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July 11, 2013

Rebate to offset tuition increase

By Doug Vehovec

The start of the 2013 academic year brings with it a 2 percent increase in the cost of tuition – the maximum allowed in Ohio – but an innovative plan approved by the Cleveland State Board of Trustees gives qualifying students the opportunity to get that money back.

“Starting this fall, any undergraduate student who finishes the year in good standing, which is 2.0 or higher, with at least 30 credit hours – that includes fall, spring and summer – will get a 2 percent rebate credited to your account,” said Joe Mosbrook, director of strategic communications for Cleveland State University. “They’ll also get $100 per semester for books.

“Everyone pays the same amount in the beginning, but if you complete the 30 hours you’ll get the rebate.”

Graduating seniors have the option to apply the earned credits toward the tuition for graduate school.

“It seems like a good thing for undergrad students, but horrible for seniors,” said Mike Turski, 30, a junior majoring in biology. “And it’s a buzzkill for grad students that it only applies to programs at Cleveland State. It should be a reimbursement so you can go where you want to go.”

According to Mosbrook, the Graduation Incentive Plan that goes into effect with the fall 2013 semester was developed by Ronald Berkman, president of Cleveland State University. The goal of the plan is to increase graduation and retention rates, something President Berkman is very interested in.

“This is an extraordinary new incentive for students to facilitate their goal of earning a degree as quickly as possible at a reasonable cost,” Berkman said in a news release. “We are firmly committed to student success, and this is one more piece of the puzzle.”

Increased graduation and retention rates may also affect state funding. College funding is often based on full-time student enrollment at the beginning of the semester. Many states, including Ohio, have a funding formula based on performance that includes time to degree.

The plan is one of several initiatives aimed at increasing graduation rates that the university has embarked on.

“We capped the credit hour requirements for a degree at 120,” Mosbrook said. “And we’re the first in the state to offer preregistration for the entire year. That helps not only with planning, but when spring rolls around you lower the chance of getting locked out of a class.”

Other steps the university is taking to ensure student success include an update to the online audit system, departmental degree maps, elimination of fees for students who take more than 16 credit hours per semester and more aggressive advising.

Great advising is one of the most important factors in improving graduation rates and retention, according to professor Peter Meiksins, interim vice provost for academic success. It helps discourage class withdrawals and prevent students from taking classes they’re not ready to take. Both of those things can negatively impact financial aid.

“Freshman advising in particular is important,” Meiksins said. “Making sure students don’t register for classes that won’t count towards their major. We want the classes they take to count no matter what.”

Helping students stay on the right track is critically important to the university. A two-year budget proposal from Governor John Kasich earlier this year would reward more funding to colleges and universities with higher graduation rates.

The current graduation rate at Cleveland State is about 32 percent. In the long term, officials would like to see that rise to at least 60 percent.

Despite the innovative plan’s goal of student success, some students remain skeptical. The idea of taking more classes to qualify for the rebate strikes some people as counter-intuitive.

“It would be really, really difficult to do well and increase my course load,” said one student who wished to remain anonymous. “I would fail my program.”

“In theory, it sounds good,” Turski said. “But the math behind it seems faulty – it costs the student more to get the rebate than what you get back.”

Others, like returning non-traditional student Brett Bennett, 34, hold a mixed view.

“Anytime you can possibly save money it’s a good thing,” Bennett said. “But it doesn’t seem like that much of an advantage. At the end of the year it comes out to, what, about $200?

“I plan on hitting 30 credit hours anyway. But if I had 29 hours, I wouldn’t increase my course load for that.”

Rising tuition costs are nothing new. Inflation and demand contribute to increases every year. The average annual rise in tuition is 4 to 6 percent, and more students than ever are enrolling in college. This gives colleges the opportunity for more aggressive pricing.

The Graduation Incentive Plan seeks to minimize those increases for students actively pursuing their academic goals with a mind to complete their studies in four years.

“We want to incentivize students who are working toward a degree,” Mosbrook said. “When you go to college, that’s really the most important thing – getting a degree. We want to provide as much opportunity for degree-seeking students as possible.”