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Dec. 8, 2014

Innovative graduation incentive for on-track students

By Jordan Smith

On June 26, 2013, the Cleveland State Board of Trustees approved a two percent tuition increase.
In order to help offset the costs, President Ronald Berkman announced a plan that would refund two percent of tuition and a textbook credit of $200 for the successful completion of 30 credit hours per academic year.

The innovative incentive plan recently had Cleveland State making headlines on CNN during a segment highlighting student loan debt. Berkman went on record saying the best way to reduce education costs is by cutting down the amount of time it takes a student to graduate.

He described the series of measures the university took to speed up graduation rates, which included allowing students to register for classes an entire year in advance and reducing the number of credits needed for graduation.

Berkman highlighted the fact that the graduation incentive is available specifically to students who take 30 credits.

In one year, there has been a 14 percent increase in the number of students who have taken 30 credits per year, which allows them to graduate in four years. According to Berkman, that is two years less than the average graduation time.

Taking 15 credit hours (or five classes) a semester and graduating in four years fits the mold for most traditional college students who don’t have to work their way through school.

Cleveland State, on the other hand, has always had a much different reputation for having such a mixed demographic. Many students work full or part-time and sometimes have families to support, so the prospect of taking 30 credit hours per semester may seem unrealistic. They are also responsible for buying school supplies and textbooks but is no incentive in place for part-time students.

Nonetheless, the responsibilities of graduating on time, making timely payments for tuition and achieving in the classroom are the same for students regardless of how many credit hours they take per semester.
Before the 4-to-3 conversion, students could take four classes, which constituted 16 credit hours.

Over the course of time that the switch has been in effect, tuition has increased while classroom time and credit hours taken have decreased.

Even professors find themselves having to scrap course material because of the new time constraints. A hard-working myriad of students often miss out on the graduation incentive because of work or family responsibilities.

Currently, the graduation rate sits at a below average 36 percent, with only 10 percent graduating in a timely four years.

Rick Perloff, professor in the School of Communication, said that the main concern is getting the graduation rate up, but he also acknowledges the inevitable constraints on many of the Cleveland State students that make getting an undergraduate degree in four years more difficult. The 4-to-3 conversion switch has added to the difficulty, as students now have less time to complete the same amount of work as previous semesters.

“It’s very possible that this term is a little crazy for everybody," Perloff said. “I think the long-term issue — on the one hand, if it's true — that three credits [hour classes] mean that students are not finishing any sooner, they’re not taking more classes [and] they’re still taking four classes instead of five, then there’s no way this thing’s going to work.”

He added that the problem is not the students not wanting to work, but issues occur due to non-college related contraints.

“We’ve got some wonderful students, we’ve got some tremendously enthusiastic students, but they’ve got various external constraints," Perloff said. “We’ve got to get graduation rates up. Give it three to five years. If in three to five years the graduation rates are up, you [have] to say the thing was painful but it worked. If in five years our graduation rates are the same, we [have] to go back and figure out another way to do it.”

As of the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year, changes to the state’s performance funding model have taken place that make 50 percent of funding for four-year universities based on degree completion.
This means that half of the money that Cleveland State receives from the state is based on students’ timely completion of their degrees.

One concern of the performance-based funding model is that institutions could aim to enroll only students who are most likely to complete a degree program in four-years. Cleveland State has maintained below-average graduation rates for the past several years.

Most other four-year public universities in the state of Ohio operate on three-credit-hour classes, instead of four, and post considerably higher graduation rates. Ohio State University, for example, has an 82.4 percent graduation rate, which lands them in the 93rd percentile in the nation. Kent State University operates on three-credit-hour classes as well, and they are around the middle of the pack, ranking in the 52nd percentile for their 51.8 percent graduation rate.

Since the credit conversion has taken place, and tuition prices have already been raised, optimistically, graduation rates will increase. A graduation rate increase would open the door for more state funding, which could create avenues for students to receive more help paying for their tuition.

Perloff said that even though most university classes are on three-credit-hours, the question is whether or not the change is going to work for Cleveland State students who are “motivated as heck” but have some various constraints in their life.

“Four credits was really good for a lot of people because they didn’t have to take as many classes and they knew what they were going in," Perloff said. “The problem is, the graduation rate was bad. We’ve got to get the graduation rate up. They’ve tried all sorts of things.”

From a professor’s perspective, the conversion has been described as “a blessing and a curse."

“It's a curse because you just can’t get everything you want in,” he said. “On the other hand, you learn to adjust. You cut out the fat, and sometimes it can be a very exciting thing.”

Dr. Perloff said the answer is mentoring.

“To me, the answer is you get advisers in there, you get professors who care, you show me you really care about you, and we’re gonna help you," he said. "It's a challenge to do.”

Dr. George Ray, director of the School of Communication, teaches one class and doesn’t require attendance. On any given day, he said one-third of his students are not there. He wonders about that.

“When we were preparing for the new three-credit-hour classes, I thought when you schedule five classes it might be harder to do that and still work and earn money to pay tuition," he said.

But he has not heard any complaints from students. He also said that the university is constantly raising scholarship money to help students in need. Ray also admits that taking 15 credit hours a semester is simply unrealistic for some.

“We definitely have students who there’s no way they can graduate in four years because they can’t take 15 credit hours per semester,” he said. “I think advising would be very important, and I think students need to meet with an advisor to carefully plan their schedules and stick to it.”

As a professor, he said him and other faculty experienced difficulty in planning lessons around the new time blocks.

“When we converted the classes on paper, we understood what that meant, but now that we’re actually teaching the new courses, I think several of us are finding that there is still too much content," he said. "We have to cut back more than we thought we did."

Senior Civil Engineering major Aaron Radtke admitted that he feels behind this semester due to the challenging curriculum, but said, given more class time, he’d definitely understand the concepts a lot better.

“I’m learning some complex material, so extra time could only help," he said. Aaron is taking 16 credit hours and works for a civil engineering firm in Valley View fabout 25 hours a week.

“I have had a lot of labs cancelled this semester, and the engineering labs are vastly underfunded, which is sad considering the engineering college changed its name due to a $13 million dollar donation, so where’d that money go?" he questioned.

Radtke said it’ll take him five years to complete his degree.

“College in the 21st century has become a business, not a learning institution," he said. He thinks the university should go to greater lengths to ensure that all the professors care about the success of their students.