Wichita State adds program fees for engineering, health professions

Fees for Wichita State bioengineering student Shannon Mills went up more than $1,000 with little warning, so she had to drop a class to deal with it. (July 30, 2015)
Fees for Wichita State bioengineering student Shannon Mills went up more than $1,000 with little warning, so she had to drop a class to deal with it. (July 30, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Students in engineering and health professions at Wichita State University will be paying hundreds more to attend class this fall after the university expanded fees.

That’s because WSU has extended a $50-per-credit-hour program fee to all classes – including general education classes – for most students in those colleges, which came as a surprise to many when they opened their bills in late July.

The majority of those students – who make up about one-third of WSU’s student population– will pay $50 per credit hour on all university courses, including general education classes such as English and history, once they’ve been admitted to those colleges, according to Kansas Board of Regents documents.

That comes on top of the 3.6 percent tuition and fee increase all WSU students will pay for fall classes, which start Aug. 17.

University officials say the increase is needed to bolster the programs and hire more faculty, because both programs have grown at a rapid pace since 2000.

But some students, including the current and former student body presidents, say they didn’t have any warning about the program fee increases.

“I was completely blind-sided when I saw what my bill was for the coming semester,” said Shannon Mills, a biomedical engineering junior from Derby. “I was really shocked. My heart sank. I still have to buy books, and there’s no way I can afford that now. I talked to my mom. She could not believe it either but then just said, ‘We’ll do what we have to do.’

“I’m seriously going to look at Butler (Community College) to see if there are gen-ed classes I can take there. I think a lot of other students will do the same.”

She feels betrayed, she said. Her part-time job at WSU for four years has been to recruit Wichita-area K-12 students to consider enrolling at WSU and becoming engineers.

“I’ve worked with more than 9,000 students in three years, talking to them in WSU summer camps, going to schools,” Mills said. “But now it’s kind of hard to talk a kid into coming to college here when you see what they’ve just done to their own students. I feel like I’ve been very loyal to WSU, and I have worked hard trying to promote WSU. But it’s difficult to do that when you see what they are doing behind students’ backs.”

Her bill for tuition and fees for the coming semester is about $5,200, with about $1,350 in new costs from the program fees for engineering and for two online courses. She plans to drop a course for this semester to save about $1,000 in tuition and fees, she said.

“If WSU was run like an actual business, and they said, ‘This is what you are going to pay,’ and then when you get the bill it’s $1,200 more – well, most businesses don’t operate like that,” she said.

‘Creative’ fees

The Kansas Board of Regents, which approves tuition and fee increases, told universities in June that they could not raise tuition and fees more than 3.6 percent.

But that cap applies only to mandatory fees, which all students pay. It doesn’t apply to program fees, the per-credit-hour fees charged for specific classes or majors.

The university wants to use program fees only where there’s a high cost of delivery as well as high demand, said Tony Vizzini, provost and senior vice president at WSU.

“It’s the marketplace. If something goes up in price without a corresponding increase in value, then people don’t buy it,” Vizzini said. “And the fact is in health professions, we have far more applications of highly qualified students than we have spots. So, honestly, that tells me that the demand for those programs is higher than our supply. Free market says then we can increase costs. We’re not increasing costs because we can get more, but we’re increasing costs so we can deliver the quality that we need to.

“The thing about program fees is that those are funds that go directly to the colleges, whereas the tuition and fees are more of a general fund approach.”

Engineering and health professions are two of the three largest programs at the university and among the most competitive.

With more than 3,000 undergraduates and graduate students in 2014, engineering majors represent one in five students at WSU.

Engineering students two years ago paid a $15 fee per credit hour for each engineering class. That fee was increased to $50 last year, but only for engineering classes. It now applies to all classes.

Health professions students paid a $15-per-credit-hour fee for health courses for last school year. For students in the communication sciences and school of nursing, that fee goes up to $50. And the $50-a-credit-hour fee will now be on all of their courses, even those outside their major.

Other health professions students, such as medical lab sciences and physician assistant students, will pay a flat per-semester program fee, ranging from $100 to $775.

Eric Bukowski, a junior mechanical engineering major, has three semesters left at Wichita State.

In spring 2014, Bukowski paid a total of $135 in aerospace and mechanical engineering course fees. As part of the new engineering program fee, he’ll pay $600 in fees this fall, according to his tuition bills.

“I noticed that fee a couple of weeks ago and glanced through it,” he said. “It didn’t click right away that it was so substantial, but then I looked at it yesterday – and it’s kind of shocking.”

So far, he has $22,000 in student loan debt and estimates he’ll have $30,000 to $40,000 in debt when he graduates, despite working 30 hours a week at HollyFrontier Oil Refinery in El Dorado.

And for students with more time left in the program, the new program fee could add thousands of dollars to their debt load.

For Wichita State’s class of 2013, the average debt per student was $23,666, with 63 percent of graduates taking on debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success’ Project on Student Debt. Statewide, the average debt for that year was $26,229, with 65 percent of graduates taking on debt.

Compared with other states, Kansas was in the middle of the pack for the amount of debt taken on by students but ranked 15th for proportion of students taking on debt.

Universities have become “very creative” in using fees, said Iris Palmer, senior policy analyst on higher education for New America, a Bill and Melinda Gates-funded nonpartisan think tank.

And they often use them as a way to get around tuition caps, she said.

“Generally speaking, fees are no different from tuition,” she said.

What’s driving fee increases? Universities are facing more pressure to freeze tuition as tuition rates have skyrocketed nationwide in recent years, Palmer said. But with declining state dollars, particularly through the recession, they had to find money in other ways.

But there’s a down side to imposing them, Palmer said. “When you price these courses higher, you immediately discourage students from attending those courses.

“The reason they do it is that they can pretend that these fees are temporary; they often are not. Also, sometimes, it helps lure students, because some students look only at the tuition number and think that is the number they will pay. When they find out it isn’t, it’s too late.

“Why universities do it is not always nefarious, but it gets less resistance from everybody to add fees rather than increase tuition.”

Student input

Wichita State said in writing to the Kansas Board of Regents in June that the university’s budget advisory committee, which includes the student body president, met to review the proposals for tuition and fee increases.

But the current and immediate past presidents of the Student Government Association say they weren’t involved in any conversations about program fee increases before the proposal went to the regents.

Kansas Board of Regents Chairman Shane Bangerter would not talk with The Eagle and would only respond to written questions about approval of the program fees.

“Course fees and program fees, which are charged to specific students for specific programs, were considered separately and approved in order to meet the financial needs of these courses and programs which simply cost more to deliver,” Bangerter wrote in an e-mail. “Therefore, opposed to asking all students to bear the increased expenses of these specialized degree programs, this model allows for the students who are admitted to these programs to provide the necessary funding.”

Do the regents have a protocol for checking whether universities gather student input on fees?

“The Board mandates an explanation of how students and other campus communities are involved in developing and reviewing proposals for tuition and fees,” Bangerter wrote. “However, the involvement of any given individual in the advisory process Wichita State University has established to develop their proposal would be a question for the university itself.”

Matt Conklin, the former student body president, said he was not made aware of any program fee increases before he left office in the spring.

And current student body president Joseph Shepard said he didn’t know about the proposal until a community member contacted him in June to tell him a revised budget had been formulated and that he should look into it. He didn’t receive a copy of the proposal until after the regents ended their June meeting, which he was unable to attend.

“I received an e-mail from someone (who is) a part of the president’s team stating they would send it after” the board of regents meeting, he said. “I was frustrated, because that document should have hit (my) desk before it was presented to the board of regents.”

Vizzini, the provost, also said the student government was not a part of that discussion.

“Student government was not brought in in terms of (program) fees,” said Vizzini.

“We were considering program fees a whole year before (the regents meeting in June). We took them off the table because we hadn’t done enough work with our regents, with our students, and then the faculty and so forth. It was kind of rushed at that point in time. Then we went through this year having this discussion to make sure we were properly educating the folks as we went along.”

But students say they weren’t told.

One of the two student senators representing WSU engineering students is Taben Azad, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering and political science.

He’s seen a lot of chatter on social media this week as some engineering students began seeing the increases in their bills from WSU. And they’re not happy.

“Some of them know it was inevitable that prices would increase because of increased costs for the innovation campus,” he said. “But what people in engineering are saying is extremely disappointing is that there were no communication to students from WSU or from the College of Engineering about this increase. So if you found out about this yourself from seeing the bills and not from hearing from the college, it’s a little bad.”

Some students are saying the increase is “devastating” to their finances, he said. Azad plans to ask the dean of engineering, Royce Bowden, about why and how the price increase happened.

Bowden told The Eagle that the growth in the program forced the College of Engineering to seek the program fee increase.

“We’re out of space, and we’re way out of balance with our teacher-to-student ratio,” he said. “Our engineering programs here are of a high quality, our graduates are highly sought after by industry, and we want to keep it that way. That’s what the program fee is about. It’s about helping the students.”

The teacher-student ratio in engineering classes is now 1 to 50, he said. At the peer institutions, the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 35. “This is jeopardizing our ability to continue quality programs,” he said. “So we’re looking for every bit of extra funding we can find.”

In the College of Health Professions, dean Sandra Bibb said she and her staff were involved in developing the program fee costs.

They let their students know as soon as they learned when the new fees would be implemented, she said. She signed 900 letters herself, dated July 8.

“I felt it was important that our students understand how important it was that they hear from me about it,” she said.

Recruitment, retention

Chandler Bolen, a junior with a double major in computer engineering and mathematics, called the program fee increase “insane.”

“I think that this will have a major effect on the college,” Bolen said in an e-mail. “The greatest being the decrease in enrollment for freshmen in the engineering college.”

The College of Engineering has grown 41.2 percent since 2000, and the College of Health professions has grown nearly 50 percent in the same time period, according to university data.

But university officials say they don’t think the fee increase will affect recruitment and retention.

“(The program fee) allows us to provide the quality education that these students are coming here for,” Vizzini said. “In engineering, for example, the student-to-faculty ratio is so high it’s hard to say that we’re giving the individualized education that’s necessary. It’s the same thing in the health professions. ... The money goes back basically to provide a higher-quality programming to our students. And so the question is does it affect enrollment and so forth? In terms of engineering, we’re still (priced) well below KU and K-State.”

Vizzini said the university did a market analysis to make sure it wasn’t overpriced compared to other schools in the region.

The University of Kansas and Kansas State University both have additional course fees for engineering students, but they apply only to engineering classes, not all classes.

KU has a $53.10-per-credit-hour course fee for students studying engineering this fall.

K-State has a $54-per-credit-hour course fee for engineering students, with $35 specifically allocated toward faculty salaries.

Both universities have a higher base tuition and fees than Wichita State does.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan. Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

Where program fees will go

▪ Engineering: ($50 per credit hour, including general education courses) Additional money will go toward expanding the number of engineering graduates; hiring up to 12 faculty members; and adding personnel, equipment, software and materials.

▪ Communication science and disorders: ($50 per credit hour, including general education courses) Increasing current clinical educator salaries

▪ Nursing: ($50 per credit hour, including general education courses) Increasing simulation space, lab and equipment, and getting new data collection tools to maintain accreditation, track clinical sites, preceptors and documenting student experiences

▪ Dental hygiene: ($300 per semester) To fill budget deficits, recruit and retain faculty, maintain clinical equipment

▪ Medical lab sciences: ($100 per semester) Develop and sustain molecular diagnostics

▪ Physician assistant: ($775 per semester) Fill budget deficits, recruit and retain faculty and maintain clinical equipment

▪ Physical therapy: ($575 per semester) Support addition, update and maintain outdated equipment, faculty development and support

Source: Kansas Board of Regents documents

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