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Jonathan Ng, whose academic curiosity runs the spectrum from physics to poetry, has racked up nearly twice as many credits as he needs to graduate from the University of Utah. The 21-year-old will earn a bachelor's degree this spring with a major in mathematics and minors in economics, psychology, and physics.
While university officials praise Ng's academic accomplishments, Utah lawmakers are entertaining the notion of requiring Ng and other students like him to pay the full cost of their education more than triple Utah's subsidized resident tuition. If colleges and universities charged full tuition for students who hold 120 percent of the credits needed for graduation, they could raise $45 million a year, according to legislative fiscal analyst Spencer Pratt. That sum would cover the 7 percent cut the Legislature wants to exact on higher education's $700 million state appropriation.
And it would give some students an incentive to get out of school in a timely fashion, said Pratt, who is assigned to the legislature's Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Pratt was asked by lawmakers to look for ways to compensate for a 7 percent reduction.
Universities already have the full-tuition option when students accrue 135 percent of the credits required for completion. But they almost never pursue it. Education officials say that would discourage some students from finishing school and punish those who amass excess credit through no fault of their own.
"There are legitimate reasons to stay in school," said Barb Synder, the U.'s vice president for student affairs. "There isn't a plethora of jobs out there for some majors. For some, staying in school, pursuing an additional major or minor is a very effective use of educational resources."
Nearly a fifth of U. graduates earn a second major or a minor. According to U. registrar Tim Ebner, 311 of the 5,501 graduates last year were double majors and another 783 had one or two minors.
Ng represents most of the major reasons college student accumulate extra credits: He arrived with multiple credits earned in high school through concurrent enrollment and Advanced Placement courses, he changed career goals, and he is intellectually adventurous.
He switched majors several times from business to engineering to English to pre-medicine and now intends to pursue law school next fall. He loves writing, so he worked at the U. student newspaper and studied creative writing, then studied abroad in China one summer.
"I was interested in a career in research for a while. I worked in four labs, but I was more interested in the social aspects of it rather than the scientific process," said Ng, who interns in the university president's office. "I really enjoyed creative writing, and poetry served my intellectual curiosity. Everything I've done has been very relevant."
But some lawmakers wonder if the state should subsidize such voracious appetites for knowledge.
Legislative leaders have signaled that, for now, they intend to let institutions' presidents decide whether to pursue Pratt's recommendations. Campus leaders seem unlikely to embrace either option.
Although Utah Valley University is hurting for money as Utah students flood its open-admissions Orem campus to pursue new four-year degrees, officials see a lot to lose and nothing to gain by charging more.
"Our goal is to help students prepare for life and a career. If we create obstacles to achieve these outcomes, we will end up thrusting students out of the education market and into the job market," said Cory Duckworth, Snyder's counterpart at UVU. "You don't want them with a degree that is not consistent with their current desires. If you were to raise tuition to the out-of-state level, most of those students would stop coming. They wouldn't complete their degree and it wouldn't help our economy."
The best way to avoid excess credit is to offer early academic advising, Duckworth said.
Many high-achieving students are encouraged to earn college credit while in high school to help them earn degrees more quickly. In fact, it's a requirement of the New Century scholarship, which Ng received.
Ng earned 70 credits and an associate's degree before he stepped on the U. campus as a freshman four years ago. But many of those credits did little to advance him toward a degree because they were redundant or filled requirements he didn't need.
Most New Century students take four years to earn their college degrees anyway, a recent study showed. But under a full-cost scenario, many students like Ng would pay triple tuition by the middle of their junior year.
"It would require students to plan very, very early in high school," Ng said of the higher tuition proposal. "I would have no idea whether those [high school] credits are useful."
Get out, or pay up
An analysis by legislative fiscal analyst Spencer Pratt estimates the state's largest colleges and universities could gain millions by charging full-price tuition of students who already have enough credits to graduate. A sampling:
University of Utah • $16.4 million
Utah State University • $6.9 million
Weber State University • $1.7 million
Utah Valley University • $11.9 million
Dixie State College • $3.2 million
Salt Lake Community College • $7.9 million