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Rethink the fees, Cal State

The system must deal with the demand for classes, but there are better ways to accomplish that.

November 14, 2012

The trustees of California State University did the right thing Tuesday by putting off any discussion of new fees designed to keep students from using more than their share of university resources. Now the university should scrap the plan altogether and start over. There are more equitable and more effective ways to accomplish their goal.

It's not the first time the board of trustees has been scheduled to vote on an ill-conceived plan before the students, faculty and the public have had a chance to weigh in. Administrators said the fees weren't about bringing in new income but rather were intended to change student behavior. The biggest of the new fees, $372 per unit, would be levied on students who already had earned more credits than they needed to graduate. More moderate fees would be charged to students who repeated a class, often to earn a better grade, and those who took an extra-heavy course load.

It's all for a valid reason: Cal State wants to keep students from overusing its resources so that other students have a fairer shot at getting an education. Students who stay on long after they should have received a degree — about 9,000 would be affected by that fee — take seats in taxpayer-subsidized classes that are needed by new students. The same is true for those who repeat a class. Meanwhile, some students overload their course schedules at no extra cost, figuring they can drop a class later. By that time, it's too late for other students to take their place.

But the proposal is unfair because students with money would still be able to take excess classes; the only people affected would be those who can't afford to.

California's community college system has devised a better policy: It places students who have long since completed the graduation requirements at the bottom of the registration priority list, which would also work for students who want to repeat a class. All other students, including the newest ones, have first crack at enrolling.

There is a different financial penalty Cal State could impose fairly: It could withdraw financial aid from students who pay no tuition and who have taken more than their share of classes. Otherwise, those students have no incentive to leave, and surely taxpayers never meant for the largesse to go on forever. But the money should be withdrawn only if Cal State has provided the super-seniors with the courses they needed for their majors or for graduate school — there's been a shortage in recent years — and allowed them to double major or pursue majors that have higher credit requirements.

As for heavy course loads, Cal State should impose a penalty only when students drop an extra course, not when they sign up for it. Otherwise, ambitious students who want to finish early would be deterred. If the incentive program isn't supposed to be about money, then to the extent possible, Cal State shouldn't make it be about money.

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