The new tuition models under consideration by the UND administration should be of deep concern to UND students, the State Board of Higher Education, the North Dakota legislature, and the citizenry as a whole.
From the discussion that has taken place, it appears that UND’s goal is to encourage more students to enroll in 15 credits per semester instead of some lower number. The logic here is simple—if students are earning more credits, all else equal, we should expect that they will graduate sooner. If students are graduating sooner, they should also pay less in tuition and fees overall and amass less student loan debt.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the apparent-benevolence of a policy proposal has little bearing in determining the outcome that the policy will ultimately have. In this case, the UND administration has provided details on two tuition model proposals, and it is very difficult to see how either will result in a favorable outcome.
Under the two proposals, the cost of tuition for a student enrolled in 15 credits would increase by either 10.5 percent or 12.3 percent for in-state students. While each proposal is accompanied by a marginal decrease in the per-credit rate of tuition, both make a major change from the status quo by charging students tuition on each of their first 15 credits (under the current system, a full-time student pays a flat rate for their first 12 credits each semester and is able to take up to 21 credits of traditional courses at no additional charge). For students currently choosing to take 15 credits, the behavior that UND is attempting to encourage, the tuition hike would be greater than any that has been experienced in recent history.
How can the UND administration justify this dramatic increase in cost, especially at a time when the institution is receiving an unprecedented level of allocations from the state?
Well, if the changes result in students graduating in 8 semesters instead of 10, the administration says, then students will actually save money, even though the cost of each individual semester will be greater.
This is a correct statement, albeit one which is very misleading. Why is it misleading? Because there is no reason to believe that either of the proposals will result in students graduating in a shorter period of time.
Under the current system, a student also saves money if they graduate in 8 semesters instead of 10—in fact, they save an even greater amount of money than they would under either of the two proposals.
Further, the status quo also provides an incentive for students to enroll in more credits—once they have paid for 12 credits in a given semester, they have the ability to take additional courses at no additional charge. Students consider many factors when making a decision about the number of courses in which to enroll. When deciding whether to take 12 or 15 credits in a semester, a student may consider the difficulty of their courses, their workload, course availability, and many other factors. Whether or not they can afford the direct cost of enrolling in the additional course is a nonissue—because they have already paid for 12 credits, the additional course is currently “free”.
The opposite is true under the two proposals made by UND. If a student wants to take 15 credits instead of 12, the UND administration wants them to pay for it. It doesn’t take an economist or an expert in higher education to explain why this idea is counterintuitive to improving graduation rates—if the cost of something increases, we should expect that less of it will be purchased. Phrased another way—if students are choosing to take 12 credits instead of 15 credits under the current system—when moving up to 15 credits is “free”—why should we expect that more students will take 15 credits when we begin charging them extra for it?
We shouldn’t. And it’s wrong for the UND administration to mislead the public into thinking that we should.
The two proposals under consideration by UND are in almost direct conflict with nationally-touted research and “best practices”, which place emphasis, logically so, on giving students an incentive to enroll in additional credits. One of the most common recommendations? Giving students the ability to enroll in courses beyond 12 credits free of charge—the exact policy that UND is seeking to eliminate.
As the old metaphor goes, there are two ways to change a behavior—carrots and sticks. By making it cheaper for students to enroll in 12 credits than under the current system, these proposals offer students a carrot to continue the behavior that the institution is attempting to change. By forcing students to pay an additional amount to move from 12 to 15 credits, the university administration is wielding a stick that discourages students from participating in this desired behavior.
The fact that these proposals were even drafted is troubling. The fact that they are still being given meaningful consideration? That’s even more concerning. It also raises serious questions as to whether some other unknown motives are driving this irrational behavior.