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Pierpont president still pushing hourly tuition model

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pierpont Community & Technical College President Doreen Larson is not giving up hope on passing an alternate tuition plan that would allow West Virginia schools to charge by the credit hour, rather than the semester.

Larson has long said that a per-credit charge would greatly benefit the state's nontraditional and part-time college students.

During the regular legislative session when she was faced with skeptics -- who worried the new tuition model would result in substantial increases for full-time students -- she said that those increases were bound to happen anyway.

They did. Last month, the Higher Education Policy Commission approved 5 percent tuition increases for several public colleges and universities. Additionally, many other in-state institutions raised tuition by less than 5 percent, including Pierpont.

The tuition hikes followed a call by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for all public higher education institutions to cut their 2013-14 budgets by 8.9 percent.

"What was frustrating was that they said it was just a back-door tuition hike. I kept saying, 'Do you understand it's going to go up anyhow?'" Larson said. "This was a way to really benefit the most amount of students and correct an inequitable process of charging tuition at our school and others."

"This is what everyone was trying to avoid," she said.

The per-credit-hour tuition proposal, which died in session, would have required full-time students -- those who take at least 12 credit hours per semester -- to pay additionally for any hours past that.

It typically takes 15 credit hours per semester to graduate on time.

In West Virginia, students who take the minimum 12 credit hours are charged the same rate as those who are enrolled for more.

But Larson says the increase for full-time students would have been minor, and the savings for part-time students would have been great.

If passed, Larson said Pierpont would've been able to lower credit-hour tuition rates overall, and said that while full-time students would've seen minor tuition increases, part-time students could save hundreds of dollars over the course of their college careers.

During this fall's semester, a part-time student taking six or fewer credit hours at Pierpont will pay $1,080 -- about $80 more than last year. If the pilot would have been approved, those students would instead pay $960.

 All full-time students will pay $2,075 this fall, which is $145 more than last year. Larson says Pierpont students taking 12 hours could have instead paid $1,860 under the proposed plan, about $100 less than last year.

Under the pilot, students taking 15 credits would've paid around $2,200, which would be an increase of $125.

However, without the pilot, all Pierpont students saw their tuitions go up by 7.5 percent.

At Pierpont, the state's second largest community college, more than 40 percent of students take at least 12 credit hours per term, while only about 30 percent of all the state's community-college students hit that 12-credit mark, according to state data.

 "For schools like ours, we would have been able to really dramatically roll our tuition back. Now, everyone is still paying more money," she said. "It's serious, and it's really sad."

Most community colleges across the country don't use the model that Pierpont and other technical institutions in the state currently use, Larson said. That's because the four-year model was created for a more full-time traditional campus experience, she said.

"Community colleges don't really use this model because they have a lot of part-time students. You can't create a package for our students because a lot of them don't have the option to take more than 12 credits. They're working and have families," she said.

The HEPC reported in March that if the bill passed, students at four-year colleges taking 15 credit hours per semester -- more than 75 percent of the student body -- would see their tuition increase by an average of $1,422 each year.

The average increase for in-state tuition passed by the HEPC last month was much less, at about $400.

Opponents of the bill also voiced concern about the effect the change would have on PROMISE scholars, who are required to take 15 credit hours to remain eligible. They wondered if the new system would cause students to take longer to complete their degrees so they could avoid the costs.

Larson plans to try again this legislative session. This time, she will focus only on a pilot program for Pierpont. That was the original intent of the bill, but it was later rewritten to include other community colleges and four-year colleges.

That expansion of the bill "complicated the whole thing," she said. "We're hoping that we can address this again because I think we're going to see cuts again. The budget is not in great shape, and tuitions can only escalate to a certain point," she said. "For community colleges, it's really important to keep our tuition down. I think that there are two or three other community colleges in the West Virginia system that could probably roll back their tuition if they had the option of charging a per-credit-hour rate."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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