OPINION: 15 is not a nice number

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How UNR’s “15-to-Finish” financial aid mandates negatively impacted one student

By Vega

“It’s crap. Utter crap.” — Howard Rosenberg, professor visual foundations, film studies and art education

15_to_finish_UNRThe day it happened, I received two emails. One was my bill, to be expected. The other, an ad campaign, the same I had seen on walls of the journalism building: “15 to Finish.” The poster was a brightly colored, with Nevada blue and little icons purporting the value of taking 15 credits.

I giggled every time I saw it. I work part time, I have three kids, I’m married and I was taking 12 credits on top of this.

“Yeah right, there’s no way.”

That silly poster was up for the last year. But, it never said anything about 15 credits being connected to my financial aid. Oh, what, I didn’t mention that?

I opened that second email and read those fateful words.

“…Most scholarships from the University require enrollment in at least 15 credits at the University of Nevada, Reno in order for funds to be disbursed.”

Funny, I don’t remember reading that on the ad campaign posters. Up until this point, I had no worries about paying for school. My grades were good, I received additional scholarships ever year and the grant money from the Pell Grant covered the rest.

I was worried — well at least a little bit. Fifteen credits means at least 700 more dollars that I have come up with. On top of that, if I didn’t get those scholarships, well, I’d be having a conversation with every one of my teachers about why I can’t afford books.

I ran, well, drove fast, to the financial aid office. I think the guy behind the counter was a little freaked out. And me, I wanted to yell at him. I asked forgiveness immediately for the tirade that was about to proceed from my mouth.

He asked for my ID and assured me I would still get my Pell Grant. And my scholarships? Through Nevada? He didn’t know.

But, he did know this: “A lot of students are quitting, six or seven from this office alone.”

He looked over his shoulder, obviously wanting to keep his job. He told me that all students who work in student services are required to take 15 credits. He said many of them can’t afford school anymore and are looking at other options.

I was still confused and had no assurance of any financial aid. So what do… that email… it had mentioned an appeal form. I printed it. Then I read it. Waste of time.

There are three exceptions on the form. Well, five: I will complete all graduation requirements with fewer than 30 credits… nope, doing a double major. I kept reading.

I am a disabled student… no, I am a student athlete… again, not helpful, and “I am a level three Nursing student.”

Please don’t make me break up these three criteria… disabled, athletes and nurses… This sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But seriously, I’m assuming the exceptions for athletes and nurses have to do with study time for nurses and training time for athletes. Because you know, I just sit around and do nothing with my life when I’m not at school.

They did have an “other” box on the form, asking for a detailed letter of explanation. Really, UNR? I was already audited for raising a family of five on my income without any government assistance. Do I really need to prove why 15 credits is a bad idea?

Needless to say, I was not satisfied. Being a journalism student I decided put this education into practice. That wonderfully patient concerned alumnus from the business office told me to contact Shannon Ellis, apparently the person responsible for helping implement this program. I sent her an email. No reply. At first.

I was spinning, my head now awash in another complication that I had to figure out. Being a father is tough. I called my editor and pitched the story.

“Par for the course,” was his response.

That clever “15 to finish” poster said nothing about student financial aid being connected to 15 credits.

I began the research. Complete College America reported that most full time students fail to take enough credits to graduate on time. On time? I didn’t know I was on a schedule. Apparently out of 329 institutions in 30 states, graduation rates are tied to “enrollment intensity.”

And the amount of faith in the students was also mentioned.

“…Students regularly and often unknowingly opt for credit loads that put them on five to six year plans.”

So what?

Their studies show that students who stay in school longer tend not to graduate as often. I’ve been in school for a long time. Did I mention I have three kids, a job and a wife?

At four-year colleges in Nevada, only 21 percent graduate for students taking 12 credits or less compared to 58 percent for those taking 15 credits minimums. Well that’s what the Review Journal out of Las Vegas reported.

What did the wonderful people producing the PR campaign at UNR have to say?

I looked up their PR site. There was a nice little info graph in the corner. Students who take less than 12 credits, only 28 percent graduated in 2008. But wait, there’s more. Students in the 12-14 credit territory, 49.8 percent graduated in 2008.

Good for them. I’m almost convinced. But here’s the kicker. You better sit down for this. Students who took 15 or more credits had a 63.9 percent graduation rate. Congratulations, class of 2008.

And as impressive as those numbers might be, I am still not the traditional college student. And many are in the same boat as me. The average age of all students at UNR as of spring 2013 was 23.8. UNR demographics also state the average age of a graduate student at 32.2.

I happen to work with an academic advisor from TMCC. She told me a single mother came into the office crying. She couldn’t do 15 credits. Not unless someone was willing to babysit her kids and offer her a job that fits her school schedule.

Megan, in her short career in student advisement, has noticed a considerable increase in non-traditional students, and more and more people are trying to take part time classes to further their education in hopes of landing a more secure job. However, as the national trend to set the new standard for full time at 15 credits, she admits she is “encouraged” to push for new and current students to take a 15 credit minimum. She says most of the people in her office are not too happy with his academic mandate.

I knew what I had to do. Talk to my academic advisor. Surely he could shed some light on why I wasn’t eligible for Nevada scholarships. For those of you who don’t know Howard Rosenberg, the grey in his mustache will give him away. His mouth will confirm any doubts you had. I hope I’m nearly as cantankerous when I’m as old as he is.

Rosenberg does academic advisement for the art department. He also is an old veteran in the classroom. He’s been around the block. He’s very aware of the amount of work necessary to be successful in an art studio class. Hell, my ceramic teacher alone required three hours of studio time for every three hours of class time. Figure you meet twice and week, that’s an extra 12 hours of studio time outside of classroom time. And that’s just for a three-credit course.

Matter of fact, most of the classes I’ve taken have asked for three hours of outside classroom time to be successful. That translates to 48 hours of out of the classroom work for 12 credits.  15 credits puts you at 60 hours of out of classroom time. Is this why the athletes get an exception?

“It isn’t our job to graduate students,” said Rosenberg. I showed him the data from the “15 to finish” PR pamphlet. He had a very interesting question: How many dismissals happened in 2008?

“As an advisor, you are aware of what your students are capable of.” Rosenberg admitted he could create a 15 credit semester for a student, but only because he understands the workloads of the classes he advises for.

“This is a very bad idea,” he said. “It’s crap. Utter crap.”

I love old people.

I told him the universities in Hawaii offer students incentives for taking 15 credits. Apparently if a student so chooses to take 15 credits, he pays the same price for taking a 12-credit load. I wonder if their scholarships are connected to “enrollment intensity.” Don’t you love double speak?

Enter Dr. Shannon Ellis. Yes, she got back to me. I was excited and nervous. I almost expected her to be the evil boogieman behind closed doors. She wasn’t, she was nice and she was genuinely concerned about my predicament.

Right away I admitted my bias. She appreciated that — she studied journalism herself. I was not dealing with a naive person; she is, after all, the recipient of two Fulbrights. After talking to her I came to believe her heart is n the right place. Dr. Ellis even took a personal interest in my story, really encouraging me to submit the appeal form.

But, here’s what she told me. And what she didn’t tell me. I blew through my questions. Conflicts in scheduling for upper division, for example; I have eight classes left to graduate, and at least five of them fall during the same time slot. Lucky me. Ellis confirmed that these contingencies were considered, but honestly this would be a year of academic data to figure out these problems.

I mentioned the incentive for the Hawaii students to take 15 for the price of 12. She flatly said that when a flat rate for 15 credits was brought up to the Nevada Board of Regents, it fell on deaf ears… or greedy ones. (That last thought is mine).

Dr. Ellis did mention the financial issue. During the course of this story, several people have admitted that state funding acts like a carrot before a donkey. The school gets a nibble and if they can push more students through, they get the rest of the carrot. But didn’t UNR spend a lot of money on a new fitness center? There does appear to be funding coming into the school.

But my biggest question, perhaps the one that bothered me the most: that poster, that clever “15 to finish” poster said nothing about student financial aid being connected to 15 credits.

On this note, Dr. Ellis couldn’t answer. Her argument was simply what the data from the Complete College America report shows — that higher GPA, higher graduations rates and better retention are all connected to 15 credit class loads. I get it; it’s her job to promote this. But again, Dr. Ellis appeared to be invested in the idea of helping students graduate.

Her perspective was unique.

“I was around when these changes began,” she said. She recalls a time when you were scorned if you didn’t finish college in a four year period. She was willing to admit this top down mandate is definitely a “huge cultural shift.”

Dr. Ellis mentioned that out of the 5,000 students that receive state and UNR aid, 2,900 of those take less than 15 credits. She asked me if we are doing a disservice to students when 50 percent of the students who walk through that door, don’t ever see graduation. Her intent I support, but not if it’s mandated. A one size all program does fit everyone. Ever. Just saying.

So I went directly to my advisor. Got that signature. The worst part, even If I appeal, I have no idea if I’ll benefit from a scholarship. So I asked.

Back to the financial aid office. The student behind the counter looked up my account. My FAFSA just covered the cost of 12 credits. Now please hold back your laughter. I am receiving a $61 rebate. Guess I’ll be having those conversations with my professors about why I can’t afford books. Yes, you might have guessed: It appears I am receiving zero financial aid from scholarships through Nevada. The financial aid office was unable to determine if that was related to me taking 12 credits.

He did mention the office has received more than 600 appeal forms. Then he said this.

“If you take 15 credits, you still only get financial aid for 12.” WTF? He said a semester ago he made a persuasive argument for a communications class. Most of the students, including the teacher, had no idea about financial aid connected to credit requirements. “That’s where I think it’s unfair.”

Unfair is right. I still had no satisfaction. Nobody would answer my financial aid question.

I emailed Dr. Ellis again. I thanked her for her time. Then, I dug my journalistic teeth right in, only to realize there was no meat.

“I was hoping you a could expand on why the financial aid was determined to be connected to 15 credits.” A fair question, but she didn’t take the bait. Or maybe I didn’t like her answer.

At first she regurgitated her previous statements, even semi quoted the PR campaign.

“Students need to take 15 credits a semester – 30 credits a year – to make satisfactory academic progress and graduate in four years.”

There it was again. Four years seems to be a very important number. She then admitted there are a few academic programs that take longer than four years.  (But I checked that appeal form and there was no box for engineering students.) She continued with her plea.

“Very few of our students actually graduate in four and our six year graduation rate isn’t anything to be proud of at 51%.” Her words, not mine. But I will tell you, as a student who fucked off for the first 10 years of my adult life, having children has taught me the value of an education. I am that 51 percent.

Dr. Ellis continued her talking points in my email correspondence. Better retention, better GPA and the oh so popular “saving money.” She even called it a reframing of my original question. So why is 15 credits connected financial aid? Her response left me grasping for something more –like money for school!

(Imagine a drumroll.)

We believe all this so strongly that we are willing to award you state and institutional aid if you decide to take a full course load of 15 credits. We view it as an incentive to get back to what is a full course load at 15 credits which leads to 120 credits in 4 years to graduate.”

That is a direct quote, including the bold lettering. She must really believe this strongly.

A week later, still in the same boat, I went to the student bookstore. Allegedly there is an ASUN student book fund. The fees I pay every semester for the student union contribute this, or so I was told. The bookstore directed me back to the financial aid office. I was told I could only get access the book fund if I have incoming financial aid. The form allows you get an IOU that you pay back when you get your aid.

Still paddling… in circles!  (I need to get out of this boat.)

This was not helpful news. However, the girl at the desk was more than helpful, after I mentioned Shannon Ellis. That name makes people jump in the financial aid office for some reason.

I was ushered back to talk to Lourdes Gonzales, assistant director of student financial aid. She explained that I received no financial aid because I missed the March deadline for FAFSA. But she also told me I would receive aid if I added another class, putting me at the 15 credit mark. Confusion! If FAFSA money is separate from Nevada scholarships, isn’t this non-sequitur?

When I mentioned those wonderful “15-to-Finish” posters failing to mention the credit requirement connected to financial aid, she acted surprised.

She inquisitively mentioned there seemed to be a plethora of students completely unaware of this new mandate. I told Ms. Gonzales I interviewed Dr. Ellis for this story. I am not sure if this made any difference, but she agreed that this program is going to effect a rather large chunk of the student population. Oh, and that scholarship I was missing, she was nice enough to give it to me.

I’m not sure how this story ends for other students, but the fact remains: This is very real problem. Quite frankly, this new “15 to Finish” program is conflicting with my wallet.

 

 

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About Christopher Vega 33 Articles

Christopher Vega, born in Madison, Tenn., is married, father of three boys and a late bloomer to education. He has 15 years of experience working with disadvantaged youth and is completing two degrees in Journalism and Art.