States attempt to keep students on four-year path to graduation

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WASHINGTON — Millions of college students are taking extra time and extra courses on the road to graduation. Texas is seeking to cut down on that practice — for the sake of the students and the state budget.

A new Texas law will make Esin Saribudak’s college career harder to emulate.

When she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin this past May, the Houston native had amassed more than 210 credit hours — roughly 90 more than required — in her five years there.

Not her nickel

All those extra classes didn’t cost Saribudak a cent — she was getting a free ride on a merit scholarship — but it cost Texas money to keep her in school and provide instruction for an extra year. The state can pay up to $6,800 for each student who takes extra credit hours.

Multiply Saribudak’s story by a few thousand, and you begin to see why Texas has decided that it can’t afford to give public university students all the extra schooling they desire beyond the basic graduation requirement.

In June, the Texas legislature passed a law “to facilitate the timely completion of degrees.” It requires students to submit a plan detailing how they will achieve their degrees — and then obtain permission any time they choose to deviate from the plan.

Red tape nightmare?

For Saribudak, that would have meant gaining special approval for each of her three majors and two minors. That strikes her, and some professors, as unnecessarily bureaucratic.

Gad Perry, an associate professor of conservation biology at Texas Tech University, questions whether the law will have its intended effect. He said transfers between institutions and students changing their minds are most often to blame for excess credit hours.

“I don’t think this will change that,” he said. “What this will do is create a lot more paperwork.”

Staying on track

But some Texas students think a little more degree-granting discipline might not be such a bad idea.

Safa Ansari-Bayegan, a student at the University of Houston, committed in her first year to a program at UH called “The Graduation Pledge,” which provides escalating financial rewards — up to $3,000 overall — for students who earn 30 or more credit hours in each of their first three years, thus putting them on target for graduating in four.

“It’s kept me on track,” said Ansari-Bayegan, who will be entering her junior year this fall and has met the requirements so far.

Perpetual students

With fewer than half of Texas students graduating from four-year colleges in six years or less and only 25 percent finishing two-year colleges in three years or less — both below the national average, according to 2009 statistics compiled by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems — Texas officials hope the new law will help increase graduation rates and lower public costs at the same time.

“We can’t say to students ‘When you enter here you have a 50 percent chance of graduating,'” argues Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

He points out that the law, which originated in an advisory panel on cost-effectiveness, is also in part an effort to make college more affordable in a climate of reduced state support for higher education.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry made waves among education officials earlier this year when he suggested that the state’s colleges should develop a plan to offer a four-year college degree for $10,000.

Texas not alone

Many states are now levying fees for in-state students who take significantly more courses than required, with students often charged far pricier out-of-state tuition rates for hours far beyond the minimum needed to graduate.

In Florida, lawmakers ratcheted up existing fees at public colleges this year, meaning that Florida students whose course hours exceed requirements by more than 15 percent could wind up paying double for each additional credit above the threshold.

But the Texas law goes further by forcing students to make formal plans earlier, rather than simply charging them fees after they’ve gotten off track.

Career planning

“We want students to think very deliberately about their education,” Chavez said.

Saribudak, who will be teaching seventh grade English this fall in Richmond, Calif., through Teach for America, worries that the new law could do just the opposite. She fears that forcing students to decide their academic path too soon could curtail the kind of academic exploration that made her experience at UT so worthwhile.

“Holding kids accountable to plans made after two or three semesters kind of turns college into a vocational school,” she said.

Aid on bi-weekly basis

But the idea is spreading. In fact, getting students to think of school more like a vocation is the express goal of a new program being tested at a community college in California.

Called “Aid Like a Paycheck,” the program, which is a collaborative effort among the Institute For College Access and Success, the think tank MDRC, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, disburses federal grant money to students on a bi-weekly basis — like a paycheck — rather than in one lump sum at the beginning of the semester.

The program hopes to encourage students to budget better — reducing their need for additional outside work that takes away from study time and also making it easier to graduate on schedule. It asks them to treat school the way they would treat a job.

The program completed its first pilot year at Mount San Antonio College, outside of Los Angeles, and the results were mostly positive, according to Thomas Brock, director of Young Adults and Postsecondary Education at MDRC.

The findings are still tentative and the size of the experiment is small, so it’s probably a good idea to avoid extrapolating too much. But the program has caught the attention of financial aid officers and higher education officials in diverse parts of the country, including those at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, who are considering whether they could apply a similar idea to disbursement of the state’s Monetary Award Program, a need-based state grant.

Thinking ahead in Va.

Meanwhile, leaders at a community college in Virginia are trying a different tactic to encourage greater financial responsibility among their students.

Those who enroll at Tidewater Community College will be required to complete a budget this fall before they receive financial aid, detailing how they will spend the money and how they plan to pay it back, based on how much money they anticipate they will make in their first job out of college.

The school’s president compares the plan to the budgeting process a homebuyer would undergo before signing off on a mortgage.

Officials at the college told The Chronicle of Higher Education that they would provide students with an estimate of what future loan payments might be, to help them better understand the long-term implications of their borrowing, and would provide individual counseling to those whose borrowing and academic performance seem to put them at high risk of future default.

(Stateline.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy. You can contact Ben Wieder at bwieder@pewtrusts.org.)

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