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Editorial: Flat-rate tuition adds up for UNM and its students

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For almost two decades, University of New Mexico tuition increases have prompted either gasps or yawns. That’s because there are two distinct groups involved: people who have to write a check and people who don’t.

UNM’s low four-year graduation rates have prompted gasps and yawns as well – because while perennial students cost the university tens of thousands of dollars more than those who don a mortarboard after eight semesters, there’s been little immediate financial incentive for many students to make a real effort to graduate in four years.

So it is important that UNM regents are now trying to get the same reaction, a sense of immediacy, from everyone, one that emphasizes tuition is paid for with real money that should result in a college degree in four years.

The proposal being fleshed out is a guaranteed, flat-rate, four-year tuition, likely starting in fall 2015. It could be offered to all incoming freshmen, or the first 500 applicants, or scholarship recipients, or students taking a full 15-credit load, or students who maintain a certain grade-point average. It would likely include a surcharge to lock in a rate and an escape clause in the event of another fiscal crisis like the Great Recession.

But, by design, it would help students and their families budget for four years of college. Ditto for helping the beleaguered Legislative Lottery Scholarship fund manage expenditures compared with its revenue. And it could limit the tuition creep that has been tolerated, in great part, because said scholarship has picked up the tab for many.

A flat-tuition plan would do all this by putting an immediate, likely higher, student price on not finishing coursework in four years. That’s important, because UNM officials have said the university spends $50,000 for a student to get a bachelor’s degree in four years, but almost twice that amount, $91,000, for someone who takes six. Just under 16 percent of UNM students graduate in four years; around 46 percent graduate in six.

The flat-rate proposal has the same timeline as the revised lottery scholarship, which the 2014 Legislature reduced to seven semesters while requiring students carry full 15 credit-hour loads. (A “bridge” scholarship is available for students’ first semester.) It has the same timeline as UNM’s recent policy change that requires students pass a minimum of 120 credit hours to graduate (15 hours x 8 semesters = 120 credits). It coincides with the university’s discounting the cost of courses in a 15-hour-plus full load vs. those of part-time students (students who take on that heavier load could save almost $9,000 in tuition alone by graduating in four years instead of six).

In other words, it’s part of an integrated, multi-pronged approach aimed at delivering more degrees in four years, and more affordability and fiscal clarity to students and the programs that fund their educations. That’s an equation that adds up for all involved. This is a move in the right direction.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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