Regents criticize Towson policy

University system officials scrutinize fee for students who take big course loads

`Runs contrary to our goals'

Lessening time spent in college is urged to ease costs amid tight budgets

December 30, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

With money tight and enrollment surging, Maryland's public colleges want students to graduate faster -- which is why officials are scrutinizing a Towson University policy that penalizes students who do exactly that.

Since 1991, Towson has charged an extra fee to students who take more than 15 credits (typically, that's five courses) in a semester. The fee was initially $10 a credit, or $30 a course, but it has risen over time to $40 a credit, or $120 a course -- on top of the $6,226 yearly cost of attending Towson.

Towson started charging the fee as a way to dissuade students from enrolling in more courses than they planned to take, and then dropping out of those they didn't like, a practice that caused logistical headaches. But many students have continued taking more than the average number of courses: Towson collects about $500,000 each year from the fee.

The University System of Maryland is looking for ways to move students through college faster, so some members of the system's Board of Regents are urging Towson to do away with the surcharge. The charge not only penalizes ambitious students, they say, it also hurts those with internships outside of class, which sometimes carry course credit.

The surcharge "really is a disincentive to take more courses and get out quicker," said D. Philip Shockley, a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who is the student representative on the Board of Regents. "It's the kind of fee that jumps out at you, where you say, `Where does this come from?'"

Towson is the only one of the system's 11 institutions that charges for credits above the typical load, though some schools require students to get permission to take a high number of courses. Regents were unaware about the surcharge before it was uncovered in a recent legislative audit.

Auditors questioned whether the fee was legal, considering that it hadn't been submitted to the regents, who must approve tuition rates. The auditors went so far as to raise the possibility that Towson might need to refund all the surcharges assessed over the past 13 years -- a total of about $2.5 million.

Towson officials counter that the surcharge is legal because it's not a mandatory fee, applicable only to students who take extra courses, and therefore doesn't require regents' approval. At a meeting this month, regents voted to accept this reasoning and to declare the surcharge legally acceptable.

But several regents added that they would like Towson to consider dropping the charge. "I'm concerned that it runs contrary to our goals of trying to move people through as much as possible," said regent Patricia S. Florestano, the state's former secretary of higher education.

Towson President Robert L. Caret said dropping the fee would require a tuition increase of about $25 each year.

Getting students to graduate faster is one of the main aims of an "effectiveness and efficiency" task force that is looking for ways to save money at a time when the system is facing flat state funding. Freeing space for other students could help alleviate pressure to expand colleges.

Only about 30 percent of students who enroll at the state's public colleges and universities graduate after four years; an additional 30 percent graduate within six years of enrolling.

Regent Richard E. Hug has argued for doubling tuition as a way to encourage students to graduate quickly because staying on longer would become unaffordable. But other regents have argued this would only worsen the problem, by forcing students to take part-time jobs and spread their coursework over more years.

Graduation trends at Towson mirror the state average -- about 30 percent of entering students graduate four years later. And Towson, which now has about 14,000 undergraduates, is slated to absorb a disproportionate share of the enrollment growth expected at the state's colleges in the next decade, making it all the more imperative to free up classroom slots.

David F. Harnage, Towson's vice president for administration and finance, said the college would talk further with the regents about whether to keep the fee next year. "We as an institution will follow the guidance of the tuition policy of the system," he said.

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