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Excess credit hour surcharge has affected graduation rates, university programs

The Florida Legislature put a surcharge on excess credit hours to work on improving graduation rates.

When the Florida Legislature put an excess credit hour surcharge into effect in 2009, Eric Shepherd, associate professor of Chinese at USF, saw the Chinese program he worked to build drop to one-third its original size.

“I had an entire class who immediately had to drop because when this rule was created, they were immediately put over the limit for credit hours,” Shepherd said.

The Chinese program wasn’t the only program that took a hit after the excess credit hour surcharge took effect. According to the Legislation, the excess credit hour surcharge was designed to provide financial incentive to improve Florida University System graduation rates. 

Students who started at Florida public universities since fall 2012 are paying double for classes after they exceed the credit hour limit. 

Shepherd said the general feeling at the university is a sense of helplessness in the face of the Legislature.

“Basically, the idea is that nothing can be done,” Shepherd said.

Adam Freeman, media and public affairs manager for University Communications and Marketing, stressed that the surcharge was a product of the Legislature and out of USF’s hands.

“The excess hours surcharge was established by Florida law several years ago, and is therefore required at all state universities,” Freeman said. “The university follows the law.”

Shepherd feels that the excess credit hour surcharge was not well thought out, criticizing provision of an economic incentive for students to diversify their skillsets less and focus on graduating faster.

“When the institution has an economic incentive to push the students out of the institution as rapidly as possible, then you have the situation where the institution is cannibalizing itself,” Shepherd said. “You have advisers telling students not to waste their time taking USF classes and these advisers are USF employees. It doesn’t make sense.

“There’s no class at the University of South Florida that we should ever say, ‘Don’t waste your time taking, even if it’s not in your major’ because that student could be developing a set of skills that sets them apart in the workplace.”

Since the surcharge took effect, the Chinese program has had to restructure itself. Shepherd said with restructuring comes a shift in teaching goals, from building the highest proficiency possible to getting students out quickly. Classes were decreased in credit hours and, consequently, the hours spent in the classroom.

“So, what we were able to accomplish in two years before takes four years,” Shepherd said. “What we could accomplish in four years will take eight years by reducing the number of hours we have to work together.”

The excess credit hour surcharge was put in place in 2009, but changed in increments over time. The legislation dictated students entering a school in the State University System in fall 2009 or after would pay 50 percent more for each class taken past 120 percent of the hours needed to complete their degree. 

Students who entered in fall 2011 and on would pay 100 percent extra for each excess course taken over 115 percent of necessary hours. Now, for those who entered after fall 2012, the charge is 100 percent for 110 percent over credit hours needed to complete their chosen degree program.

When the surcharge was put in place in 2009, the USF Fact Sheet showed the university’s six-year graduation rate for the 2008-09 academic year at 49.3 percent. USF’s six-year graduation rate for the 2016-17 academic year is 68 percent, according to the Fact Sheet.

In 2014, the Florida Board of Governors started evaluating universities in the State University System based on performance metrics, one of which is six-year graduation rates. This means that the better a university’s six-year graduation rate, the better they rank in performance metrics, which can lead to more funding from the Legislature.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), The James Madison Institute and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education came together in 2013 to review Florida’s university system in the ACTA Florida Rising Report. The review praised the excess credit hour surcharge as an effort to raise low graduation rates.

“The System four-year graduation rate average is 42 (percent), and five universities have rates of 25 (percent) or lower,” the report stated. “It is promising, however, that Florida is taking clear aim at improving the four-year graduation rate. With the encouragement of Florida’s ‘Excess Credit Hour Surcharge’ legislation, students have a strong financial incentive to complete their baccalaureate degrees efficiently.”

Four years after this report, in USF’s engineering department, Mary Goodwin, director of Engineering Student Services, said the engineering advisers try to get ahead of the surcharge in planning out the courses for their students.

The rigor of programs such as engineering fairly limit the amount of classes students can take outside of their degree curriculum. However, this rigor can put students in danger of going over the limit if they are forced to drop courses or have to retake more difficult courses.

“Ideally, we hope it doesn’t affect our students, but unfortunately it does impact them,” Goodwin said.

In the meantime, Freeman said in an email that the university has been educating students on the surcharge.

“USF has made significant efforts to educate students about the state-mandated surcharge throughout their time at the university, with the goal of seeing more students complete degrees without paying the additional charges,” Freeman said.

The same sentiment can be found in Engineering Student Services. Goodwin said she tries to provide students resources to help them avoid having to pay extra for classes. She said the surcharge might be good for graduation rates if it helps students focus more, but it has its drawbacks.

“I mean obviously I’m not a fan of students having to pay more money, because for many students it’s a hardship anyway,” Goodwin said. “But we have to follow what the Legislature puts out there, so we’re trying to do the best we can.”