Archaeological digs give way to colonial red-brick buildings and a riverside shore that is teeming with students sailing, sunbathing, and studying on a sunny day at St. Mary's College in southern Maryland. Located in sleepy, historic St. Mary's City, one of the earliest British settlements in North America, this public liberal arts college of about 1,900 undergraduates reflects a careful blend of history, academics, and recreation.
About 85 percent of students come from Maryland, but "there is a place here for everyone," says recent graduate Maurielle Stewart, of Cheverly, Md. The public designation also helps trim the tab: 2012-2013 tuition and fees run about $15,000 for Maryland residents and $27,600 for out-of-state students, plus another $11,300 in room and board.
[Get tips and expert advice on how to pay for college.]
The school spans 361 acres, bounded on the west by the St. Mary's River, a popular hub of activity where students can enjoy the water with sailboats, kayaks, and other equipment they can borrow free from the James P. Muldoon River Center. About 85 percent of students live on campus in a variety of dorms, apartments, and townhouses. At the center of campus is St. John's Pond, where students are often tossed in on their birthdays.
Some at St. Mary's describe the student body as environmentally friendly and a bit hippie, as evidenced by the acoustic guitars and bongos for sale at the bookstore, the student-run vegetarian co-op in Queen Anne Hall, and the unofficial Frisbee golf course that winds around campus. "It's not uncommon to see people not wearing shoes on campus," says Amanda Zelaya, class of 2012, of Towson, Md.
Students say the sense of community is very strong. That feeling of inclusion applies to the professors, too, who tend to develop close bonds with students thanks to the school's 12-to-1 student-faculty ratio.
St. Mary's accepted about 61 percent of its 2,400 first-year applicants in 2011. The college requires that students take courses in the arts, humanities, a foreign language, mathematics, sciences, and other disciplines, as well as satisfy an experiential requirement by studying abroad, completing an internship, or participating in an approved community service project or course.
[Learn how parents can stay connected with study-abroad students.]
Before they graduate, students complete a St. Mary's Project, supervised by a faculty member, which might take the form of a written thesis or creative project. Some students say getting into classes can be competitive and wish the school had more course offerings—there are about 25 major programs—but everyone has the option of creating his or her own major and pursuing a number of cross-disciplinary minors, such as museum studies, neurosciences, and African and African diaspora studies.
Outside of the classroom, St. Mary's participates in 15 Division III varsity sports. (In other competition, the school's sailing teams have won 15 national titles.) Students can also choose to participate in about 100 clubs and organizations.
Sometimes the size and remote setting of St. Mary's can make it feel a bit isolated. Students must venture about 10 to 15 miles to nearby Lexington Park or Leonardtown for more entertainment options. Annapolis and Washington, D.C., are each about 70 miles away.
But the college does try to offer additional options: Movies are regularly shown at the Campus Center, and students can take advantage of a fitness center, pool, and climbing wall at the Michael P. O'Brien Athletics and Recreation Center. Dances are occasionally held at "the Nest" in Daugherty-Palmer Commons, and late-night food and drinks (including alcohol for those over 21) are served at the newly constructed campus pub.
In fact, students say that for those who take the initiative, there's always plenty to do. It's "really a make-your-own place," says Baltimore native Camille Campanella, class of 2012.
More From the Maryland College Road Trip:
Searching for a college? Get our complete rankings of Best Colleges.