On Campus Blog

Why the U. of Minn. wants you to eat and run

Tim Post reported this week that the University of Minnesota is considering increasing the cost of credits for those who don't graduate in the standard four years.

University officials haven't yet discussed the potential size of the tuition increase, and the idea is only in the early stages of discussion. But it's apparently part of a push by state colleges and universities to increase their four-year graduation rate, a figure that has become a performance indicator in higher education.

Reading that, I thought: The U sounds a little like one of those pushy restaurants.

I mean, imagine you're finished with dinner and now want to lounge around for an hour or two drinking coffee or having dessert with a friend.

But the manager politely asks you to finish up -- or he'll charge you extra for taking up space. After all, he's got folks waiting who want to eat a full dinner.

How would that feel? The financial logic is understandable, but such a move in a restaurant seems inappropriate, if not downright tacky.

But is it inappropriate in higher education?

To me the proposal raises questions about fairness, what a college education is for, and whether the student "customer" -- or university finance -- is king.

I asked Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education, to elaborate on the idea of charging extra for credits.

Although he couldn't provide figures on how many students would be affected, he said, "We know there is a large number" with 140, 150 or even 160 credits -- far above the 120-128 needed to graduate.

The U, he said, is targeting two types of students with the tactic:

  1. Those who earn enough credits to graduate and have fulfilled degree requirements, but who just want to hang around campus and take classes; and

  2. Those who have enough credits but, because they've perhaps switched majors a few times, don't have enough of the right credits to fulfill degree requirements.

But it's also concerned with a third group: the working students whose college career stretches beyond the usual period. McMaster didn't rule out applying the fee to them as well, though students with excess credits appear to be the main targets.

(I didn't get a clear picture of just how long is considered too long for working students. That may still be in the air.)

[module align="left" width="half" type="pull-quote"]In an era when 30,000 students apply for 5,000 spots, a student who stays on "is also taking up a spot that another student can’t have."[/module]

He said the university wants to take softer measures -- such as revamping academic advising procedures -- to help students find their paths more quickly. But the credit fee remains an option.

So why should fee-paying students who are keeping up their grades need to be ushered through the system? After all, they may be finding themselves, taking more time than usual to find the filed that's right for them, or just enjoying an extended period of intellectual pursuit.

Isn't that what college is all about?

McMaster's reply: In an era when 30,000 students apply for 5,000 spots, a student who stays on "is also taking up a spot that another student can’t have. We have limited resources, and we'll help you get though in normal time. But you as a student have to take some responsibility to do it expeditiously."

As mentioned earlier, the fee might also be applied toward those who take longer to graduate because they need to work their way through. In this economic environment, such an idea seems harsh.

"What we’d rather have students do, instead working 30-40-50 hours a week, is find other resources," McMaster said.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"This has nothing to do with extra tuition for university," he said. "It never entered into any of our conversations."[/module]

Seems easier said than done.

Actually, McMaster said, it may be worth it for someone to shave off 10 hours a week and instead -- thoughtfully and with great caution, he stressed -- take out a modest student loan. After all, you shouldn't forget the added income that comes from a quicker end to school and a faster entry into the full-time job market, he said.

Perhaps, but that might be a tough sell amid increasing skepticism over the ballooning student loan problem. (McMaster said the U's default rate is relatively low.)

"We'll certainly be human," he said.

For those still finding themselves, he mentioned himself as an example of someone who switched gears and still graduated in four years. He started as a biology major, began to veer off into architecture and ended up as a geography major.

After all, he said, when he was in college everyone graduated in four years.

McMaster denied that the proposal was simply a way to increase student turnover and boost income for the university -- to push out the latte sippers out in favor of the four-course diners.

"This has nothing to do with extra tuition for university," he said. "It never entered into any of our conversations."

The university hopes to have its system arranged by the end of the academic year, he said.