Student Debt Penalizes Students Changing Majors or Schools

If you encounter a student with over $50,000 in debt, you will usually find that the student transferred majors or schools, or both. Planning for the costs associated with a college education is hard. Even after you enroll in a college and have your net tuition figured out, you still have to navigate the rules governing the use of your credits hours. If you switch majors once or twice, or if you transfer schools you may end up with a lot more student debt

These rules go against the grain of a liberal arts education. College years are meant for growth and exploration, that is, at the heart of the liberal arts tradition. Students are meant to take risks in learning without penalties. Do we really want to penalize students for these very qualities we should be encouraging? Isn't this perverting the very meaning of a liberal arts education?

Currently, more than 75 percent of college students will change their major at least once before graduating. In fact, choosing a vocation is not an easy task, especially when colleges have added more than 350 majors as options in the last decade. Meanwhile, another 75 percent of students transfer from a community college to a four-year program. Even when credits from one school are accepted by another, they may not count toward the intended major, forcing students to take additional, unplanned classes. This is something students often don't find out about until after they've transferred and it is too late.

A growing number of public colleges and universities are also instituting the "excess credit hour rule" designed to cut costs and penalize students who take classes beyond the requirements for a degree. For example, if a typical bachelor's degree requires 120 credits for completion, students are generally allowed to take up to 132 credits. But, after this limit is reached, students are charged an excess credit hour surcharge that can be up to double the standard tuition rate.

For low-income students the cost of taking excess credits may be higher than for other students. Pell and state need-based grant eligibility is time-bound. Therefore students can only be awarded Pell Grants for the full-time equivalent of 12 semesters or six years. If students need to take extra semesters to complete required credits, they will have to borrow or pay out of pocket. This is a heavy penalty that only affects the students least able to pay.

These rules favor colleges in two ways: rating magazines penalize colleges that don't graduate students within four to six years and these rules help colleges to extract more money from students.

States also benefit from the excess credit rule. Reducing average credits by just one percent can free up millions in state expenditures, which can potentially provide enrollment to thousands of additional full-time students. This is a laudable goal but should it be borne by students who are already enrolled?

While some states have designed initiatives to reduce the amount of credits lost during transfers (such as the Massachussets MassTransfer Block), more needs to be done to students to allow enough extra credit leeway to truly explore their interests and skills. If not, at least they should have clear information on what that exploration will cost them.

We need to create better and more transparent rules for taking extra credits and for transferring so that less money and time is wasted, and students are freer to pursue a productive and satisfying liberal arts education without incurring a crushing debt load.