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Students who stick around too long could cost USF dollars

TAMPA — When William Warmke enrolled at the University of South Florida, he took tons of classes, because in college you explore. He knew he wanted to be a lawyer, but he was interested in the military, foreign policy, how to be an ambassador.

Warmke tried a little of everything, took extra classes every summer, and after a while realized he had amassed enough credits that he could not only major in political science, he could do criminology and interdisciplinary social sciences, too.

He could have three degrees.

"It's more money for me, but I'm still helping the school," Warmke said he reasoned. "And I'm enhancing my education. I thought it was a win-win."

But Warmke, USF's 22-year-old student body president, represents a tricky kind of student in the current reality of higher education. They are eager to take extra classes, even willing to pay more for them. But in an odd twist, they might be costing cash-strapped universities precious dollars.

More than ever, Florida's public universities are competing for additional money from the state — this coming session, the legislative request for performance funding is $50 million, to be split among universities.

Schools have to meet certain standards to get the cash — metrics, they're called. The metrics range from how fast students are getting degrees to how many graduates have jobs to how much they're earning in those jobs.

Each university picks a metric — USF has asked to be judged on post-doctorates with research appointments, a reflection of its research accomplishments.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, picks another. For USF and seven other universities, the board picked the percentage of students getting bachelor's degrees without excess hours. For most students, that means anything over 132 hours.

In the 2011-12 academic year, 53 percent of USF students graduated without excess hours. At the University of Florida, it was 72 percent. At Florida State, it was 78 percent. USF has set a goal to get to 61 percent by 2015.

Neither state laws nor USF rules forbid students from getting minors or multiple majors, but they do place limits on excess hours. Deans at USF can approve extra semesters, but the emphasis is on planning, setting a workable time frame.

"I think we're saying, at this moment in time, let's be reasonable and realistic about how much time that is," said USF provost Ralph Wilcox. "It's not helpful for students to stay on campus for eight, nine or 10 years, building up 150, 160 credits at a cost to them, at a cost to the university, limiting access to new students. . . . You make a plan for it."

In 2009, the Legislature established a surcharge to push students to finish fast, tacking on fees for extra hours. Taxpayers are subsidizing public education, lawmakers argue, and when students stay too long, they take seats away from new students.

Double and triple majors don't automatically equal excess hours. Many students with multiple majors graduate on time, many coming in with college credits earned in high school.

"The student who is unfocused could be a double major or could be a single major," said Steven Tepper, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University. "There's some advantage to a little bit of unfocusedness. We want to maximize the match between student interest and talents and what they get trained to do."

Tepper is co-author of the 2012 study Double Majors: Influences, Identities and Impacts. He studied why students were double majoring, what they were getting out of it, whether they felt supported by their universities.

The study found that some double majors in certain fields were earning more than their single-major peers — for instance, an engineering major could increase his salary more than 4 percent by adding a chemistry major — but it could also be an outcome of these students being more naturally driven in the first place.

"Most of our people we interviewed just felt like the double major gave them some kind of distinction," Tepper said. "It gives them something to talk about in their interviews. It gets brought up if they have a compelling story."

Some students, like Isabel Carta, end up staying longer when they realize how close they are to getting another degree. Carta, 23, is majoring in finance and international business, with minors in German and economics. She's interning in Germany and has been named one of USF's most notable business students.

"When I first came into college, they really said 'Try to graduate in four years,' " Carta said. "But by the time I really went to advisers, I was really set on double-majoring. They told me that I'd have to stay an extra year to do what I'm doing. . . . I feel it was worth it. I took an extra year, and I have an extra degree. I have something else to offer a company."

USF employs "student success advocates" who mine enrollment data to pinpoint students who are off track or in danger of building up extra hours. They reach out and start a plan.

"One path is to simply complete your degree, your first major, and come back as a post-baccalaureate student," Wilcox said. "We would encourage them to come back to us in graduate school."

In Warmke's opinion, universities should market themselves as opportunities to test conventions and try new things. He plans to lobby alongside other student government leaders to remove limits on credit hours.

"A bachelor's degree doesn't really mean much, not anymore," he said. "It's all those little things that supplement it. Your internship, your college leadership experience. It's your minors and other majors that set you apart."

Warmke will graduate with two of his three degrees in the spring, and the final degree in the summer, he said, and should come in around 180 credit hours.

He's applying for law school now, marketing himself as a "well-rounded student."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394.

Students who stick around too long could cost USF dollars 11/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 1, 2013 10:56pm]
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