By Megan Boehnke/ Knoxville News Sentinel
Maggi Hume already has accumulated 71 credit hours in her four semesters at the University of Tennessee pursuing English and philosophy degrees.
A double-major in math and statistics, Jessica Welch likely will graduate with 170 credit hours two years from now.
Tamara Shepherd's daughter, Carmen, is a triple education major - elementary education, middle school education and English as a second language - at UT Chattanooga. She likely will exceed 158 credit hours.
All three students will graduate in four years, and all three are at risk to lose their HOPE scholarship before they earn their degrees because of changes made to the program that cap the credit hours students can take before their money expires.
UT estimates that 2,200 third-year students systemwide potentially could have trouble graduating within the new 120-hour limit.
"The rules have changed in the middle of the game," said Tamara Shepherd, who fears she will be left to foot the bill when her daughter's scholarship expires. "They're two years into a degree, thinking they have X number of years left."
The legislation, which passed this month, is intended to allow students the flexibility of using HOPE money in the summer, but to offset the costs, the state is capping the number of credit hours students can take.
The 120-hour limit is the minimum amount of credits needed for nearly all degrees at UT and other public schools. An exception to the cap is made for students in programs that require more credits, such as engineering and architecture.
"We knew there would be an impact on some students, but that the trade-off is that summer school would have a larger and more positive impact overall," said Katie High, vice president for academic affairs at UT. "We knew going into it we couldn't have everything we wanted."
The changes take effect in the fall and reach back to students who started receiving the scholarship during or after the fall 2009 semester.
Students who started receiving their scholarship before fall 2009 will not have a cap on their credit hours but also will be unable to use the scholarship money in the summer. The legislation is full of other caveats, too.
Advance placement and dual enrollment credits earned in high school do not count toward the 120 credit hours, nor do any credits earned this summer. Credits earned in previous summers, however, do count.
High said the academic advisers at each campus will work with students to help them graduate within their allotted 120 hours, including those who are majoring in two areas or have switched majors.
"We want to do everything we can so students and parents understand the rules," High said. "We'll do our part to see they have good advising, to make sure courses they need to graduate are available. If they choose to take some other path, then they have to take some responsibility."
The university began seriously considering lobbying for using their scholarships in summer school a year ago, High said, but that its emphasis on graduating students sooner came as a result of the Complete College Act.
The legislation, enacted during a January 2010 special session, tied each institution's funding to its performance and also mandated that UT-Knoxville become a top-25 public research institution. Both goals are tied to graduation and retention rates, which are impacted by students attending summer school.
Now that the legislation is in place, it's the third-year students who will likely be the most impacted.
"If they could have just made this new legislation apply to the incoming freshman class, students like me with lots of AP credit would have time to plan out their degree to graduate in three years," said Welch in an email from England, where she has been studying abroad. "But they've caught me right in the middle, and the only way out is to move forward."
Welch said she expects to run out of money - including her merit supplement to the HOPE scholarship - by her senior year.
Hume, who has taken between 18 and 20 hours a semester since she started at UT, said she would likely have to choose either English or philosophy instead of double-majoring if she wants to graduate before her scholarship expires.
Hume and her mother have both called Gov. Bill Haslam's office and local legislators with their concerns over the legislation. Haslam's administration initiated the legislation.
The lottery stabilization task force will convene this summer to examine ways to make the scholarship program self-sufficient, and will likely look at this legislation along with other bills.
"It's something they would review, but their sense is more looking at trying to contain costs, and obviously this summer is going to pull money out of the reserve," said Tim Phelps, associate executive director for grant and scholarship programs.
The summer school change will cost almost $30 million the first two years before becoming cost-neutral, according to the fiscal note on the bill.
That $30 million will dip into the lottery's $320 million reserve, lessening the interest earned off the reserve accounts. That means the task force has to come up with even more ways to cut costs.
"Anything is possible, but I would say it's highly unlikely that the Legislature will change (the credit hour cap) unless there's just a huge outcry, and you know it only takes one student sometimes to get legislation drawn up and passed," Phelps said.
Knoxville News Sentinel staff writer Megan Boehnke may be reached at 865-342-6432.