Block the Block Tuition Proposal  

Opinion Editorial
The Tampa Tribune
April 10, 2004
When I go to the movies, I order a small Sprite.  Without fail, the cashier
says, “For only 25¢ more, you can get a medium.”  I can afford the extra
quarter, especially when a small Sprite costs three dollars.  But, because
I want to avoid taking a restroom break in the middle of a movie, I stick
with my choice of a small Sprite.  I would feel cheated if the only size
available was large, even when I still can drink only a portion of it.  

That is what the block tuition proposal is exactly asking our state
university students to do.  Pay for 15 credit hours every semester no
matter how many courses you can afford to take.

More and more people from other nations, most of them the brightest in
their class, come here to get an education.  In spite of all the grumblings
about low rankings in mathematics and science in standardized world
tests, what is that still makes American university education the best and
most sought after system in the world.  It is the opportunity and the
exposure- field trips, use of technology in the classroom, hands-on
projects, laboratory experience, internships and co-operative education,
integration of state-of-art research into the classroom, involvement in
professional and community service, recreational activities, year round
cultural, political, recreational and social events, innovative textbooks,
attention to learning styles, accommodation of the disabled.  Do I need
to keep going?

The concept of block tuition is contrary to what American education is all
about.  Block tuition is an invitation to cookie-cutter education, and such
systems will take away the exposure and opportunities that higher
education offers.  Education will become accessible only to students who
can afford the extra tuition.  Students will be tempted to enroll for five
courses, even when they know they will not have the time to study.  

A general rule of thumb is that for every credit hour, in addition to the
hour spent attending class, a student should spend two hours studying.  
For a 15-credit hour load, this means a load of 45 hours per week.  That
is more hours than a regular full time employee works.  Even students
who are on scholarships may find losing future eligibility as 15 credit
hours of coursework could lead to failing or low grades.

A few state university presidents talk about the good-old days that when
they were in college more students graduated on time.  In fact, until mid
1970s, Florida charged block tuition but today the demographics of our
students are different.  More than half of USF students I know go to
community colleges to get a low-cost education for the first two years.  
Their financial circumstances most probably do not improve while they are
at USF.  Many of these students are not even the traditional age.  In a
survey of over 100 students conducted of my class at USF in 2002-03,
over 20% of the students were over 27 years of age.  More than half
were working 20 hours or more per week to make ends meet, and the
same number was registered for 12 credit hours or less.  Most of these
students are getting little or no support from parents while 15% of the
above groups are parents of young children themselves.  These students
are generally changing or improving their careers, and they need to be
encouraged.  An obligation of a civilized society is to encourage diversity,
and this group of nontraditional students deserves as much equal
opportunity as any other group.

Since we see demands of tuition hikes every year, we wonder what
universities do with additional tuition?  Tuition in Florida has been
historically low, and the demands on universities are higher than ever.  
Universities need to keep up with rapid change in technology and
demands of the workforce.  The latter is resulting in offering of more
degree programs such as biotechnology, occupational therapy, etc.  
Politicians do not help the cause either because they want new
independent universities, and expensive programs like medical and law
schools in their backyard.  

Since governmental financial aid packages have been shrinking, the
burden of offering financial aid goes to the university.  It would
unconscionable, if part of the hike in tuition costs is not used to increase
the level of financial aid to make tuition hikes transparent to low-income
students.  The low-income students are yet another group that is most
ignored in affirmative action and diversity initiatives.  

In some cases, tuition hikes are used to compete for superstar
researchers, who get exorbitant salaries and need expensive laboratory
equipment while doing little undergraduate teaching.  Also, upper level
administration in most Florida universities is known to be top heavy.

Now back to some more reasons that block tuition is a premature idea.  
Block tuition will reduce the number of students participating in
professional and community service.  Being involved in these activities is
as integral to one’s education as being in the classroom and making a
passing grade.  This is where students learn informally about teamwork
with their peers, apply and synthesize their knowledge, and network
with working professionals.  

For a strong professional workforce and for attracting high paying jobs to
Florida, students need training in interdisciplinary subjects.  This may
require students to enroll in more courses than their degree requires.  
We should be encouraging such students.

Students changing their major of study should not be penalized unless
they abuse the privilege.  Would you like somebody teaching your
children if an education major finds out they absolutely hate being a
teacher!  Exploration is an integral part of the American education.  Our
state politicians suggest “they want to make education efficient and
effective,” and “the state should not underwrite exploration.”  First,
efficient and effective can sometimes be contrary to each other.  If a
student comes to my office with a problem, I can simply hand him a copy
of the solution.  That is efficiency.  If I take the time to guide him to find
the answer himself, that is effectiveness.  Second, if the state does not
“underwrite exploration”, it will make the education system look more like
that of the rest of the world, and that is a sure way to lose the very edge
that makes our education system not just unique but one that graduates
the most competitive and productive workforce in the world.

Since 1976, “all students at USF with fewer than 60 semester hours of
credit are required to earn at least 9 semester hours of credit prior to
graduation by attendance during one or more summer semesters.”  If the
15-credit hours block tuition proposal is imposed, then a student has
enough credits to get his 120-credit hour degree in four academic (Fall
and Spring semesters) years.  You will have to drop the current summer
residency requirement, and that itself would be a waste of physical and
human resources of the university.  The solution maybe to adopt a
trimester system (Saturday Forum, January 17, 2004) creating its own
problem of a shorter academic year and a four-month long summer
semester.  Faculty members, who are on academic year contract, conduct
most of their research during summer.  This means that they will have to
find more local research or teaching opportunities in summer, as federal
agencies do not allow support of faculty salaries of more than two
months, no matter how many federal grants one has.

When I talked about my reservations about the block tuition plan, a
handful of my colleagues mentioned, “You are from the old school;
change is inevitable.”  Although I take issue with the former, I could not
agree more with the latter.  It is the change in demographics of our
students and the demands of the workforce our legislators need to
recognize.  There is an old German saying, “Before you change anything,
know what you are changing.”

Just like marriage and family, a university is an institution and not a
business.  You do not penalize its members because it is not run like a
business.  Such action is reserved only if the members break its
covenant.  If a university wants to be a business, then a university needs
to act like a business.  As a business, a university should eradicate
degree and athletic programs that are not profitable, should not ask
anyone for charitable contributions, participate only in beneficial
volunteer activities, make as few accommodations as required by the law
to the disabled, play commercials after every eight minutes of a class
period, and only allow scholarly activities that generate profit.  If we
adopt these business principles, just imagine what a fast food version of
a university we will become.  “Would you like fries with that?” would be
the only question left unasked.

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