In "a tremendous effort that’s nowhere near complete," a new tuition structure — block tuition — will be implemented at MSU by the fall of 2019.
Since its unanimous approval by the MSU Board of Trustees and Interim President John Engler at the June board meeting, not much of its eventual implementation has been discussed, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education Mark Largent said.
“Figuring out how we respond to the requirement that we implement something as significant and frankly, as profoundly disruptive as a fundamentally new tuition model — there was not much progress made on it," Largent said. "I took up the responsibility of figuring out how to do this in ways that not only didn’t hurt student learning and student success, but hopefully helps advance it.”
What is block tuition?
The plan to replace the university's current tuition structure with block tuition was on the docket for about five years, Largent said. And although this is a major change for MSU, every other Big 10 university — besides the University of Nebraska — has already adopted this model.
Effective fall of 2019, undergraduate students taking 12 to 18 credit hours will be charged a flat rate for tuition equal to paying for 15 credits.
A student taking more than 18 credits will be charged the block rate plus the rate for any additional credits taken, and students taking 11 or fewer credits will continue to be charged per credit — the current tuition model.
“If the culture, the policies, the practices and the procedures at a university are well aligned with block tuition, it can help students graduate more quickly, and it can help students graduate with less debt," Largent said.
Largent said one of the benefits of the block tuition model relates to MSU's "Go Green, Go 15" campaign, which encourages students to take at least 15 credits per semester so they can graduate in four years. Data found that students who take 15 credits a semester have significantly higher graduation rates — 13 percent higher than students who took one less credit, he said.
In order to discuss the benefits, concerns and suggestions of the block tuition model, Largent met with the Associated Students of MSU, or ASMSU, as well as other campus governing bodies. Workgroups made up of students, faculty and other members of the MSU community have also been established to help determine how the new model should be adopted and implemented.
“The first questions really has to be ... what is it? And to understand it in its context," Largent said. "Implementing anything as disruptive as this in the climate that we came out of last year, and the significant degree of frustration and distrust there is about the highest levels of administration — for me to do my work, it makes it very difficult."
"They won’t pay more, they’ll get less"
Implementing block tuition at MSU has been met with some criticism.
At the last ASMSU general assembly meeting, many student representatives noted different groups that could be negatively affected by this kind of tuition structure once it's implemented.
“It’s not equitable," Largent said. "And that’s one of the downsides of a block tuition model.”
ASMSU Representative Elizabeth Medlin said some degrees require an internship, and students have no choice but to limit the amount of credits they can take to accommodate for it. Another representative, Maysa Sitar, noted that some students might not have time to take more than 12 credits because they have to work multiple jobs to pay for school.
“You talked about how if someone’s at 12 credits they might add another class to get to 15, but they could also very well drop a class — because the cost of dropping down under 12 saves you far more money," Vice President of Governmental Affairs Eli Pales said. "You’re going from paying a difference from 15 to 11 credits.”
Largent said students that end up taking less than 15 credits under the eventual 15-credit block rate are not paying more than their peers — everyone is paying an equal amount, they're simply getting less.
“Students who will get less credits for their money are minoritized students, Pell (Grant) eligible students and first generation students," Largent said. "Because they have tended to work at a slightly slower credit momentum rate."
Addressing the criticism
ASMSU Representative Kathrine Gray asked Largent if students who can't take more than 12 credits due to health reasons, specifically those struggling with mental health, would be able to opt out of the block tuition model and continue paying the current per credit rate.
Largent said there has been discussion of providing a "categorical waiver" for certain students, like students with documentation from the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities.
“Are there students who we ought to allow to pay the per credit rate? And that’s why I really want this group helping me grapple with that," Largent said. "To figure out who we advocate for having a waiver permanently, and who we might advocate to have a waiver that’s (valid for a certain period of time) to help essentially adapt us during this disruptive period.”
Largent noted, though he likes the idea of every student having access to a waiver, since providing them reduces the amount of tuition the university has available each year, it will most likely not happen.
But concrete, financial changes have been made to help students during this transition to a new tuition structure. Largent said the amount of available financial aid has significantly increased.
“With the recognition that students who are taking fewer than 15 credits might have been doing so for economic reasons, and when they are moved up to being charged at a rate equivalent to 15 credits, they might need more financial aid," Largent said. "So as part of the package of shifting over, the board put in $7 million in additional annual financial aid.”
Additionally, $3.2 million has been set aside annually to add more seats to classes to accommodate for the extra credits students may take due to the eventual flat rate of the block tuition model.
Student to be involved in the process
The planning for the implementation of this major change has already begun.
“This is a difficult time to implement a policy as disruptive as this," Largent said. "Which is why I’m trying to do it in a way that is as inclusive and operates within a model of shared governance. But it’s hard to do that in this climate.”
ASMSU Representative Ben Horne is on one of the block tuition workgroups organized earlier this semester. The aim of these groups is to figure out how other universities implemented block tuition, the results they saw and the obstacles they faced.
He said that, although the opportunity for students, faculty, staff and administrators to work on policies in these workgroups are a great implementation of shared governance, it's frustrating that this came after the decision to switch to block tuition was already made.
"This was over our heads," Horne said.
ASMSU Representative Isaiah Hawkins is also in one of these workgroups. He said the university shouldn't completely depend on them and should do as much as it can to assist in the process.
“It is going to be a difficult implementation, it’s going to be a lion’s share of work. But what I’ve heard a lot in response to the burden this is going to place on students — is a narrative, an idea of ‘they’ll figure it out, they’ll make it work’," Hawkins said. "I wanted to stress that the process of implementing this should be focused on ‘how can we help.’"
Despite the unfinished details, Largent said he hopes students on campus are already preparing for this new tuition model.
“We have now about nine months to work very hard to adapt our policies and our procedures and to begin adapting people’s mindsets to it so that it can be implemented in as undisruptive a way as possible," Largent said. "And, in a way, that helps support student success instead of undermining it.”