Fresno State hikes graduate student fees

Change may hasten thesis process for students near degree.

April 1, 2011 

For Fresno State graduate students, the cost of a master's degree is about to go up -- and may decrease the tendency of some students to procrastinate over their thesis.

The university graduate committee announced a policy change last week that will require many graduate students to pay more to finish their degrees. Starting in the spring of 2012, a student's thesis can no longer be done on the university's dime. Awash in a financial crisis, the university is desperate to close the budget gap, even if it's a few dollars at a time.

With Fresno State facing at least $20 million in budget cuts, "students are going to have to realize, in order to get an education in the state of California, it's going to cost more money," said Karen Carey, dean of graduate studies.

Under the new policy, graduate students who have completed their required courses but are still working on their thesis will have to pay another full semester of tuition. The new policy eliminates the university's long-standing "continuous enrollment" option, which allows students to pay a minimal fee and still have full access to the university's resources while they continue to work on their thesis.

The policy change will provide additional revenue for Fresno State and also motivate students to stay on track with their thesis, Carey said. For many graduate students, though, the new policy exacerbates challenges imposed by budget cuts, which have forced the university to eliminate courses, reduce student services and raise costs.

"I really just want to get out ... now because the policies change, the tuition increases and the quality of education isn't getting any better," said Brian Cortes, graduate student in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department.

The graduate committee, which includes representatives from each graduate program, first said that the policy change would take effect this fall. After an outcry from students and teachers, the committee amended the start date to spring 2012. But anxiety still runs high.

Francisco Parra, a graduate student in plant sciences, said some of his peers are considering quitting the program. Students trying to survive solely on financial aid can't keep up with the costs to finish their degree.

"It's really taking a toll," he said.

The science, social work, education and journalism programs, where students are more likely to be involved in protracted research or complex thesis topics, will be hardest hit by the policy change, Carey said.

Most graduate programs are four semesters, but the last semester is cut short -- it's only about two months -- to allow time for faculty to review the theses, and some students don't have enough time to finish. Students working on a more involved thesis often delay their graduation by a semester or two.

Of Fresno State's 4,000 graduate students, 100 to 150 pay the $350 administrative fee each semester for continuous enrollment, Carey said. Now, those students will have to fork over up to $3,060 in tuition -- depending on the department -- which will generate $300,000 to $450,000 per semester for Fresno State. Graduate student tuition is $1,911 for fewer than six units or $3,060 for more.

The extra cash is "very minor" and won't come close to bridging Fresno State's gaping budget hole, Carey said.

Each campus in the California State University system makes its own tuition policies. Like Fresno State,the Long Beach, Sacramento and Monterey Bay campuses offer the low-cost continuous enrollment, while San Diego, San Marcos and Los Angeles do not.

Fresno State's new policy also aims to motivate students to finish their degrees on time, saving money for both students and the college. Some students stay on continuous enrollment for years, creating a backlog in departments, faculty said.

Some students admitted they needed the extra push of higher tuition costs.

"It was just the motivation I needed to get this monkey off my back," said Tracey Scharmann, a graduate student in Mass Communications and Journalism who will finish her thesis this summer.

Because students on continuous enrollment aren't paying for class units, graduate advisers -- whose pay is based on the number of units they teach -- are not compensated for the time they spend with those students. With the policy change, "there's a tremendous amount of incentive now for students to get [a thesis] done," said Tom Burns, manager of the graduate business program. "If it's delayed, it's adding a burden to the department."

Faculty members don't expect the new policy to affect enrollment, but it could galvanize more students to bypass the thesis and instead take a comprehensive exam to complete their degrees. That approach would "really impact the students' ability to do the research in the field," said Dana Powell, coordinator of the special education graduate program.

Cortes, who started work on his master's degree last fall, estimates he has a year and a half left to finish. He hadn't figured on having to pay for the extra semester of tuition and had planned instead to use the continuous enrollment option to complete his "very complex" thesis on how the media represents Asian-Americans. Now, Cortes said he may have to find a job and work only part-time on his thesis.

"I think most of us have our feet firmly planted in this. Our goal is to finish," he said. "If that takes more money, that's just how it is."

The reporter can be reached at hsomerville@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6412.

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