Pushing the Limit

Buried among thousands of statutes passed by the General Assembly sits a chapter that concerns higher education.

Within this chapter, Article 13 deals with the Colored Orphanage of North Carolina and the Negro Training School for Feebleminded Children, though it was repealed in 1963.

Article 15 discusses the Educational Advantages for Children of World War Veterans – also repealed, in 1951 and 1967.

In between, Article 14 provides General Provisions as to Tuition and Fees in Certain State Institutions. Deep within this subsection of policy is Article 143.7 — also known as a tuition surcharge.

The law dictates a 50-percent tuition surcharge for students who exceed a certain number of credit hours and semesters at a North Carolina state institution. But hardly anyone is talking about it.

Ashley Andrews and Sasha Nikolich, nursing students in their fourth year at UNC, were sitting in class in Carrington Hall in early January when they got an unsigned email from a noreply@unc.edu address. The subject line read Tuition Surcharge Warning. The classroom reaction was just what the Registrar’s Office hopes to avoid — panic.

“We were like, what is this?” Andrews said. “We went up to the office all worried and flustered and they told us to calm down.”

The email, which was not sent to every student on campus, reads:

What it boils down to is this; finish your baccalaureate degree in 8 terms in residence, or within 140 credit hours and you won’t be subject to the surcharge. More simply, if Spring 2015 is your 8th term in residence (not 9 or more) or if you will have less than 140 total attempted credit hours at the end of the Spring term, you can ignore the rest of the letter.

The policy is not widely circulated because it affects few students at UNC-CH each semester. Three students received the charge in Fall 2014, and 11 in the previous spring.

But some nursing students in particular cannot afford to ignore this subsection of state policy.

“The two groups I see more than others are transfer students who enter with more than 75 credits and students who switched into one of the professional schools,” said Chris Derickson, the University’s registrar.

Due to curriculum and policy issues, these students often require additional semesters to complete their coursework. They are not the lifetime students the surcharge targets — the ones lingering in classes for years with no clear destination.

States and universities have a vested interest in sending students into the workforce quickly and efficiently. But with the surcharge policy, sometimes even the most diligent student can get caught in the bureaucratic crossfire.

Many nursing students require a fifth year at UNC to complete the two-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, said Julie Page, clinical assistant professor and academic advisor in the nursing school. Students apply to the nursing school at the end of their sophomore year, if they have at least a B-minus in the requisite classes needed for their application.

“They have to take science classes that have to be in order, because some are prerequisites for others. So if they don’t get started right away or if they have difficulty with one course and have to retake it, they are not ready to apply to nursing their sophomore year and have to wait until junior year,” Page said.

The nursing program is competitive, and many students are not admitted to begin their junior year. Due to budget cuts, there is only one admissions deadline for nursing, so students must wait a full year to reapply. This can leave an interim, uncertain junior year where students are either building prerequisites, strengthening their application, or simply waiting for the next deadline.

“What I was told to have people do was declare an alternate major and work towards that major so that if they were not admitted junior year, they have a major to complete and still graduate on time,” Page says. “Well, if it’s a major they don’t really want and the extra credit hours are going to mean they get a surcharge when they’re in nursing school, then maybe that’s not the best suggestion after all.”

Chelsea Krivanek expects to see an extra $3,000 billed to her student account in her final semester at UNC. She applied to nursing as a junior, entered as a senior, and will finish her fifth year next year.

By taking extra elective courses her junior year – one biology, one Spanish – she bumped over the 140 credit hour limit by three hours, and will face a 50-percent surcharge on those extra three hours.

“I realized first semester sophomore year I want to do nursing, but it was way too late to get the prerequisites done in time. I was like, ‘OK, I’ll apply next year,’” Krivanek said. “But if I had skipped those two classes I wouldn’t be paying extra for my last two classes of nursing school. It would have been nice to know that.”

Page says she will make a stronger effort to make students aware that applying for nursing school as a junior could hold extra costs, on top of a fifth year of tuition. She says advising will work strategically in the future to help students remain below 140 credit hours.

To apply for nursing school, students need about 63 hours of prerequisites. Once in nursing, the lockstep program is 65 hours, leaving about 12 total hours of flexibility.

Depending on a student’s financial situation, that may mean not taking classes both semesters of junior year, Page says.

“If they really can’t afford that, they don’t have to be enrolled in classes. They can do other things, get some experience working as a nursing assistant,” she said.

Page calls the junior year nursing application a catch-22.

“They need the courses to give them a better shot at getting into nursing, but the courses are going to throw them over the 140 credits if they do get into nursing.”

Krivanek says her surcharge will not be crippling, but it’s frustrating because the charge was preventable with more planning.

“That money, that can go towards a down payment on a car, or saving up for my first place. It’s money I don’t need to be spending on course work when I have already given this university five years’ worth.”

Sasha Nikolich, an out-of-state student who will take a fifth year for nursing classes, will face between $8,000 to $10,000 in surcharge fees in her last semester. She did not know about the policy until she received the email.

Had she learned of the policy earlier, she would have made arrangements to receive in-state tuition years ago, she said. Becoming in-state before the surcharge takes effect is now impossible because the residency process takes time.

Had she not switched to nursing, Nikolich, who originally planned to be a doctor, would have been able to graduate in less than four years.

“People in our position, it screws us over,” she said. “And we haven’t done anything wrong. We’re not taking advantage of the system or anything like that.”

The surcharge policy is difficult to understand, even for the Registrar’s office, Derickson said. Several types of credits, such as AP credit from high school and all hours taken in the summer, are not counted in the 140 hours.

The charge does not apply unless a student meets both criteria— exceeding eight full terms in residence and the number of countable credit hours.

“It’s certainly one of my least favorite processes to handle,” Derickson said.
Following the email, Derickson met with more than 20 concerned students in the nursing school to explain the surcharge process and answer questions.

“The big challenge is what are other ways to get this information out to students without causing too much angst,” Derickson said. In the meeting, he said the Registrar’s Office does not have enough staff to handle the questions that would come from sending a campus-wide email each semester.

Derickson said staff are working to build a more user-friendly website and a page on ConnectCarolina to track countable hours toward the surcharge. Students are first told about the surcharge at orientation.

“I don’t think that’s good enough,” said Hunter Ort, a nursing student who will take a fifth year. “I specifically said to my advisor, ‘I’m going to have to be in school an extra year,’ and she never mentioned it.”

At the meeting with nursing students, Derickson encouraged each of them to fill out the waiver form for the surcharge, which is reviewed by a University committee. Although the waiver specifies circumstances such as military service or “extraordinary hardship” for exemption, the committee is fair, but sensitive to students in this situation, he said.

“They don’t tell you until it affects you,” Ort said. “And that’s messed up.”

The surcharge policy has been on the books since 1993. In 2010, it jumped from a 25 percent surcharge to 50 percent.

Derickson says a primary reason that the policy exists is because the state supports the university system financially, allowing for low in-state tuition.

“The state is more than happy to support students with a normal path through a degree, but they are trying to discourage the lifetime students hanging around in college for six years,” he says. “There’s a motivation to get students through a program in a timely manner so tax dollars are being used in a way that benefits as many students as possible.”

Several other states have similar policies for extra tuition charges including Florida, Ohio and Virginia. But Derickson recognizes that students may see this process as unfair because they are pursuing an education as quickly as possible.

“I understand where it comes from, but on the personal side of it, I talk to every student who gets surcharged. Most of these students are diligently pursuing their education,” he says. “That’s the difficult part.”

For many nursing students, the surcharge feels like a punishment.

“It’s old-fashioned to assume people come in knowing exactly what they want to do, and you’re just pumping out people for whatever industry,” Krivanek said. “It’s so fluid nowadays, and people change their major multiple times, and people from different majors go into fields you would think have nothing to do with that major.

“If people need the extra year to develop or get the education they need to make the best decision for the real world, they shouldn’t be punished for being more prepared or following through with what they want.”

Graphic by Johanna Ferebee