Cal Poly students oppose fee for 'super seniors'

Cal Poly students walk to campus along California Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon.
Cal Poly students walk to campus along California Boulevard on Tuesday afternoon.

With $50,000 in student loan debt in just her second year at Cal Poly, Alyssa Carmeli knows how expensive school can be — which explains why she doesn’t support a proposal that would raise fees for students who linger in college.

“California’s budget is a mess, but it shouldn’t have to be this hard to get through school,” said Carmeli, a mechanical engineering student from Boulder, Colo.

Yet, in an era of budget cuts, administrators at the California State University system say students who take too long to graduate prevent would-be freshmen from getting into school. As a result, they want to charge hefty fees that could almost triple the cost for students who have completed five years of full-time undergraduate work.

The CSU Board of Trustees was expected to vote on the “graduation incentive fee” during a meeting in Long Beach on Tuesday, but the matter was postponed, according to the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

No new date for the vote has been set, though a news release from the Chancellor’s Office said it will be “after trustees gather additional information and input from stakeholders.” Board Chairman Robert Linscheid said the board tabled the increases after discussions with the governor and students.

For students at Cal Poly, that move provided some hope.

“I’m glad the CSU is going to look more into it — and find other options, hopefully,” said Katie Morrow, president of the ASI student government at Cal Poly.

Deep budget cuts over the past four years have forced CSU to sharply raise tuition, cut academic programs and deny admissions to tens of thousands of eligible applicants. The “super senior” proposal, which several other states have adopted, would at least make room for more applicants, officials say.

“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.”

But some students feel like it’s punishing them.

“I don’t really agree with that,” said Zach Yasuda, a second-year mechanical engineering student from Rancho Cucamonga. “It’s not like the seniors are wanting to stay in school. They want to graduate just as much as anyone else.”

Graduating on time is difficult, many say, because needed classes aren’t always available.

Last quarter, Yasuda said, he was on the wait list for two or three classes and wound up getting none of them. Students who need to take a full load of classes to get financial aid might wind up taking several courses they don’t really need, adding to their total.

“Sometimes through no fault of their own, students are forced into being super seniors,” said David Allison, president of the California State Student Association.

Alex Wineteer, a third-year aerospace engineering student from North Carolina, said the proposed hikes would curb student choice.

“A lot of people come to this school thinking they want to do one thing and wind up graduating with a different degree,” he said. “It’s not uncommon at all.”

Lacy Sigman, a second-year electrical engineering student from San Jose, said she knows a student who recently switched from aerospace engineering to software engineering. As a result, he’ll have to take many more courses to get his degree.

“He’s going to be here five or six years,” she said.

The fees would also discourage double majors, Carmeli said, because double majors also require more credits.

Two other proposed fees purport to address the course logjam: fees on students who repeat a course or take 18 or more units in one semester.

If passed, the three fees are projected to generate $30 million in annual revenue and create space for 18,000 additional students.

The “graduation incentive fee” would be phased in over two years and would apply to students with 160 or more semester units in fall 2013 before the threshold falls to 150 units in fall 2014.

Most majors require 120 units for graduation.

“Super seniors” would be charged $372 per semester unit — in addition to in-state tuition of $2,985 per semester. For a full 15-unit course load, they would pay about $8,500, roughly what out-of-state students pay. It would have been higher if Proposition 30, which will raise money for schools, had not passed in the general election last week.

In recent years, state university systems in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin imposed extra fees on super seniors to encourage students to graduate earlier.

Cal State’s proposed super fee is part of a campaign to improve graduation rates in the CSU system, where only 16 percent of freshmen graduate within four years and 52 percent graduate within six years.

According to the most recent available data, about 36 percent of Cal Poly freshmen graduate in four years. Roughly 62 percent graduate within five years, and 76 percent graduate within six.

Across the 427,000-student system, about 8 percent of graduates finish with at least 18 more units than the minimum needed for a bachelor’s degree. About 6 percent of seniors — or 9,000 undergrads — have completed more than 150 units, according to CSU officials.

With more students enrolled and fewer new students admitted, the standards for admittance are getting tougher.

“The GPA (to get accepted) rises every year,” Sigman said.