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Bill could mean higher tuition costs

Tuition costs
Mar. 26, 2013 @ 12:06 AM

CHARLESTON -- As West Virginia colleges and universities try to account for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's 7.5 percent budget cuts, a bill in the state Senate would let six of them change how they calculate tuition.

The bill would create a pilot program that lets those schools charge tuition by the credit hour rather than by the semester. It would likely result in significant increases in tuition for full-time students, and decreases for part-timers. The Senate expects to vote on the bill Wednesday.

For financial aid purposes, the federal government classifies someone who takes 12 credit hours per semester (generally four courses) as a full-time student, although 15 credit hours per semester are usually required to graduate on time. In West Virginia, students who take a minimum of 12 credit hours are all charged the same semester rate, even if they are enrolled for 15 or 18 credits.

This bill would let schools recoup the costs of those extra credits by charging for each credit hour above 12.

Marshall University officials don't appear sold on the bill at this point. Matt Turner, the chief of staff, said the concern at Marshall is such a bill's impact on retention, graduation rates and students' ability to meet financial aid criteria.

"It could be counter to some of the things we are trying to accomplish," Turner said, noting that similar bills tried in other states had not been successful.

During the fall 2012 semester, Marshall had 8,561 undergraduate students identified as full-time students, although the data available did not break down how many were carrying 12, 15, 18 or even 21 credit hours.

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, is not a sponsor of the bill, but he supports it. He said it is a pilot project that would last three years and take into consideration all factors, including what impact it has on enrollment and student loan rates, and graduation rates at the two-year community and technical colleges.

Although Turner said Marshall is not interested in being part of the pilot project, Plymale said the Community and Technical College System and Higher Education Policy System would determine the institutions that participate. The bill stipulates that the institutions selected meet criteria that takes into consideration varying student demographics, he said.

More than 75 percent of the students in West Virginia's four-year colleges and universities take a full course load and would see substantial tuition increases under the pilot project, absent other changes. Students taking 15 credit hours per semester would see their tuition rise by an average of $1,422 per year. The change would disproportionately affect students on PROMISE Scholarships, who must average 15 credit hours per semester to remain eligible.

The change would seem likely to dissuade students from taking heavier course loads, as those additional credits would no longer be subsidized. Students would then take longer to complete their degrees.

West Liberty University President Robin Capehart said his school was interested in the pilot project.

"Right now if a student pays tuition they can take as many hours as they want and many times that can create a situation where students are taking excess hours for which the college has to basically provide professors," Capehart said.

But Capehart said that they would prefer to charge only for students who took more than 15 credit hours, as that is the number that is required to graduate on time.

The bill was requested by Pierpont Community and Technical College, which has pledged to cut planned tuition rates if the bill passes. Pierpont President Doreen Larson said the current tuition system is based on an outdated view of the college experience.

"This model is based on an old style four-year model where you leave home, go to campus, are a full-time student," Larson said. "Our students are no longer like that even in four-year schools."

At Pierpont, just 40 percent of students take more than 12 credit hours per term and would see tuition rise. Across the statewide community college system, that number drops to 30 percent, according to state data. But if other participating colleges did not follow Pierpont's lead and correspondingly cut tuition rates to accompany the change, it would mean substantial tuition increases for full-time students.

The number of students impacted at four-year colleges would be much greater.

Charging tuition by the credit hour could bring in so much additional revenue that Pierpont will cut planned tuition rates by 9 percent if the bill passes and still bring in enough money to cover most of the 7.5 percent budget cuts. But there's no guarantee that other schools would follow suit. If, hypothetically, all 11 four-year colleges and universities were to charge by the credit hour, it would cover all planned budget cuts and bring in an additional $100 million in revenue.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger complimented Pierpont for looking for innovative ways to deal with the budget cuts. He said that he hoped that public pressure and market forces would encourage other colleges to cut tuition if they participated in the pilot project.

A memorandum from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission warns that students taking heavy course loads may resort to student loans to cover additional costs. This, the memorandum says, "will contribute to the state's growing student loan debt and potentially default rates."

The Herald-Dispatch's Bill Rosenberger contributed to this story.

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