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Editorial: Per-credit tuition proposal doesn't pass the fairness test

Mar. 27, 2013 @ 09:15 PM

The apparent underlying concept of a proposed test of per-credit-hour tuition rates at some West Virginia colleges makes sense. If a student is taking more classes, he or she should have to pay more than someone taking a lighter class load.

But it's in the details where the proposal now in the West Virginia Legislature goes awry. It appears the proposal would boost tuition rates significantly for many students and undermine various objectives of the state's higher education institutions.

Full-time students at West Virginia colleges now pay the same flat tuition rate regardless of whether they take the minimum 12 credit hours per semester or up to 15 or 18 hours. That structure on its face seems inequitable. It would seem that a per-credit rate structure would be fairer, requiring students to pay based on the amount of instruction they receive.

That's where the proposed legislation comes in. The bill would allow up to six colleges to participate in a three-year pilot project to charge tuition on a per-credit-hour basis for every credit hour beyond 12 taken in a semester. The measure was put forward as a way for two-year community and technical colleges to cut tuition rates for part-time students.

However, as the proposal is structured now, full-time students would take a substantial financial hit, Higher Education Policy Commission research analyst Sarah Tucker told lawmakers this week. A memorandum she prepared said a student taking 15 credit hours a semester would pay an average of $1,422 more tuition each year, while students taking 18 credit hours would pay $2,843 more annually.

Tucker's memorandum also estimated that the per-credit tuition would bring in $124.44 million of additional tuition revenue for four-year colleges in the state if all colleges participated.

Among those hurt by the plan would be students who receive state-sponsored Promise scholarships because they are required to complete 30 credit hours of classes per year. The average scholar now pays about $938 of tuition and fees out of pocket, Tucker said. Under the proposed legislation, those scholars would have to an additional $2,360 a year to make up.

The potential negative repercussions are that some students may be priced out of pursuing college and some students will take longer to complete their degrees because they can't afford heavier class loads. Other possibilities are that students would take out more loans to pay for higher costs, and the student loan default rate in the state could go up. None of those is a positive outcome and runs counter to most institutions' goals.

This idea also comes at a time when most colleges and universities have repeatedly raised tuition rates because of rising costs and decreasing state aid. This plan would shift even more of the load to students.

The proposal, if pursued, badly needs to be reworked so that any per-credit tuition structure is applied equitably to all students, whether part time or full time. In addition, switching from the flat rate now charged full-time students to a per-credit rate should not amount to a windfall for participating colleges. Any plan's goal should be close to revenue neutral.

That approach no doubt can be achieved, but the current proposal falls short of doing so.

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