A change in the way UT in Knoxville charges freshmen for credit hours could graduate students faster and save them $3,600 in tuition. Avoiding a fifth year of housing costs could do wonders for the wallet, too.
But the new plan might require perfection to pay off.
Starting this semester, new Volunteers pay for 15 credit hours instead of 12, an unprecedented move for the University of Tennessee among universities in its peer group.
The new model, which applies to this fall's 4,300-plus freshmen and 1,400-plus transfer students, was approved by the board of trustees in 2012 in hopes that an increased minimum "full-time" course load would see more students graduate in four years and help retention rates.
It's called the "Take 15, Graduate in 4" program, or "15-4" for short. The largest incoming class in a decade pays $11,194 for 15 hours, a cheaper average hourly rate than returning upperclassmen, who pay $9,684 for 12 hours. In either case, students can take up to 19 hours for the same tuition.
"If you take 12, you're going to have to stay here at least another semester," said Sally McMillan, UT's vice provost for academic affairs. "And with the opportunity cost of housing that comes with staying another year, it's going to add up."
The new 15-4 rate is about $30 cheaper per credit hour if each incoming freshman was to take 15 hours and graduate in four years, even though each semester's billing statements would be larger than before. After a four-year degree spanning the 120 hours needed to graduate, the savings would amount to $3,644.40 at graduation compared to a 12-credit-hour rate.
"The 25 percent jump in tuition cost has been the only complaint I've heard from freshmen," said Shalin Shah, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga senior and voting student member of the UT board of trustees who voted for the 15-4 plan on behalf of his fellow students. "It was a little bit of a shock."
Shah said he voted in favor of the plan because student housing expenses are growing at a frightening rate. Shah is intimidated by paying $3,000 per year to live in a "low-end" dormitory, and he said the best way to pay the bills is to graduate on time.
"Students don't receive funding toward housing," Shah said. "If students are forced to spend an extra year because they need to take more classes, that's what's killing them."
The national enrollment norm is still 12 credit hours per semester -- federal student aid declares this the minimum for "full-time" scholarships, so schools align themselves with this. However, some institutions are starting to clamor for the return of the 15-credit-hour culture, some in unusual ways.
The Utah System of Higher Education last month launched a campaign to informally set 15 credit hours as the state standard, including a social media campaign "Time is the Enemy," and bumper stickers that boast "I registered for 15 credits." Even if a credit change can't be legislated, organizers hope the program fosters a supportive attitude toward taking more hours.
Texas is considering a more concrete incentive: $2,000 scholarships for any student in the top 10 percent of his high school class who steps up to the plate for 15 at a public institution.
Oklahoma University -- comparable to UT in size and enrollment -- raised its semester standard to a 15-hour approach after research showed its "by-the-hour" billing failed to motivate students to graduate within four years. Its precedent varies from UT, which had always charged students at minimum enrollment levels.
"Fifteen credit hours was actually the standard up until the 1970s," Shah said. "It wasn't so much a standard as it was culture of expectation that got changed."
UTC has yet to make an official credit hour adjustment, but the university has rewarded students who sign up for 15 or more credit hours with free school apparel in hopes they can revive the workloads of 40 years ago.
However, McMillan said UT's policy change came out of necessity, not an attitude: An enrollment of 27,171 students meant frustrating wait times for "bottleneck" courses such as Psychology 110 and English 101 that most students need to graduate.
"They couldn't even get into the classroom," she said. "We had to step in and do something."
The short-term tuition gain is expected to result in a $4 million bump that the university will turn into more openings for these courses as well as paying for more instructors. So far, teachers are raving about the results, saying the change has resulted in more classes, smaller student-to-teacher ratios and better performance.
"It's crucial to keep the enrollment of each section low so that students can get individual attention on their essays and other projects," said Laura Howes, an associate English professor.
UT's English department will now be able to provide more than 150 writing classes next semester, including trendier courses like "Public Writing" and "Business and Technical Writing." Before, the university could offer only 94 sections of composition, plus various literature electives. Howes said wait lists have been rapidly shrinking as a result of the wider selections.
The big, magic number -- 120 credit hours -- presents its own set of difficulties, though: It's an exact multiple of 15 over eight semesters. Students aren't always able to balance their scattered electives, which come in multiples of one, two or three hours, to find the best mathematical fit.
Failing or withdrawing from just one class can force students to play catch-up for the rest of their academic careers if they expect to graduate on time.
"We made it very clear for students to plan on 15 hours with a little bit of a fudge factor," McMillan said.
"We really have not had any negative feedback come through our office," said Jeff Gerkin, UT's assistant dean and director of financial aid. "Unless they had a sibling come through UT, they don't know the difference."
While the administrators and students alike work out the kinks, Shah said the rest of the UT system has its eyes on Knoxville.
"There hasn't been any concrete discussion to implement it on other campuses, but we've left the idea open," Shah said.
McMillan and Gerkin say the true success of the 15-4 program will be determined when the current freshman class graduates in 2017 -- but hopefully not 2018.
"We want to get them in, get them out and get them ready for the job market," Gerkin said.
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow him on Twitter at @PressLaFave.