planning. "I don't see it so much as competition as filling a need."