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November 11, 2012

Editorial: CSU fees an insult to students, voters

With passage of Proposition 30, voters spared California's public universities from major budget cuts and student fee increases.

Students in the California State University system who have seen significant tuition increases – from $3,000 five years ago to $5,500 today – won't see a new general increase.

Yet CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, in a parting shot to close out his 14-year tenure, is rushing through a proposal before he turns the CSU system over to a new chancellor at the end of December. It would impose three new fees on students for the fall 2013 term.

This is outrageous. The Board of Trustees should reject the new fees at their meeting on Tuesday.

The ostensible aim of the fees – providing "incentives" to students not to take too many courses or repeat courses, so slots can open for other students – can be handled through enrollment priorities and other policies.

In reality, the proposed fees are an "ambition penalty" on students who want to graduate early or on time or pursue a double major or high-unit major (such as engineering).

Even worse, these fees favor wealthier students who can afford to pay, creating differential access to courses.

And the proposed fees do nothing to deal with the real problem, which is that students often cannot get classes they need for their major – so they take whatever classes they can get in order to keep financial aid.

That is the problem the new chancellor will need to tackle.

Reed's proposed fees are simply an insult to Californians, a thumb in their eye after they voted to pass Proposition 30.

One would require students to pay out-of-state tuition ($372 per semester unit) if they take more courses than they need to graduate (160 units in 2013 and 150 units in 2014). Yet if there really are so-called "super seniors" who have met all requirements for their declared degrees, campuses already have authority to graduate them. This should be a non-issue.

Yes, some students who have more than enough units to graduate still need to fulfill some requirements. But what if they can't get into the classes they need? That is the problem that needs to be solved. Fees don't do it.

A second fee would hit students with $91 if they retake a course. Some states, such as Florida and Texas, charge a fee – but only if students take a course for a third time. No second chances with Reed's proposal, however. If you get a D or F in a course, you could not retake it unless you paid the fee – even if you need that course for your major or for graduate school.

The CSU system already forbids students who get a C or better from repeating a course. If the concern is that repeaters take spaces, set policies giving priority in registration to non-repeaters.

A third fee would charge students $182 per unit if they take more than a full course load (18 semester units). This, of course, would discourage students from graduating early or taking an extra load when classes are available. If the concern is that these students "hog" classes, why not do a separate registration for those who want extra classes after the initial registration run, as many CSU campuses already do?

When pressed, CSU says the real issue is that some students – they don't say how many – sign up for an extra load only to drop classes when it's too late for others to sign up. So why penalize all students who want to take an extra load? Why not craft a policy to address that problem?

For example, in Florida, students may not take more than 18 credits per semester without special permission from their academic adviser, who can assess whether they really are capable and serious about handling an extra load.

The critics are right that this "pay up or drop out" policy doesn't assure that students can get the courses they need to graduate in timely fashion. Nor does it acknowledge that there are other ways to make sure students don't take too many courses or needlessly repeat courses.

The board should allow incoming chancellor Timothy P. White to assess the need for new policies to help students graduate in timely fashion and open slots for more students. This is no time to expand fees.

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