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Hot on Campus | November 13, 2012

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Education

California State University proposes fees to encourage students to graduate in five years or less

In this photo taken Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 students rally against higher student fees at San Francisco State University in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Danielle Parsons is 22 years old and a fifth-year senior at Sacramento State University. She's taken more than 150 credit hours in five years, with a full-time class schedule. Next spring she plans to graduate with more than 180 credits, two majors, and a minor. She might also end up paying several thousand dollars in additional tuition if trustees pass a proposed "graduation incentive fee" for the California State University system.

"I want to be done with college just as badly as college wants me to be done with it," Parsons said. "I understand they have to figure out a way to get people through the system. However, I think it would greatly hurt many students like myself."

Parsons is a Super Senior--an undergraduate student who has been in college longer than four years and has taken more classes and amassed more credits than she needs for a bachelor's degree. And she's not in the minority among undergraduate students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 50 percent of the class of 2010 failed to graduate in 5 years.

At California State University, where only 16 percent of freshmen graduate within four years and 52 percent graduate in six years, Super Seniors are no longer welcome.

School administrators say they can no longer afford to let students linger on campus longer than five years. They began discussing the issue in September after students complained and trustees raised questions. The CSU Board of Trustees will vote today on a "graduation incentive fee" that could almost triple tuition for students who have completed five years of full-time courses.

If the proposed fee passes, students with more than 160 credits in fall 2013 will be charged an additional $372 per credit--a total of about $8,500 per semester--which is essentially what out-of-state students pay. In fall 2014, the threshold falls to 150 credits, where it will stay to give students a margin of two full-time semesters to graduate.

The new fee is part of a broader campaign to improve graduation rates--to get more people in and more people out. Since 2009, CSU campuses have tried to move super seniors along more gently, requiring meetings with academic advisors and restricting extracurricular activities. But the students still aren't graduating as quickly as economic pressures demand.

The 23-campus system--the nation's largest four-year college system, with about 427,000 students--has suffered deep budget cuts during the past four years. CSU has had to raise tuition substantially, cut academic programs and turn away tens of thousands of qualified students.

"If we can graduate more students, we can create more capacity to enroll more students," said Eric Forbes, the system's assistant vice chancellor for student academic services. "It's about access and creating more efficiency in the system."

The proposed fee is one of three that will generate $30 million a year for the university system and create space for up to 18,000 additional students. Students who repeat a course or take more than 18 credits a semester could also face additional fees.

CSU's proposed fees are similar to those adopted in several other state university systems, including those in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin. But the idea has created some controversy, with CSU students saying they are sometimes forced into being super seniors through no fault of their own, said David Allison, president of the California State Student Association.

Students feel like they would be punished for switching majors, adding a major or minor or getting bad academic advice. They also complain about budget cuts that make essential classes harder to access. Many students take courses they don't need just to keep their financial aid.

Lori Varlotta, vice president for student affairs at Sacramento State, agrees with student concerns and doesn't think the high-credit counts are unreasonable.

"There are a few students who are purposely delaying their degree, but they are few and far between," Varlotta said.

The country's economic downturn has forced many American colleges to encourage their students to graduate in five years, said Michael Tanner, chief academic officer at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

"We're really having to ask, are we able to let students have as much choice as they had in the past?" Tanner said. "Maybe students who are engaged in this voyage of self-discovery are wandering too long without finding themselves."

Eric Rodriguez, 21, is a fourth-year computer science student at CSU East Bay who will become a super senior next year. He was forced to switch majors at the end of his sophomore year after being rejected from the school's nursing program. He's worried about the additional costs he may incur if the proposed super senior charges pass.

"I definitely want to get a job," Rodriguez said. "I don't want to be in school any longer than I have to."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.